I find it ironic that a friend of mine and I who went to Lincoln in high spirits came out of the movie fighting bitterly. We didn’t see eye-to-eye at all about the quality or significance of what we had just seen on the screen.
I had been riveted by the account of an America divided and almost ruined by completely-incommensurate views on politics, whose Representatives were guided through a time of great uncertainty to vote for a far-reaching change to the United States Constitution; my friend had been bored by a staid representation of a perfect President Abraham Lincoln, a cliché-ridden one at that.
We both saw the same movie, and we were hoping to find different things in it. Considering the story was one of people who were worlds apart coming together to give incomplete standing to a burning moral truth, our complete disagreement over what we had just seen was disappointing. (Actually, it fouled-up the whole evening.)
But this is a review of the movie through my eyes. Lincoln is not a probing biography of 1 of our most-beloved Presidents, but rather a political account of 2 momentous months of his life–December 1864 and January 1865 to be precise, just weeks before his death. Lincoln is simply about the passage of the 13th Amendment, or about President Lincoln’s way of achieving it.
This is the story of the crowning political accomplishment of an Illinois lawyer, elected President during a time of profound political division, who would controversially assume a variety of powers to the Executive Branch, antagonizing both the opposition party in Congress (those thus often implacably opposed to his political goals) as well as those of his own party who found the President insufficiently-zealous in his advocacy against racism (and thus counted him either a consummate opportunist or worse, an academically-aloof appeaser).
That’s right, when I watched Lincoln I saw a good parable for President Barack Obama’s political circumstances. I’ve previously been told the likeness is a bit melodramatic, but I strongly-disagree (and I truly think the fact that I love President Obama is incidental). It’s certainly true that our current political deadlock pales in comparison to the 600,000 Americans killed in a war to end slavery and preserve the Union, but political junkies who downplay the likeness between our time and theirs at the elite level are actually minimizing how abnormal the depth of current partisanship is. Put differently, shouldn’t it bother us that we have to reach back to the Civil War in order to put today’s partisan political differences into perspective?
Lincoln may not give us the upstart young lawyer, the Congressman from Illinois or the eloquent but failed candidate for the US Senate, or even the evolution of the hapless pragmatist into the crusading Abolitionist, but what it does give us is 2 months of cat-herding within an energized Republican Party which culminates in the legal abolition of slavery in the United States. At the time the Republican Party is split, primarily between an establishment wing we would now characterize as Conservative and the Radicals who might otherwise be viewed as Conservatives today but whom were adamant about enshrining full racial equality (and providing basic property for former slaves through subdivision of the old Southern plantations) in Federal law. The Democratic Party is mostly Southern or rural in its power base, though it is also powerful in New York City, where many Irish immigrants were conscripted for the war but lacked much experience with Protestant Abolitionism; overall it is quite opposed to abolishing slavery.
By this time the Emancipation Proclamation has already abolished slavery in the Confederate States by wartime Executive order. But in a marvelous monologue we see the lawyer Lincoln, as he runs through competing, often exclusive rationales for the Emancipation Proclamation that might not hold up under Constitutional scrutiny at the end of the war. The Border States–Delaware, Maryland, the District of Columbia, Kentucky, Missouri and the Oklahoma Territory–still have legal slavery because “forced” emancipation could not be constitutionally justified as a wartime measure. Not only could the Emancipation Proclamation be ended and slavery even restored in the Confederate States at the end of the war, but in a particularly cruel reversal plantation owners may even have the gall to demand the return of their “property.”
The Senate has already passed the 13th Amendment by a large 38-6 majority, but the House of Representatives retains a large-enough Democratic Caucus that they need crossover votes in that chamber to send the 13th Amendment along to the States. While many House Democrats have lost their bids for re-election, it is uncertain how quickly the Confederate States will rejoin the United States, thus raising the prospect that the political window to abolish slavery could shut suddenly. Thus, President Lincoln is unsure when the 13th Amendment will pass, if not in this lame-duck session of Congress. The abolition of slavery must have the force of law before any delegation of the Confederate States of America is able to ask for preservation of slavery as a condition for rejoining the Union.
The President needs the votes of Democratic Representatives–fast. Naturally, he turns to the offer of patronage jobs as the easiest way to obtain them.
1 of the things I liked best about Lincoln was its juxtaposition of Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of an almost pure President Lincoln (and this portrayal is every bit as amazing as you must have heard) with the amorality (some would say corruption) of politics–a state of affairs which doesn’t trouble the President in the slightest. He isn’t campaigning against corruption, he’s campaigning against a great evil. He has bag-men collect lame-duck Democratic votes in the House for him, sometimes literally in the dead of night, he serenely lies in public about the state of peace negotiations with a Confederate delegation, he insinuates powers to the Executive Branch–and primarily troubles himself about the Constitutional ramifications when he suspects that the Supreme Court will soon do the same. President Lincoln can be called a Conservative on policy and philosophy, but not in spirit. To appearances he shares nothing of the Constitutionalism and innate fear of Federal Government expansion which binds contemporary Conservatives together.
