Lincoln: A President Lies, and People Cheer

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Abraham Lincoln is one of the most complex presidents in American history. For over a century he was revered as our most important president, after George Washington. Recently his star has been tarnished by questions about his motives and tactics. Most Americans are surprised to learn that Lincoln was a Republican, because Democrats today love to accuse Republicans of racism. Nevertheless, it was the Republicans in Congress who supported the 13th Amendment, enfranchised the slaves, and squelched states' rights, while Democrats remained firmly on the other side of the aisle. Was Lincoln a forward-thinking civil rights advocate who restored a nation to wholeness, or was he merely a politician playing the race card to win the war and create a whole new constituency of former slaves?

Steven Spielberg's ambitious Lincoln tries to answer some of these questions. It is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2005), a book that focuses on Lincoln's conciliatory spirit and determination to work with cabinet members he selected from among those who had opposed him in the 1860 election. This forgiving nature is what I admire most about Lincoln. His beatific "When I make them my friends, am I not destroying my enemies?", said in response to those who wanted to continue punishing the South after the war had ended, is a quotation that guides my life.

Lincoln is so determined to see the 13th Amendment pass before the war ends that he resorts to corruption and deception.

The film, however, focuses less on conciliation than on politics as-would-become-usual. Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) works relentlessly to shepherd (some would say "push") the 13th Amendment through Congress in the waning days of the Civil War. Support for the amendment, which would outlaw slavery, was divided along party lines; Republicans favored it, but did not have enough votes to pass it, and Democrats were against it.

Although many Americans were ready to end the buying and selling of slaves, few were ready for further developments that might proceed from abolition. "What would happen if four million colored men are granted the vote?" one cabinet member asks rhetorically. "What would be next? Votes for women?" But Lincoln knew that his war-weary citizenry would do anything for a truce, even grant equal rights to former slaves, so he convinces them that ratifying the amendment would force the South into surrendering.

Lincoln makes a compelling argument for why the Emancipation Proclamation was only a stopgap wartime measure. Ironically, slaves were freed under a law identifying them as "property seized during war." The Emancipation Proclamation did not actually end slavery; in fact, it had to acknowledge the property status of slaves. Since rebels residing inside the southern states were at war, not the states themselves, after the war ended state laws would still be in force, including laws permitting slavery, or so he complains. A constitutional amendment would be necessary to end slavery for good. Lincoln claims that southern voters would be unlikely to ratify such an amendment, passing it and ratifying it before the war ended was essential.

The movie’s position on this seems strange, given that, as losers in the war, all state officials under the Confederacy would be turned out of office, with no legislative authority. Once the South surrendered, the Union lost no time in selecting new officials who would make and enforce new laws. In fact, Lincoln’s program for reconstruction was to install governments in the Southern states that would ratify the amendment, and this policy was followed by President Johnson.

Nevertheless, Lincoln is so determined to see the amendment pass before the war ends that he resorts to corruption and deception. He enlists a group of unscrupulous patronage peddlers to promise political jobs and appointments to lame-duck Democrats if they will promise to vote for the amendment. They add piles of cash to sweeten the deals, and the votes start piling up too. The group is headed by a bilko artist with the unlikely name of "Bilbo" (James Spader). All of their scenes are accompanied by comical music to make us laugh at their outrageously funny and effective techniques. Aren't they clever as they connive to buy votes?

In addition to buying votes for his amendment, Lincoln also resorts to outright lying. When Jefferson Davis sends emissaries to discuss a negotiated peace while the amendment is coming to a vote, Lincoln knows that some of his "negotiated support" is likely to change, and the amendment is likely to fail. Consequently, he sends a letter denying any knowledge of the peace delegation from Richmond, even though this is clearly a lie. He sends this note with a flourish and a chuckle — and the audience in my theater cheered. I was disheartened that they didn't feel the same shame I felt when I saw a president of the United States deliberately lie to get his way. But I wasn't surprised. It's what we expect today.

In case you haven't noticed this yourself, I will spell it out: the tactics for pushing the 13th Amendment as shown in Spielberg's Lincoln are almost identical to the tactics used by Obama to pass his healthcare bill. Each was sponsoring a highly controversial bill with far-reaching consequences; each had a Congress divided along party lines; each used high pressure arm-twisting, political patronage, and outright lies to accomplish his goals; and each met vociferous opposition after the bill was passed. Why? Because they both chose expediency over integrity. Persuasion and education were needed, not force and deception. When expediency rules, tyranny reigns.

