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Congressman misrepresented in "Lincoln" was a New London judge who freed a slave

By David Collins

Publication: The Day

Published February 13. 2013 4:00AM   Updated February 14. 2013 4:20PM

I was impressed when U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney took director Steven Spielberg to task for misrepresenting the votes by Connecticut's congressmen on whether to abolish slavery.

"Placing Connecticut on the wrong side of the historic and divisive fight over slavery is a distortion of easily verifiable facts and an inaccuracy that should be acknowledged," the Second District congressman wrote this month to the famous director.

I was sorry to see the woeful response from "Lincoln" screenwriter Tony Kushner, who did indeed acknowledge the mistake but then directed a snide comment to our congressman, who is anything but a grandstander in matters like this.

"I hope no one is shocked to learn that I also made up dialogue," Kushner said in his testy reply to Courtney.

People do expect dialogue to be made up in historical dramas. But they also expect the general facts to be correct.

Indeed, I learned, after browsing a bit through The Day's archives, that the man whose vote to abolish slavery Kushner got wrong, was, in fact, a respected abolitionist from New London.

Augustus Brandegee, who was serving his second term in Congress when the historic vote depicted in Spielberg's move took place, was a Yale-educated lawyer and a former speaker of the House in the Connecticut General Assembly.

He was said to be a close friend of Lincoln's and spent a lot of time with the president during his time in Washington.

After returning to Connecticut, Brandegee served for a short term as mayor of New London, his native city, and then practiced law.

He was hailed as a great civic leader at his large funeral in 1904 and remembered in newspaper editorials around the state as "a star of the first magnitude" and "one of the great leaders of the Republican party."

Brandegee is still remembered today on a plaque in New London that recalls his role in freeing a slave who was a stowaway on the 103-foot schooner Eliza S. Potter, on an 1858 voyage from Wilmington, N.C., to Noank.

Discovered on the ship en route, the slave was turned over to customs authorities in New London and, given the federal Fugitive Slave Act, which required slaves be returned to their owners, was expected to be sent back South.

Instead, Brandegee, then a police judge, interceded in the case and cited Connecticut's "Personal Liberty Law," a state law he helped enact, and one at odds with the federal slave act.

Judge Brandegee freed the stowaway. "Do you want to be a slave or free?" Brandegee was said to ask the man in some accounts from the time.

"Free" the man was said to reply, before fleeing down New London's Bank Street.

It is believed the freed slave eventually made his way to Canada via the underground railroad.

So screenwriter Kushner not only got the abolition vote of the Connecticut delegation wrong in "Lincoln," he maligned one of the heroes of Connecticut's abolition movement.

One can imagine Brandegee spinning under the big stone monument in New London's Cedar Grove Cemetery, where he is buried.

As long as Kushner was going to change important facts, one wonders why he didn't just go big and write, for instance, that the South won or that Lincoln lived to a ripe old age.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

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