Nearly one year after I chanced a brief Sunday morning repose in Robert E. Lee’s family pew at Christ Church in the Old Town section of Alexandria, Virginia, I found myself seated in a different sort of theater to view and reflect on the issues that led to our national schism and the bloodiest conflict in American history. Yesterday at a local movie house I took in a matinée showing of Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.”

Drawn from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 best seller “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” Spielberg’s cinematic chronicle of the last few months of Lincoln’s administration and life provides a fascinating window into the tumultuous times that led to the conclusion of the War Between the States.

Shaped by the times into which he was born, Lincoln strove to complete the second act of the great American drama that had been initiated by the founding fathers and would be carried forward in the Civil Rights Movement a century later.

Here we see Lincoln the man (deftly portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis) wrestling with the members of his cabinet, arguing that the time is expedient to push forward his agenda for the equality of all men. A constitutional amendment would ensure its propagation for all time — or at least for as long as the nation for the last best hope on earth might endure.

Through Spielberg’s direction and Tony Kushner’s lines brought to life by the superb renditions of Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Fields and Tommy Lee Jones, we witness the gruesome horrors of war as well as the messiness of the political process inside the beltway. (I use that term “beltway,” because it appears as though little has changed within the confines of that circumscribed area over the past 150 years. Despite the preponderance of political spin, the wheels of democracy turn ever so slowly, both then as now.)

Lincoln the man was given to fits of melancholy. He shared his disturbing dreams of isolation and loneliness with his wife, whose own constitution frequently bordered on hysteria. Rightly or wrongly, he expected that she would bear the same grief without complaint as he himself struggled to do. One scene where Lincoln and Mary engage in a vehement verbal exchange in the bedroom brings to mind Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes from a Marriage.” The same scene repeats in slightly different form on the floor of the House between verbally abusive representatives Thaddeus Stevens and the gentlemen from New York.

Here also we glimpse the gentleness of Lincoln the father in his dealings with Tad, his youngest son; as well as the stern uncompromising stance with Robert, his oldest, in his refusal to allow the young man to enlist. Cloaked in the power of the presidency, Lincoln will refuse to compromise on what will become the 13th Amendment; while in his Second Inaugural Address he will also advocate for a gentle reconstruction of the southern states, “with malice toward none and charity for all.”

As the final credits roll and the viewer rises from his seat, he reflects that what he has just witnessed over the previous two and a half hours is in many ways a re-enactment of the political process of the past four years. Politics is a messy profession; yet a necessary one, if as a democratic nation we are willing to struggle toward those loftier goals dreamt of in uncommon hours.

To paraphrase Lincoln’s words, if we advance such freedoms, what greater good might lie ahead for us to discover?

6 comments on “Lincoln

  1. Scott Williams says:

    Laura and I are anxious to see the movie. I’ve actually thought quite a bit about Lincoln lately and also see comparisons to today. Lincoln thought slavery was an abomination, a sin against God’s will. He had to contend with people who advocated it for the sake of their own personal comfort and economy as well as political leaders who pandered to pro-slavery voters. Were Lincoln alive today, I think he would feel the same abhorence of our abortion laws as he did the slavery laws. A man with his view of the equality of all men would hardly favor the slaughter of helpless infants. And he’d encounter abortion proponents who also view their own “rights” as greater than the life of another, abortionists who make millions of dollars on abortions who oppose life and politicians who pander to the pro-choice crowd. I truly wish we had a President and other leaders today who had Lincoln’s moral fiber and determination to help the most helpless among us.

  2. td says:

    What Lincoln would think of today’s freedom of a woman’s right to choose, is something we cannot know. His overriding goal was to preserve the Union, whether slaves were feed in the process or not.

    He likely wouldn’t recognize his own party today though …

  3. Scott Williams says:

    For anyone interested in Lincoln, I highly recommend visiting the Lincoln museum in Springfield, IL. It is a moving and educational experience.

    Lincoln was a life long opponent of slavery. It’s true he did care about the Union more than abolition. Numerous quotes from his writings and speeches show his hatred of slavery and his desire to keep it from expanding to new states and territories. He did not, early on, advocate taking slavery away from the South as he did feel it would destroy the Union. But his own views on slavery are clearly evident in his writings, including this pre-Civil War quote, “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.” It is not a great leap to take this belief and substitute the idea of abortion for slavery. Both impose someone elses will to destroy the life of another.

    • td says:

      “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.” (Letter to Horace Greeley, August 22, 1862)

  4. Scott Williams says:

    As I acknowledged before, Lincoln’s love of country was such that he was pragmatic and placed preservation of the Union above the issue of abolition. However, his personal opinion of slavery is evident in document after document. Two of many examples:
    April 6, 1859: Letter to Henry L. Pierce

    This is a world of compensations; and he who would be no slave, must consent to have no slave. Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, can not long retain it.

    (III, 376)

    September 17, 1859: Speech at Cincinnati, Ohio

    I think Slavery is wrong, morally, and politically. I desire that it should be no further spread in these United States, and I should not object if it should gradually terminate in the whole Union.

  5. td says:

    Lincoln’s views on slavery are (and were) well known, but his views on abortion can only be the subject of speculation by anyone living today, as that issue didn’t exist then (or at least as it does today). He remains an enigma then and now between his own strongly held views of the times, and his pursuit of them as president. Just as religious zealots (or anyone for that matter) cannot speak for God, neither can we assume modern positions for a man who’s been dead nearly 150 years … (or else you could substitute Women’s reproductive rights for slavery with equal certainty; as the life of the living could be destroyed by the unborn). Have Women no right to end an unwanted pregnancy? Must they be forced to bear a child they do not want?

    “Slavery” today, includes governmental, group or individual control over Human bodily functions and existence; as skin color and forced labor did in 1862 …

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