What I have written here makes the film seem much more interesting than it actually is. My thoughts about writing this review kept me engaged; you probably won't have that advantage. Daniel Day-Lewis creates a masterfully crafted Lincoln and deserves all the accolades he is gathering for the title role. But it is not a very engaging movie. Playwright Tony Kushner, who wrote the script, is more comfortable writing for the stage, and it shows. The pacing is ponderously slow, and the script, though elegant, is dialogue-heavy. In short, the film is all talk and no action. That's OK for a 90-minute stage play, but not for a three-hour film on a gigantic screen. I'm also skeptical about his accuracy, based on the biases that appear in other works.

When expediency rules, tyranny reigns.

There is also surprisingly little dramatic conflict for a film that takes place during the height of the costliest war in our history. We see the effects of war in the form of dead and mutilated soldiers, but we never see examples or effects of slavery; in fact, all the black characters in this film are well-dressed and well-spoken, and except for the soldiers, they sit and socialize with the whites. If a viewer didn't already know the history of slavery in America, he would have to wonder, what's the complaint? On either side? Moreover, the "bad guys" are being invaded by a superpower, while the "good guys" are lying and buying votes. So how does that fit our usual expectation of heroes and villains?

I'm also offended by the deliberate racebaiting in this film, and indeed in several films and Broadway shows I have seen in the past couple of years. Why is it OK to add "for a white person" (followed by self-deprecating chuckles and head-nodding from the audience) when describing someone's physical appearance or personal attributes? I thought we gave up saying "for a [colored] person" long ago. Haven't we finally come to a place where we can just stop noticing race and gender? Why do pollsters and educators continue to divide people by ethnicity? It's time to just burn that race card and bury it. Economics and education are at the root of inequity today, not race.

Lincoln tries to be an important film, and in one respect it is — as a cautionary tale for today. But it falls short — even though it's way too long.


Editor's Note: Review of "Lincoln," directed by Steven Spielberg. DreamWorks Pictures, 2012, 149 minutes.



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Visitor

Bottom line Lincoln did what needed done to free slaves and unite a nation that had been divided and at war for years. If he didn't use a little deception to sway those that would have never passed the ammendment where would we be today. He was one of the greatest if not the greatest presidents this country has ever had and that is how he should be remembered. A film made almost 150 years later shouldn't tarnish that reputation. Shame on anyone who calls Mr. Lincoln a liar or tyrant.

Fred Mora

What's a "bilko artist"?

Jo Ann

Ha! A scam artist. One who bilks. I consider trading piles of cash for votes to be a scam. And my using a form of the word "bilk" was meant to be a play on the name "Bilbo."

Jon Harrison

It's a mediocre melodrama, which is what Spielberg has been giving moviegoers throughout his career. But his stuff makes a lot of money, and that's what really counts, isn't it?

Yes, it would be lovely if we could just put race aside and behave as if we are all simply human beings. It's particularly easy for a white person to feel this way. But I think we're at least a couple of generations away from that desirable state of affairs. There were still lynchings going on in the South when I was a boy. As a grown man I witnessed a white person in Florida scream the N-word at a black youngster, in public and in broad daylight. I also missed by just minutes witnessing the infamous attack on a black businessman by a white Bostonian wielding an American flag (this was on April 5, 1976, in downtown Boston and, again, in broad daylight). And then we have performances like that of Michael Richards at the Laugh Factory. Granted, the media tends to shy away from highlighting (or even mentioning) instances of black racism, and this is shameful. Nevertheless, after 250 years of slavery and a further 100 of Jim Crow, I don't think that we white folks should expect black folks to simply forgive and forget the sins not just of our ancestors, but of our contemporaries as well.

I find the reviewer's comparison of Lincoln's efforts to achieve emancipation and Obama's health care bill rather forced, to say the least. Is lying in a good cause always wrong? I'm not so sure. Given the gravity of the crisis that slavery and the Civil War represented, I think we might perhaps give Lincoln a pass.

I have been struck by the criticism leveled by libertarians at figures such as Lincoln and FDR. Not that either man should be beyond criticism, but some libertarians seem to go out of their way to try blacken both men's names. This seems foolish, in that the vast majority of Americans revere both men, or at least think of them as "great". This is another example of libertarians going out of their way to marginalize themselves by either mystifying or insulting 90 per cent or more of their fellow citizens.

