Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A review of Steven Spielberg's “Lincoln”

" ... that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom ... "

- Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address (1863)

So I recently watched the Steven Spielberg movie "Lincoln," with Daniel-Day Lewis in the title role. I've seen a fair amount of media about Lincoln's life, from the Henry Fonda film "Young Mr. Lincoln" to the Sam Waterston TV movie called "Lincoln" (the brief and appealing nature of that title makes it a popular one). This is my personal favorite of the Hollywood movies about Lincoln's presidency, even though it focuses on just one part of his presidency. It sets the record straight on some important things about his administration.

The president is not directly involved in the constitutional amendment process ...

For those unfamiliar with this movie, Steven Spielberg's movie focuses on the last part of Lincoln's presidency, with much attention given to his role in getting the Thirteenth Amendment through Congress, the amendment that banned slavery. At that time, slavery was protected by the Constitution through the Three-Fifths Clause, the Fugitive Slave Clause, and some other notorious clauses; so getting rid of slavery in the United States required a constitutional amendment; and this is the one that did it. People often point out that under the Constitution, the president is not directly involved in the constitutional amendment process; as this is done by Congress and state legislatures. But the president's indirect influence on it is enormous, as he can offer Congress things they want in exchange for their cooperation, and he was thus able to influence the passage of this amendment.

... but indirectly, Lincoln's influence on the antislavery amendment was enormous

The greatest virtue of the movie, as far as the historical accuracy is concerned, is showing how much Lincoln was involved in getting this amendment passed; and all the legal and political savvy needed to accomplish this. Even in this day, there are those who criticize Lincoln's stance on slavery and race relations; from pro-Confederate Southerners raised with their ancestors' animosity towards the man, to various liberals judging historical figures by modern standards (which is always a mistake). They are not without some valid points - Lincoln had faulty views on race (more the product of ignorance than animosity), and he did not favor immediate abolition until it seemed necessary to win the war. His Emancipation Proclamation of two years earlier had only freed slaves in rebel states, as "a fit and necessary war measure" to win the struggle (how can one make war against a slave power without striking at slavery itself?) Nonetheless, he accomplished more towards black rights than any other president before or since, and he made himself politically unpopular by doing so.

Painting of Cabinet meeting where Lincoln
first announced the Emancipation Proclamation

The Emancipation Proclamation was in real danger of being overturned by the courts

What this movie shows is that when total abolition of slavery became politically possible (something new at that time), Lincoln was willing to work hard to make it happen. As the movie points out, the blacks in rebel territory could have been returned into slavery by any Supreme Court decision striking down the Emancipation Proclamation - a chillingly real possibility in these years, where the infamous Dred Scott decision was so recent. And with the war almost won and his second term secured, the time had come to pursue this amendment.

Painting of Dred Scott, a slave who sued for his freedom,
only to be returned into slavery by the Supreme Court

Lincoln losing his bid for re-election would have meant a Confederate victory in the Civil War

Had he attempted to pass this amendment before, he could very likely have lost the election and the war; because losing the election to the Democratic candidate George McClellan (an openly anti-war candidate) would have meant a Southern victory in the war, where the Confederacy got all it wanted. He very likely wouldn't have emancipated any slaves if he'd pursued this amendment earlier, because without his election, there wouldn't have been any willingness to enforce the measures, even if this amendment had been passed. One way or the other, the blacks of the South would have remained in chains, unless he waited for a better time.

George McClellan, antiwar candidate in 1864 (not depicted in this movie)

Total abolition of slavery was now politically possible

But in the period in which this movie takes place, total abolition of slavery was now politically possible; and Lincoln worked tirelessly to make it happen. The movie's presentation of this period not only succeeds in entertaining the audience (not a small consideration for a Hollywood movie), but also nails the historical accuracy right on the head. There are a few minor problems with the movie's accuracy; but overall, they tell the story quite well, and they allow the true drama of these events to escape from dusty history books, and fill the screen gloriously. This is, to put it simply, a wonderful movie.

Documentary about Lincoln from PBS, 2001

This movie covers only one period of Lincoln's life ...

If you're after a comprehensive overview of his entire presidency, you'd be better off looking elsewhere - to the Sam Waterston TV movie, for instance, or to PBS's documentary about the man. And if you're after something about his early life, there's both the aforementioned documentary by PBS, and the Henry Fonda film "Young Mr. Lincoln" by John Ford.

Henry Fonda as "Young Mr. Lincoln"
(who really was clean-shaven in his youth),
in the John Ford movie of that name from 1939

... but this is the definitive coverage of that portion

But if you just want a good movie about history that gets sufficiently close to the truth, or if you just want the definitive coverage of the Thirteenth Amendment's passage; then this is a great film to see. It sets the record straight on the Great Emancipator's role in race relations, and the abolition of American slavery. And it helps to bring the emotional part of this history to life; with moments of humor and lightheartedness, but also with a strong component of drama and literary power.

"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude ... shall exist within the United States"

This is a great movie, and I highly recommend it to both history buffs and general audiences.

"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation." - Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified 1865

If you liked this post, you might also like:

Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided (miniseries)

Frederick Douglass: The forgotten antislavery leader

Ken Burns' "The Civil War" (miniseries)

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