Director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner’s Lincoln opens with a chaotic battle in a river, black and white soldiers struggling to kill each other in hand-to-hand combat. We then see pairs of black and white soldiers reciting from memory the Gettysburg Address back to the President.
Lincoln concludes the movie by delivering the Second Inaugural. Most of the time in between is an elaboration of his wartime and Reconstruction strategy and thus a commentary on the purposes of the First Inaugural and the Emancipation Proclamation. These occasions are the rhetorical high points of Lincoln’s presidency, though most of the movie is focused on events in early 1865.
Lincoln instructs us in prudence—the virtue of choosing what is truly good insofar as it can be realized. In giving this invaluable lesson, the film displays the high and the low of statesmanship of liberty and equality—in particular, we see how the low can be in service of the high, without corrupting what is high. As instances of the high, there are even a dialogue about conflicting meanings of natural law and Lincoln’s explication of a Euclid Common Notion on equality as an argument for human equality and therefore emancipation. The transportation to 1865 is graced with gripping narrative; two and a half hours never went by so smoothly.
Some careless friends and of course enemies of Lincoln, then and now, equate his greatness with lawlessness. Lincoln, not quite 29 years old, was well aware of this vice of the ambitious, at its highest (or basest) to overthrow George Washington. He knew full well that some would achieve greatness, whether by “emancipating slaves or enslaving freemen.”
In Lincoln we see a man committed to both emancipation and the Constitution. Lincoln knows his executive power as commander-in-chief is expanded by a war power soon to cease. Once peace comes, how can he preserve the freedom of the emancipated slaves from the States no longer in rebellion? To make sure there is no ambiguity about their continued liberty as well as those of the other slaves, Lincoln needs the 13th Amendment before peace terms.
The Democratic opposition, as their just-defeated candidate McClellan, demands peace, a powerful appeal that might move some Republicans too. Can Lincoln keep the Republicans united and get enough Democrats to secure a two-thirds majority for the passage of the amendment? Though the account relies on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, Kushner bases his account on a range of eminent Lincoln scholars, as well as Lincoln’s own eloquence and wit.
The House Democrats, led by former New York Mayor Fernando Wood, cheer the vile caricature of Lincoln still alive today in some fevered quarters: King Abraham Africanus. Isolating the extremists, Lincoln refers to the earlier war need to keep the border states—his native, slaveholding Kentucky—in the Union. He moderates the firebrand Thaddeus Stevens, making him a statesman of liberty not a showman of Radical Republicanism. The redeemed Stevens sounds like the Lincoln of the Dred Scott response: the Declaration “intended to include all men, but they did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects.”
Amid these struggles, Lincoln strives to bring to her senses his fiery wife, who fears he will commit her to an insane asylum. Can the man of the rule of law rule his household, both his mad wife and his rebellious son, who wishes to serve in the army? Even his wife’s black maidservant petitions him. The blacks in this movie are anything but submissive.
Yet a man caught up in war and domestic strife can reach to Euclid for his justification to pursue passage of the 13th Amendment as well as peace talks. All men are created equal, not only as in his counting back to 1776 in the Gettysburg Address via the “four score” years of the 90th Psalm, but in the very nature of things. “Things equal to the same thing are also equal to one another.” Geometry affirms the certainty to proceed with the Thirteenth Amendment.
Lincoln scours the ranks of the Democrats to find the weakest members he can pry away. Idealism has limited appeal here. So he delegates the hiring of agents who can offer patronage appointments to the defeated Democrats in the lameduck session that is taking up the 13th amendment. Can the House of Representatives be an instrument of God, a Lincoln ally asks? Statesmanship requires consent; the separation of powers, at the core of the Constitution, demands respect. The rule of law is not a clean instrument of reform.
Certainly Lincoln appeals to the high. “The fate of human dignity is in our hands…. Now, Now Now,” he implores his cabinet. “I am the President of the United States clothed with immense power. You will procure me these votes.” Is the Lincoln here too close to the FDR of the First Inaugural, who calls for a temporary suspension of the constitutional order, so he can deal with this crisis of the Depression? But in context Lincoln is urging finding votes; he is not violating the Constitution. We see an imperfect man who nonetheless is a great one.
The black Americans we see are ready for equality. The forward if not brash blacks replace absent Frederick Douglass; it would not do to attempt to include another strong figure in an account of another, without diminishing both. Lincoln strove to make America safe for all races—and by implication the emancipated blacks safe for America: One black soldier speaks of the revenge they took on the Southerners who massacred black prisoners.
Kushner and Spielberg produce a complex but loveable Lincoln who can still unite the country. To be sure, those aware of the director’s and the screenwriter’s politics might see the movie as yet in another series of attempts to appropriate Lincoln to the political agenda of the left. Theodore Roosevelt made an early attempt to hijack Lincoln for the Progressive cause. But if it has any immediate political effect, Lincoln will end any the oafish comparisons between Lincoln and Barack Obama.
Lincoln teaches prudence in a way approached only by A Man for All Seasons. And its instruction in civic piety is nonpareil. In an interview, Kushner, amid some partisan sniping, notes that the film is coming out, after the election, when “it’s just become axiomatic that politicians are a dirty word and that politics are a sleazy game that we all wish we didn’t have anything to do with. I think it’s a good thing to remind people that some of the greatest Americans of all time were politicians. This man was a great military leader, a great writer, a great human being, and he was also a great politician.”