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How Close to Lincoln?

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Twentieth Century Fox/Everett Collection
Henry Fonda as Abraham Lincoln in Young Mr. Lincoln, 1939

The Lincoln of that imputed command, and of the Cromwell-like speech written by Kushner in the same key, is for the moment frankly indifferent about the means of accomplishing a desirable end. This will not carry conviction to anyone who has read much about Lincoln.

The speech sounds wrong for internal reasons because it is unlike anything credibly reported as said by Lincoln (whatever he may have thought privately). And it is weak for external reasons because—as the historian Michael Vorenberg has noticed in a fine essay on the Thirteenth Amendment—Congressman Alley conjured the words from memory twenty-three years after the fact.* The same goes for a judgment spoken in the movie with solemn authority by Thaddeus Stevens: that the amendment “was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”

We are meant to pause and sigh at that; and, the director being Spielberg, we are given time to pause and sigh. But here, not just the authenticity but the tone of the words is uncertain. Does Stevens intend to convey bafflement? Wonder? Irony? The reproach of one moralist against another regarding the strangeness of conscience in politics? The line is floated as an optional profundity, but it too was skimmed from memory, this time thirty-three years after the fact, by an opponent of the New Jersey railroad monopoly who had been disappointed by Lincoln’s coolness in approaching that issue.

These are small trespasses—no worse than some that were justified by purely fictional license in Young Mr. Lincoln and Abe Lincoln in Illinois. One moment of Spielberg’s Lincoln, however, dips a good deal lower and tampers with the consistency of the character. “We’re stepped upon the world’s stage now,” Kushner makes Lincoln say, “with the fate of human dignity in our hands. Blood’s been spilled to afford us this moment.” What is it, exactly, that turns those words so false in Lincoln’s mouth? They show a kind of strut. The man is aglow and his voice is alive with the tremendous business of making history. But this was a sentiment that Lincoln shunned. He would not have spoken grandly of the fate of “human dignity,” a familiar phrase in two words that Lincoln never actually paired. The broad ideal of human dignity belongs to the late twentieth century, to the morale of decolonization and the UN Charter.

More gratingly, the conjunction of “world’s stage,” “blood,” and “our hands” brings to mind two famous soliloquies in Macbeth, one confessing murder and one confessing despair, neither of them a suitable vehicle for rallying votes. But it is the underlying falsification that disturbs. Any leader who adopts the posture of seeing himself on the stage of history is a glory to himself and a menace to all whom he must lead. Napoleon (whose favorite word was “destiny”) loved this posture, and Lincoln (as he revealed in his Lyceum Address of 1838) hated Napoleon for loving it.

Lincoln remains an honorable movie compounded of irresolute but mostly upright intentions; and its strengths are only a little undercut by the synthetic quality of its ambition. But that has always been the price of Spielberg’s energy and his enormous competence. Like Amistad (1997), his earlier historical film about slavery, Lincoln initially had a tight story and setting. At bottom, it is the simple political drama of the preparation and execution of a major vote in Congress; whereas Amistad was a courtroom drama about the freeing by American justice of slaves illegally transported from Africa in 1839. In both movies, the plot is enlarged by episodic, picturesque, and artificial embellishments that add forty minutes as an earnest of seriousness—in Amistad, flashbacks to the Atlantic crossing of the slaves, discussions of the career of John Quincy Adams, the missionary Christian lesson given to the rebel chief Cinque, and mocking tableaux of the court of Queen Isabella.

In Lincoln, we have the asserted claims of the White House children Tad and Robert, Abe’s relationship to Mary, a prologue about a black soldier reciting the Gettysburg Address, and a series of epilogues to signal the death of Lincoln and the end of the war. The inclusion of Mary Lincoln, however, takes on a separate strength from the integrity of Sally Field’s performance. We see her often at the brink of hysteria yet always coming partway back to sanity from a deep sympathy with her husband’s courage and resolve.

As a piece of filmmaking about American politics, Lincoln is not in a class with John Frankenheimer’s version of The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and as a realistic portrait of a legislative battle it lacks the care and detail of Otto Preminger’s Advise and Consent (1962). Yet it may hold up as well as those earlier films. Spielberg has the advantage of working on the ground of a real event that Americans care about. And he has given a memorable face to a lesson that happens to be true.

The Emancipation Proclamation of January 1863, the most extraordinary act of lawgiving in history, was conceived by Lincoln as an emergency measure, and he defended it on narrow grounds of military necessity. Yet Lincoln believed in emancipation as a matter of principle. How, then, could he give the moral act the solid legal claim it wanted? The law freeing the slaves had to be rendered compatible with rigorous adherence to the Constitution, since he had never intended the exception to stand as a rule. The emergency proclamation of emancipation in 1863 was a partial expedient to obstruct the progress and mitigate the evils of slavery.

By contrast, “this amendment” of two years later, as Lincoln said in response to a serenade on its passage, “is a King’s cure for all the evils. It winds the whole thing up.” Those characteristic words carry his rhythm of thought—happy at the success of the amendment because it winds the whole thing up. Democracy, as Lincoln points out with sufficient plainness, discovers its justification not in emergency actions but in the ordinary and difficult work of passing laws, and the daily dedication of people who agree to live by laws.

  1. *

    “The Thirteenth Amendment Enacted,” in Lincoln and Freedom: Slavery, Emancipation, and the Thirteenth Amendment, edited by Harold Holzer and Sara Vaughn Gabbard (Southern Illinois University Press, 2007). 

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