The weight of historical attention bears down ponderously on the slavery question in the 1850's, secession and the military campaigns of the Civil War, and on Reconstruction. By contrast, the ratification of the Civil War Amendments (13-15) receives relatively little attention. It often seems as if these were mere consequences of the Northern victory, assumed to be uninteresting because inevitable.
However, even if they were inevitable (a very questionable assumption), they still had to be slogged through at the time. While the 14th Amendment proved to be much livelier in constitutional law, the 13th had by far the greatest impact. It ended slavery in the United States and thus erased both the terrible stain of that institution and the tension that had brought about our most terrible war.
Steven Spielberg's Lincoln focuses very narrowly on the President's strenuous efforts to push the 13th Amendment through the House of Representatives. It is a pretty good story. The Amendment passed the Republican controlled Senate on April 8, 1864, but in June it failed to gather the necessary two thirds in the House. Lincoln pulled out all the stops, including bribing some Democrats with lucrative offices, to push the Amendment through in January of 1865. The film is silent about the efforts to assure ratification by three fourths of the state legislatures, though that is also an interesting tale. Nevada, I gather, was admitted just in time to ratify.
To create the requisite drama, Lincoln forcefully builds a case that the end of slavery was a tenuous thing as the war drew to a close. The Emancipation Proclamation was a war measure that might have ceases in force, perhaps under Court order, after the South surrendered. Sentiment in favor of abolition was in large part motivated by the view that it was necessary to end the war. Lincoln needed to end slavery before he ended the war, or else the South's peculiar and terrible institution might survive.
I am unconvinced. To be sure, a lot of the opposition to slavery and especially to its spread was motivated less by moral scruple and more by hostility to the spread of Blacks. Still, everyone understood that slavery was the single cause of the great national schism. I cannot believe that the Congress elected in 1964 would not have put an end to it.
That is a small if significant quibble with the film's historical assumptions. Otherwise, it tells a great and true story. The character of Lincoln rings true and bright throughout. He is always telling stories, sometimes to the dismay of his staff. He recalls his reading of Euclid, from whom he learned the talent for logical argument that is evident in his great speeches and the single, shining truth that if any two things are equal to a third, they are equal to each other. That is a mathematical version of the self-evident truth that all men are created equal.
Along with Lincoln the political theorist, it gives us Lincoln the master of men. We see a lot of Machiavellian tactics deployed to gather every last vote. Lincoln makes mutually irreconcilable promises but manages to keep the balls in the air just long enough to score the winning point. We also see several key figures such as Thaddeus Stevens forced to compromise laudable moral principles (the absolute moral equality of all human beings) in order to win as much equality as was practically possible. There is a lot of wisdom in that.
Lincoln is a magnificent piece of film making. One of its many strengths was superb casting. Daniel Day-Lewis is one of the finest actors in the business. His Lincoln rings true because the character's shrewd political genius always wears the mask of the clown. Lincoln bears personal and national tragedy on the shoulders of an unbreakable sense of humor. His constant recourse to humorous stories, even when they are not appreciated by the people in the room, is proof that his principles are rooted in an appreciation of real live human beings.
Sally Field seems to have been born to play Marry Todd Lincoln. Without her husband's love of life, she is slowly but inevitably being crushed by it. David Strathairn (William Seward) has a priceless voice and a very convincing bearing. Tommy Lee Jones gives us Thaddeus Stevens. If the historical Sevens didn't look and talk like this, that would rank among his failures. That is just a sample. One distraction as I watched was that I kept trying to remember where I'd seen this or that excellent actor before.
The real star of the show, however, was the dialogue and action. The former struck my ears as authentic and, better yet, delicious. Lincoln's exchanges, Steven's insults hurled at Democrats on the floor, these were beautiful and frequently enlightening. Meanwhile the action was perfect and rare. Instead of a chase scene, we get manipulations on the floor of Congress and three political operatives targeting and reeling in wobbly Democrats.
If you want a sanitized view of history, this film is not for you. If you have a taste for reality along with an appreciation of human virtue, this film will satisfy. Lincoln is a love poem to the American Republic.