The tension between President Lincoln and Representative Thaddeus Stevens (R-PA), a Radical Republican who militates against racism to the point of maintaining the full equality of Whites and “Negroes,” provides a simple but very timely lesson in good politics. President Lincoln warns Congressman Stevens that his blunt public expression of belief in the full equality of faculty of Blacks with Whites strikes many as too radical, and thus a political burden in the fight to abolish slavery. Stevens defends unvarying argument from principle, likening it to having a compass, saying that his aim is simply to move towards true north. Lincoln in turn agrees that such basic orientation is valuable (and implies the possibility that Congressman Stevens has it), but then notes that the map of local terrain is at least as important for navigation as the compass. “If, deprived of knowledge of the terrain, you should happen to wander into a swamp, what good is it that you know true north?” the President asks.
Congressman Stevens, normally almost contemptuous of President Lincoln as more of a politician than a moral champion, allows this point and even seems troubled by it. During subsequent debate on the draft of the 13th Amendment in the House, 1 of the Democrats opposed to passage puts to Stevens the question of full equality of faculty between Negroes and Whites. Though he has visible difficulty with the question, Stevens avers that he merely seeks to secure legal equality of Negroes with Whites. Tellingly, this evasion angers both the pro-slavery Democrats and the Radical Republicans. Representative James Mitchell Ashley (R-OH) has it out with Stevens right outside the House chamber. “Is there nothing you won’t say?!” he asks, mortified by what he considers Congressman Stevens’ extreme abdication of his integrity. Stevens, however, has internalized the President’s message of circumspection, and acknowledges that if it provides for the abolition of slavery in America then and there (as opposed to untold years hence), there is indeed nothing he would not say to achieve it.
Congressman Stevens dominates a scene laden with irony late in the movie, in which a re-elected Democratic Congressman from his home State of Pennsylvania informs him he wishes to vote for the 13th Amendment and subsequently switch parties. Before accepting his offer, Stevens rebukes the Democrat, who is tongue-tied, transparently self-serving and seems almost frightened by the man he has come to see. Stevens says he is a sorry inheritor of the party of Thomas Jefferson. In an instant, the irony of the party of Lincoln becoming a fundamentally-Southern party struck me, and I was met again with this mythological resemblance of the story to our own partisan deadlock. This was 1 of the aspects of the film my friend found the most distasteful: President Lincoln’s adversaries in the Democratic Party are portrayed as an assortment of deplorable human beings–some afraid, some complete yokels, some transparent bigots relying on the decorum of their legislative chamber for protection, some violent. I was untroubled by the portrayal of the President’s Democratic opponents as morally-ugly or as fools–for a very specific reason: This is a story about how President Lincoln and his political allies were able to win some House Democrats’ votes. The political story we need is 1 about an opposition party we might be inclined to see as morally-ugly or as fools, but whose votes are needed on far-reaching legislation whether we come to see merit in what they stand for or not. If that sounds like too bleak of a message, ask yourself if it is not true that 1) Democrats and Republicans in the Federal Government disagree with few cross-cutting party cleavages on most of the policy issues that either party considers urgent, and 2) Democrats and Republicans will have to continue to work together for at least the next 4 years even to pass a budget. This is the aspect of President Lincoln’s story that is most-illuminating to us at this moment.
On this point my friend averred that this meant the film was not meant to be timeless; in response I said that a work of art–or of history–is permitted to bear the mark of the time it was made as much as it may the time it recalls–as long as it does so in a manner that reveals rather than obscures something about the reason it was made.
The final House vote tally is tense. There is evidence, however circumstantial, that lack of access to information once facilitated the passage of legislation: The 13th Amendment has been justified to Congress as a measure that could bring the war to a swifter conclusion, as with the Constitutional abolition of slavery the Confederate States of America would have no bargaining motive to prolong a war its leaders already knew they could not win. In reality, however, while the House debates the 13th Amendment there is already a Confederate delegation in Virginia negotiating terms for their surrender! The Confederate delegation, in turn, must be misled into thinking that the 13th Amendment isn’t going to pass, and that their prompt surrender improves the chances that their States could be readmitted to the Union in time to block its passage during ratification.
These multiple deceptions seem not to trouble President Lincoln in the slightest–not even, particularly, in the exceptional level of risk they entail. He cares about his goal, which is the abolition of slavery. He was originally pragmatically-oriented towards this social question, but the circumstance of the way gave it such a central importance in his mind that he came to append a transcendent importance to ending it. He didn’t care about assuming statutory powers not provided to his office in the Constitution, he didn’t care about doling-out government jobs for votes, he didn’t care about what legal or moral rationales would persuade people, he didn’t care about lying to fellow leaders of his own party he had known for years or for lying to everyone outside of a handful of confidants in order to marshal needed votes on the day the Amendment was passed in the House.
President Lincoln was a pragmatist who re-defined his later life as being about the achievement of a moral end, procedure, the appearance of scandal, and parsimony of philosophy be damned. He was right, and his critics were wrong. He is counted among the heroes of history, and he got there (as is so often the case) by refusing to concern himself with the cosmetic side of politics that is the fodder of so much daily political discussion. While it is so often our lot to pedantically discuss what is right before us, he exercised his moral imagination.