I am also struck by the need exhibited by many libertarians to denigrate Obama by any means. They often go to excess in their criticisms -- why? I cannot but feel that the idea of a black (actually biracial) person in the seat of power sticks in their craw.

Visitor

Jon-
I think everyone misses the real point about Lincoln. The President of the United States takes an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America. The Lincoln myth has been told and taught to our youth for too many years. Lincoln stepped on the Constitution in so many ways. He is the only President to swear out an arrest warrant on the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (just for stating that Lincoln was violating the Constitution). Lincoln also had a Ohio Congressman arrested and deported for disagreeing with him publicly and in a speech on the House floor. Lincoln was a bully and a dictator. Nothing more and nothing less. He used race to help his cause when the war had turned against him. His own words tell us of his racial bias. The "Civil War" wasn't fought over slavery. It was fought over money. I would just like all the Lincoln lovers to stop with the "facts" they were taught in school and look at the job he did as President upholding the Constitution. He was awful! He had approx 25,000 people arrested and put in prison without ever being charged. He shut down over 300 newspapers for printing articles against him violating the 1st Amendment...He confiscated guns violating the 2nd amendment. Violated the states rights 10th amendment... Is that Constitutional? No. Therefore, he was lousy President and didn't live up to his oath.

The Emancipation Proclamation did not free a single slave. Get a copy and read it TODAY!!! If he TRULY wanted the slaves to be free then why wouldn't he include ALL of the U.S. not the portions still under the control of the Rebels?? Slaves were still held in Louisiana AFTER the Emancipation Proclamation because the Union army controlled the parishes exempted by the Proclamation. Look it up for yourself. Slaves were still held in Northern states during the war. Why not free them?

The movie is fiction from beginning to end with just enough "facts" thrown in to try to appear to be the truth. Remember the movie "JFK"??

The lying and making back room deals just goes to show a lack of character in the man. Another low character man in the White House. It happens too often in America.

The American People made the same sad errors in electing a President last year just like in 1860...not because he's black...or white...or mixed...but because he doesn't believe in the values that made America great and is stepping on the Constitution. Our country is doomed because we don't know our history and we keep repeating it. Another low character person in the White House with the idea that you can take away individual rights as long as the greater good is served. That is the problem that Libertarians have with Obama....not race...

Jo Ann

I think you missed the point of my review when you say that I went out of my way to "blacken" Lincoln's name. Quite the opposite-- I mentioned in the first paragraph a Lincoln quote that guides my life. It is this film that shows Lincoln uses dirty political tactics to force an unpopular vote. Yes, it was for a good cause. But as you mentioned yourself, racism and violence continued for over a century after the amendment was passed and ratified. Persuasion is always more effective than force.

Jon Harrison

"Persuasion is always more effective than force." Really? So we could've persuaded the South to abolish slavery and return to the Union? We could've persuaded Hitler to abandon his attempt to conquer Europe? I don't think so.

The Lincoln quote was in your second paragraph, not the first. I frankly saw it, in the context of the article as a whole, as a means to establish even-handedness before plunging home the knife. But if I misread you, I apologize.

Johnimo

People should go "out of their way" to criticize Obama, just as they criticized Nixon and Johnson. I've struggled all my life to reconcile Lincoln's noble words with his despicably desperate actions to save the Union. Then, I ask myself how long slavery might have persisted had not the Civil War been fought when it was, and won by the North? Lincoln was the lightning rod that precipitated the inevitable .... and he handled it far better than would have many others.

But National Healthcare? We're not setting anyone free with that monstrosity. The ends don't justify the means. The means ARE the ends, and for the most part, Lincoln's means were noble. He was the sternest President we ever had, and probably the wisest and most compassionate. Judge the man by the standards of the age in which he lived.

Jon Harrison

Interesting and thoughtful comments.

Re National Healthcare: I'm not in love with Obamacare as written (to the extent that I understand the law and its implications). But I would love to get responses to the following: every developed nation in Europe and East Asia has a form of national healthcare, and there is no movement in any of these countries to get rid of it. What does that tell you?

Ryan

For the same reason there's no mass movement to get rid of any other government program: concentrated benefits and dispersed costs.

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