In Steven Spielberg’s new movie “Lincoln” we get a powerful glimpse of one small period in the life of President Abraham Lincoln, a period of only a month just before his death and right after his re-election to a second term (November 1864). The film opens in January of 1865 with an appropriate scene of the carnage of the Civil War. This terrible struggle is still being actively pursued by both sides. The south was near the end but would not yet surrender. Negotiations for peace are ongoing in private. Quickly the viewer is brought into the two major struggles that the president faced in early 1865: the end of this long, bloody, bitter war and the permanent end of slavery with the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment.
As many of you may know by now this movie is based, in small part at least, on the popular book by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Goodwin. Several other Lincoln scholars, several of whom I have had the privilege of knowing and talking with in recent years, gave major input to the film’s script, assuring that it is accurate historically. If you know Lincoln you will find this statement to be quite true when you see the film. (You must see it if at all possible. I plead with you in a friendly way to go!)
Abraham Lincoln had an uncanny ability, an ability so seemingly rare in our time, to make alliances with his rivals in order to get something truly momentous and important accomplished. He understood the art form of politics as well as the hard work of arm-twisting. He understood what the central issues were and he knew how to stay focused and pursue these big issues to their conclusion. In other words, he was a political leader who understood the democratic process and worked with it very well.
In “Lincoln” the film script follows the historical contours of this time period very faithfully but it does what every great film must do to be successful. It shapes characters as “real” people who have minds, wills and souls. Lincoln’s ally, in the struggle to end slavery once and for all, was Thaddeus Stevens, a U.S. Congressman from Ohio. Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones (who should secure a nomination for best supporting actor for this incredible role), is the meanest man in Congress. He is also the fiercest opponent of slavery in Washington. Because Lincoln’s chief public goal was to keep the Union together he and Congressman Stevens were not always on the same page. Lincoln wanted to end slavery but he went about this in a round about way, which deeply displeased Stevens. Stevens was so disgusted with Lincoln that he referred to him as “the capitulating compromiser, the dawdler.” (More on this in a future blog.)
One contemporary said of Stevens and Lincoln that “no two men, perhaps, so entirely different in character, ever threw off more spontaneous jokes.” But Stevens’ wit was biting, even cruel at times. Biographer Fawn Brodie said of Stevens, “He could convulse the House by saying, ‘I yield to the gentleman for a few feeble remarks.’” In fact, so out of place were many of his comments in the House that they were not included in what was then the equivalent of the Congressional Record. One comment, which was preserved, gives some idea his biting humor: “There was a gentleman from the West sitting next to me, but he went away and the seat seems just as clean as it was before.”
Lincoln was also known for his wit but his use of this keen wit was more indirect, thus more friendly in tone. Doris Kearns Goodwin says Lincoln described laughter as “the joyous, universal evergreen of life.” It is thus the combination, and unexpected political cooperation, of these two unique characters that brought about the end of slavery. The end of slavery is the major story line in “Lincoln.” Abraham Lincoln is played brilliantly by Daniel Day-Lewis (who should also get a nomination for best actor). Lincoln seeks out Stevens in order to gain his support for the Thirteen Amendment. The measure had already passed the Senate. Lincoln wants it passed by the House before the end of January, 1865. Stevens was a man of deep principle but he lacked Lincoln’s political ability to get things done. Roy Blount, Jr., in a brilliant article on the movie that appeared in Smithsonian (November 2012) says, “What Lincoln, played most convincingly by Daniel Day-Lewis, says to Stevens in the movie, in effect, is this: But it won’t show you the swamps between you and there. If you don’t avoid the swamps, what’s the use of knowing true north?”
This relationship, and the results that it finally brings about, are too easily lost on modern members of Congress. Stevens was courageous and he was also right. But without Lincoln’s manner and leadership the bill would never have passed the House. Stevens was sure that he was right. I believe he was. But those who opposed him believed resolutely that they were right too. Blount adds, “If Lincoln’s truth is marching on, it should inspire people to acknowledge that doing right is a tricky proposition.” Spielberg says of his movie, “I did not want to make a movie about a monument. I wanted an audience to get into the working process of the president.” He succeeds in a powerful and affective way.
I confess that I am a devoted fan of Abraham Lincoln. This was not always the case. Growing up in the Deep South I often heard the Confederate version of why honest Abe was anything but an honest and good man. I heard about a bad president who sent troops to invade our homeland. I heard about the president who suspended the writ of habeus corpus in order to attain his own political interests. (People who hated Lincoln hated him more than any moderns have ever hated either George W. Bush or Barack Obama.) But growing up in a public school context I also memorized the immortal Gettysburg Address in the third grade. And when I studied American history in a private high school I fell in love with the general subject that would become my college major. As a history major I fell for Lincoln, warts and all. I loved him for his plainness, for his ability to think logically and consistently, for his clarity of political and moral purpose, for his willingness to change and, most of all, for his amazing courage. I began to study him closely over the course the decades that followed and eventually became a lifetime member of the Abraham Lincoln Forum, which is where I have had the joy of meeting so many of our nation’s greatest Lincoln scholars.
Having attended several celebrations at the Gettysburg National Cemetery on “Remembrance Day” (November) I have relived this famous address and the president’s actions over and over. I will say much more about this in a subsequent post but as the film “Lincoln” ended, with only a brief reminder of his assassination, it rightfully flashed back just a few weeks before he died and his best speech – the Second Inaugural. This is the speech that has often been called “With Malice Toward None.” This one line, and this entire speech, was Lincoln at his very best. Not triumphant in victory, but humble and gentle, here we see his tender appeal to all Americans to pursue healing together. In the film this closing scene overwhelmed my emotions. I wept as the credits rolled and the powerful musical score, played by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, filled the cineplex. A deeper, and more emotional, impression about this man welled up inside of me. I am persuaded more than ever that Lincoln was genuinely our American “leader for the ages.” Perhaps this is why more words have been written about Abraham Lincoln than any person who ever lived except for our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! Ponder that when you consider the importance of this one man upon everything that you hold dear about being a citizen of the greatest country in the world.