Today my wife Tina and I, along with several friends from Magoffin County, KY, had the chance to see Spielberg’s new film on Lincoln. Movies like this often garner mixed reviews from both critics and casual film goers, so I was not sure what to expect. I am something of a Civil War buff (though I do actually study other things), so it was fascinating to see how the famous film-maker handled this subject, and the conversation after the film was also very enlightening.
I have to say that I was skeptical about Daniel-Day Lewis as the great president. Could the star of Last of the Mohicans and Gangs of New York pull off such a different kind of role? Well, he did, and he did so spectacularly. No, he did not look exactly like Lincoln, and no, he did not look quite as haggard as the real Lincoln of 1865, but he played the role with all of the home-spun humor, the occasional verbal malapropisms, and the passion for his country that the sources have given us as characteristic of the real man. The ambiguity of home life, with his difficult wife and the strained relationship with son Robert, are handled with great sensitivity but are also presented in all their stark reality.
There were some problems with the film. At the start of the film the president is shown talking with some soldiers, two of whom are black, and who claim to have been at Gettysburg. There were blacks at Gettysburg with the Confederate army, but the United States Colored Troops (a regiment of black Union soldiers) was not at Gettysburg. Also, toward the end of the film, as a sort of penultimate climax, after the Thirteenth Amendment is ratified by the House, Thaddeus Stevens is pictured going home to his mistress, who is black, to let her read the amendment and rejoice with his after his long struggle for emancipation. Thaddeus Stevens did have a quadroon housekeeper named Lydia Hamilton Smith. Stevens never married and there were rumors about some sort of relationship between him and Smith, but no historical evidence has ever been produced proving this claim. It makes a nice little flourish to the story, but responsible historical scholarship would probably have dictated leaving that out.
The film demonstrates in no uncertain terms the absolutely crucial need for passing the Thirteenth Amendment. Teaching history, I have found that students often do not understand this. They assume that, since Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation January 1, 1863, that emancipation was a fait accompli. Not so! Spielberg brings this out vividly. The Proclamation was an Executive Order that was applied to a war-time situation. Slaves were “freed” in order to encourage them to abandon their masters and flee to the North. This would have two effects. One, it would make them candidates to serve in the Union Army and thus help the Northern cause. But even more than that, it would eliminate their crucial role in helping the Southern economy in farming and other necessary tasks while the vast majority of the white work force was at war. The film does not bring out these latter two issues, but it does make clear that the Proclamation would have little force in the South once a truce had been effected. Only a duly prosecuted law, and in this case an amendment to the Constitution, could make that happen. Without this amendment, all of the bloodshed of the war, while it would end in the restoration of the Union, would not have accomplished the other aim–the emancipation of the slaves, and with that the reaffirmation of the Founding Fathers’ clarion cry, that “All men are created equal.” In the long run, if the Civil War was about anything, it was about that. Even the restoration of the Union was really about renewing and reapplying that conviction to a new generation.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the film was the detailed presentation of the give-and-take in governmental wrangling. Lies and half-truths were bandied about on both sides in the debate over this very important issue. Lincoln is shown at times to be something of a fascist (in the original meaning of that word), as he suspends habeas corpus to prevent the secession of Maryland, he withholds important information from his cabinet and Congress, he uses back alley and strong-arm tactics to get his way. Thaddeus Stevens makes compromises with his earlier more hard-line abolition position. Men change their votes with the promise of lucrative positions once they leave office. To the viewer who thought such politics was invented by FDR or LBJ, this film may be something of a revelation. The fact is, some of that has been around ever since there was government. Remember what Augustine taught us: government is itself one of the effects of the Fall. No Fall, no government.
We all enjoyed the film very much. Tommy Lee Jones’s portrayal of Steven was brilliant, and Lewis’s Lincoln is unforgettable. If you have not yet seen the film, go see it. See it on the big screen. You will have a deeper sense of why it is that “Now he belongs to the ages.”