"Lincoln" - the 2012 Hollywood film starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln: Film, Fiction and Fact

The 2012-13 Movie

I recently went to the cinema to see Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” starring Daniel-Day Lewis, Tommy-Lee Jones, Sally Field, David Strathairn and others. It is a seminal piece of work looking closely at the political art-work of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States of America, who, in 1865, was confronted on the one hand with the conclusion of the American Civil War and yet on the other, had an even greater goal in mind: the abolishment of slavery.

The theme has been extracted from the work of historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, from her book published in 2005 titled “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln”. A biographical portrait of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and some of the men who served with him in his Cabinet from 1861 to 1865, it reviews how three of his Cabinet members had previously run against Lincoln in the 1860 election. The book focuses on Lincoln’s mostly successful attempts to reconcile conflicting personalities and political factions on the path to abolition and victory in the US Civil War.

Brilliantly adapted for the screenplay by Pulitzer prize-winner Tony Kushner, the film focuses on just the last four months of Lincoln’s life by masterfully connecting visuals (cinematography from Janusz Kaminski) and a gentle musical score (by John Williams), in which President Abraham Lincoln endeavours to achieve passage of the landmark constitutional Thirteenth Amendment which will forever ban slavery from the United States.

Lincoln isn’t as sentimental as you might expect from Steven Spielberg, and though it never digs deep enough into Lincoln as a man, it’s unafraid to show him as a canny politician willing to bend the law and make enormous compromises to accomplish a greater goal. Another criticism might be that Lincoln veers too often toward becoming a somnolent period piece, but the strong cast and political texture always manage to raise the curiosity again. The backroom deals and legal hurdles to make the ‘greater goal’ happen are immensely complicated, but after some detailed exposition this political manoeuvring among lawmakers serves for the film’s strongest scenes.

Reality: Why did Lincoln rush the vote on the Thirteenth Amendment?

This question is easy to answer in relation to the movie, but is much more complicated to explain in real life. The implications in the movie builds in scene after scene that it was truly a ‘now-or-never’ moment for abolition by the end of January 1865.

But in reality, there is no indication that President Lincoln actually considered quick passage of the abolition amendment to be so crucial. His message to Congress in December 1864 strikes a much different tone. He wrote that “the next Congress will pass the measure if this does not” and so suggested that since there was “only a question of time as to when the proposed amendment will go to the States” why “may we not agree that the sooner the better?” The confidence of that statement was intended.

The 16th President of the United States of America, Abraham Lincoln.

The 16th President of the United States of America, Abraham Lincoln.

The National Union (Republican) Party had won a sweeping victory in the 1864 elections on a platform that explicitly called for a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery. The next Congress (39th) was going to have an anti-slavery super-majority in both houses. Lincoln considered the 1864 elections to have offered an overwhelming mandate. Many northern Democrats were demoralized and there was open talk in places like Tammany Hall (the New York City Democratic Party) about the need to distance themselves from slavery. And by every reckoning, the Confederacy was on the verge of total military and political collapse.

Though Lincoln was himself troubled by the slavery element – he had written the Emancipation Proclamation – and was equally eager to end the war, he also understood that if Congress didn’t act on slavery at the beginning of January (1865), it was going to do so either by special session in March or during the next regular session in December. Of course, it’s always possible that Lincoln feared any delays might jeopardize the balky Unionist/Republican coalition.

Other aspects somewhat overseen or over-played in the movie pertain to Lincoln’s fear of the Supreme Court and what it might do to his Emancipation Proclamation, but that was more relevant to circa 1862 than early 1865, when leading abolitionist Salmon P. Chase was being confirmed as the new Chief Justice of the United States (replacing arch Lincoln enemy Roger Brooke Taney) – Chase was not mentioned. Also left unmentioned was the fact that the Unionists / Republicans had actually packed the Supreme Court after 1863 – adding a tenth justice that helped their majority. Anti-slavery forces controlled the Supreme Court by the war’s end.

Congressional passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in January 1865 was nonetheless a stirring, profound moment in American history, but it was not the stark turning point that the movie amplifies.

‘Lincoln’ is a great film that addresses some powerful truths about President Lincoln and the wars he was facing. Filmmakers should be allowed to take artistic liberties in order to create dramatic tension, but audiences need to be aware that historical films are historical fictions.

Fact over Fiction

Real life is generally fascinating, and the real history of the Thirteenth Amendment is complex and compelling, integrating great facets of practical reason & practical reasonableness; the role of fairness, rights (natural/human/moral) and duties of both the individual as well as the state; the principle of justice and basic values versus those of rational self-interest and fierce partisanship.


President JFK’s Inaugural speech talking about equal / inalienable rights

The moral, legal and democratic struggle faced by the early settlers in the United States, and its Founding Fathers, continued for over two centuries, and within one hundred years after Lincoln, the 35th American President, John F. Kennedy, was making very similar remarks to Lincoln – urging fairness, equality, justice and freedom for all:

“This Nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equaland that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened”,

“The great revolution in the history of man, past, present and future is the revolution of those determined to be free”,

“One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not yet freed from social and economic oppression. And this Nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free”.

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