The greatness of Lincoln on film

I saw Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln movie during Thanksgiving week, and liked it a lot.   It was well-written, well-acted and well-staged, and so far as I can tell, broadly true to history. The movie focused on a few months in early 1865 when Lincoln pushed the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, through Congress.  It showed the two sides of Lincoln, the cunning politician and the idealistic believer in freedom and democracy.  If Lincoln had been less of either, slavery would not have been abolished when and how it was.

An early scene showed two black Union soldiers talking to someone with his back turned; then the camera revealed the person to be Abraham Lincoln, whose expression of good-humored, kindly shrewdness showed Lincoln as I imagined him.  Daniel Day-Lewis is a splendid actor.  After watching him as Lincoln, it is hard to recall he played Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York. 

Tommy Lee Jones was great as Thaddeus Stevens, the radical abolitionist Congressman, who is depicted as a man ahead of his time, as he was, instead of as a dangerous extremist, as he usually is shown.  Sally Field (no longer young and perky) gave a fine performance as the troubled Mary Todd Lincoln, as did David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward.

The movie provides much-needed push-back against revisionists who claim that Abraham Lincoln was a power-hungry opportunist who cared nothing about slavery.  There are two versions of this—a left-wing version that says Lincoln was a servant of capitalism and a right-wing version that says the Civil War was really about state’s rights.

The Southern leaders in fact only cared about state’s rights as a means of defending slavery.  They used the power of the federal government to override Northern states that harbored fugitive slaves.  It is true that Lincoln did not run for President as an abolitionist.  A Thaddeus Stevens could not have been elected.  Lincoln’s platform was to stop the spread of slavery into parts of the nation where it did not then exist.  This, he claimed, would lead to the gradual extinction of slavery.  The Southern leaders agreed.  They thought Lincoln such a threat that they led their states out of the Union.

Lincoln wrote a famous letter to Horace Greeley, saying his priority was to save the Union by any means necessary, whether that meant freeing the slaves, leaving them in bondage or freeing some and not freeing others.  This was a correct priority.   Emancipation of the slaves would have been meaningless if the Southern whites has established an independent slave nation.  But when he wrote this letter, the Emancipation Proclamation was in a desk drawer, awaiting a Union victory for Lincoln to issue it.

Critics of Lincoln said the Emancipation Proclamation, which referred only to slaves in areas then in rebellion, did not free a single slave.  This isn’t so.  Many slaves fled behind Union lines to freedom.  The Emancipation Proclamation was based on Lincoln’s claim of wartime authority to confiscate enemy property.  He did not have the authority under law to emancipate slaves generally on his own decision.  This required a Constitutional amendment, which, as the movie shows, he introduced in due course.

Emancipation of the slaves had political and strategic benefits.  It deprived the South of its work force and its moral claims.  Black troops added to the Union strength.  But it had its costs.  Northern whites were divided on this issue.  Southern whites were motivated to fight to the bitter end because emancipation meant an end to their way of life.  Without emancipation, the Confederates might have surrendered before Sherman’s march through Georgia and the rest of the physical devastation of the South.  Or a compromise peace might have been negotiated, as the movie indicates, and the war ended sooner, but with slavery intact.

Click on Lincoln: A More Authentic Wonderment for an appreciation of the movie in the New York Review of Books.

Click on Fact-Checking ‘Lincoln’: Lincoln’s Mostly Accurate, His Advisers Aren’t for historical background in The Atlantic.

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