Thinkin’ about “Lincoln,” Part Two

When Hollywood does history, I usually avert my eyes. But on Scott’s recommendation, I saw “Lincoln” today.

I concur with Scott’s glowing appraisal of the film. On the way home, my wife asked me whether the movie got the history right. I said that I thought so, but I don’t know enough about the few months in 1865 depicted in “Lincoln” to say for sure. More importantly, though, I believe the movie got Lincoln right. As Scott said, at the end of the film, one feels gratified to have had the opportunity to spend a couple of hours in Lincoln’s company.

I also want to concur with Steve who questioned Churchill’s assessment that “the death of Lincoln deprived the Union of the guiding hand which alone could have solved the problems of reconstruction and added to the triumph of armies those lasting victories which are gained over the hearts of men.” In my opinion, it’s extremely unlikely that even Lincoln could have “solved the problems of reconstruction.”

Lincoln’s vision of a proper reconstruction was similar to that of Horace Greeley and others whose view was captured by the phrase “universal amnesty and universal [male] suffrage.” By contrast, in essence, Andrew Johnson favored universal amnesty only and the “radical Republicans” favored only universal suffrage.

In theory, the universal amnesty/universal suffrage position was superior to those of Johnson on the one hand and the radical Republicans on the other. It captured the two great strains of Lincoln’s thinking — love of the Union and hatred of racial oppression.

In practice, though, the full restoration of rights to the rebels and the achievement of full rights for Blacks were mutually incompatible goals. Even Lincoln could not have reconciled them.

Indeed, I doubt that Lincoln could have done a better job with reconstruction than Ulysses S. Grant, probably our most underrated president, did (of course, Lincoln, had he lived, would have been out of office by the time Grant became president, so any comparison of the two is doubly hypothetical). Grant used up much of his considerable political capital to keep federal troops in the South to protect Blacks.

Once Grant left office, the game was up — northerners had long ago lost the will to police the South. But Grant deserves credit for fighting the good fight and for saving hundreds, if not thousands, of lives. This, I think, was the best any president could have done under the circumstances.

JOHN adds: I am delighted to see that Paul shares my opinion of Grant, who was, in my view, not only the first modern general but an excellent president.

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