Thinkin’ about “Lincoln”

As we celebrate the anniversary of Lincoln’s birth today, I want to take a look back at the 2012 film Lincoln. Until reading David Brooks’s obtuse column about the film, I was unsure that I knew enough to comment intelligently about it. Brooks persuaded me that I know at least as much as he does, however, and accordingly prompted me to offer the following in the way of notes for interested readers. I put just about everything important that I know about Lincoln into these notes and want to take the liberty of revisiting them in observation of Lincoln’s birthday today.

The film deserves to be seen and, in my view, makes an important contribution to understanding Lincoln. Directed by Steven Spielberg, with a screenplay by Tony Kushner, the film focuses on the brief period in January 1865 after Lincoln’s reelection during a lame duck session of Congress when Lincoln moved heaven and earth to secure the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in the House of Representatives (where it had failed once previously). The film purports to be based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, but it expands greatly on a tiny sliver of that doorstop of a book.

A.O. Scott’s New York Times review describes the film with scrupulous accuracy, and I entirely agree with Scott’s witty conclusion:

Go see this movie. Take your children, even though they may occasionally be confused or fidgety. Boredom and confusion are also part of democracy, after all. “Lincoln” is a rough and noble democratic masterpiece — an omen, perhaps, that movies for the people shall not perish from the earth.

Kushner’s responsibility for the screenplay raised concerns on my part about the film. He does not portray Lincoln as a gay caballero, although he well might have. Kushner is rightly impressed by Lincoln’s greatness, but holds that “it’s a film where the political parties occupy the opposite sides of the spectrum that they currently occupy.” Republicans are the heroes of the story. Democrats are an obstacle to be overcome. How can this be? This is terribly confusing for an avant garde man of the left. Suffice it to say that a lot could have gone wrong here that didn’t. Despite Kushner’s confusion, the screenplay gets this gloriously right.

The movie powerfully rebuts the portrait of Lincoln that bright high school and college students absorb directly or indirectly from Richard Hofstadter’s incredibly influential essay “Abraham Lincoln and the Self-Made Myth,” collected in The American Political Tradition: And the Men Who Made It. Hofstadter depicted Lincoln as essentially indifferent to the wrongs of slavery and disparaged the Emancipation Proclamation as a glorified nullity.

Among other things, Hofstadter famously observed that the Proclamation “had all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading” and “did not in fact free any slaves.” Eric Foner is Hofstadter’s successor at Columbia. Foner accurately noted that Hofstadter pointedly juxtaposed Lincoln’s 1858 speech in Chicago affirming the equality of man with his address the same year in pro-slavery Southern Illinois in which he insisted that he opposed “bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the black and white races.”

Hofstadter’s portrait of Lincoln cannot survive this film. It is a great vehicle for learning and teaching something true and important about Lincoln. To paraphrase Lincoln himself, all honor to Kushner for getting Lincoln’s hatred of slavery right and making it the centerpiece of this film.

The film accurately presents the Thirteenth Amendment — the amendment that abolished slavery — as the fulfillment and guarantor of the Emancipation Proclamation. Amazingly, at least to me, the film accurately represented Lincoln’s thinking on precisely this point. It provides a lesson in the acuity of Lincoln’s thought on things that mattered.

Following the promulgation of the Emancipation Proclamation, prominent Democrats whose cooperation Lincoln coveted in the war effort repeatedly urged Lincoln to rescind it. Lincoln simply responded: “The promise, being made, must be kept.” The Thirteenth Amendment assured that the promise would in fact be kept. Allen Guelzo presents Lincoln’s thought on these points in great depth in Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America.

Harold Holzer may be the only prominent Lincoln scholar to have commented publicly on the film, as he did in a New York Post column. Holzer testified to the perfection of Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance as Lincoln. It is a performance of surpassing beauty. At the end of the film, one feels gratified to have had the opportunity to spend a couple of hours in Lincoln’s company. One is struck by the sheer largeness of spirit on display. Here there is no pettiness. Here there is no triviality. Here one is elevated.

The film sets Lincoln’s political struggle off against brief depictions of the death and destruction of Civil War battles. Lincoln was the president who chose to fight the war rather than accept disunion. He was the president who turned the war into “a new birth of freedom.” He was the president who declined to accept anything less than the unconditional surrender of the forces of the Confederacy. This is all on display in one way or another in the film.

Two more notes. David Brooks touted the film as promoting a view of politics as “noble because it involves personal compromise for the public good. This is a self-restrained movie that celebrates people who are prudent, self-disciplined, ambitious and tough enough to do that work.” Yet there is no compromise to be seen in the film on any important point.

Tony Kushner to the contrary notwithstanding, the film allows one to reflect on the continuity of the film’s Democratic and Republican parties with their modern counterparts. The Republican Party was founded in the belief that it was “the imperative duty of Congress to prohibit in the Territories those twin relics of barbarism — Polygamy, and Slavery,” as the party platform of 1856 put it. The party’s contemporary concerns about traditional marriage and the promotion of freedom have deep roots in the origin of the Republican Party.

Lincoln criticized slavery as embodying the tyrannical principle he called “the same old serpent that says you work and I eat, you toil and I will enjoy the fruits of it.” Don’t tell Tony Kushner, but the contemporary Democratic Party is preeminently the party of “the same old serpent that says you work and I eat.”

STEVE adds (2015): I agree with every word of this post, including “and” and “the.”  Especially the discussion of the potentially problematic screenwriter Tony Kushner.  No one doubts his talent as a writer, but when I heard he was doing the screenplay I expected the worst.   But it didn’t happen that way.  Lots of reasons why.  However, at the time the movie came out and it was evident that Spielberg (whom I generally dislike, too) and Kushner got it right, I ranted for quite a while along this line: “Why couldn’t one of our people—a conservative Lincoln admirer—have written the screenplay?”  To be sure, there are few conservative writers placed in the industry to be in position to write a screenplay for Spielberg, but then it is also true that dramatic screenwriting is a mode of writing that few conservatives practice, myself included.  This is something that ought to change.


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