Thoughts upon Seeing the Movie “Lincoln”
Dr. Milt Sernett
I subscribe to the notion that movies, especially those big box office successes, make for bad history. Yet I sat transfixed yesterday afternoon while watching “Lincoln,” a cinematic tour de force directed and produced by Steven Spielberg and starring Daniel Day-Lewis. Never before had I felt so powerfully the historical drama of our 16th President’s struggle to align political reality with his moral compass or understood how different the burden Lincoln carried from that of his abolitionist critics, none of whom had the constitutional obligation to hold the nation together.
Lincoln is famous for saying, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel.” Yet he was no abolitionist, not a member of the heroic band that included such as William Lloyd Garrison, Gerrit Smith, Lewis Tappan, and Wendell Phillips, all of whom have been inducted into the National Abolition Hall of Fame and Museum, Peterboro, New York. Still, some might argue that Lincoln the politician as president did more to break the chains of slavery than any of these moral crusaders, none of whom could have been elected to the executive office. Gerrit Smith did stand as a candidate for President three times, in 1848, 1856 and 1860. He received so few votes that his Liberty Party and Liberty League supporters had little to comfort themselves with except the notion that they had voted their principles. Though I am an admirer of Gerrit Smith, I doubt that he had the temperament to successfully hold high political office.
The view from the oval office when Lincoln was President was clouded by a great civil conflict. How was he to advance the car of freedom and yet hold the nation together? Already in the drafting of the Emancipation proclamation, which was, practically speaking, a military measure, we can see how adroitly Lincoln moved between the valley and the mountain. The prophet, gifted with a message from on high, may hurl thunderbolts of righteousness upon the multitudes, but the weight of shouldering the carnage of civil war falls upon those fighting in the valley.
The Lincoln movie focuses on the Lincoln’s final months in office and, most intensely, on his efforts to rally his own cabinet (his “team of rivals,” to use the felicitous phrase of Doris Kearns Goodwin) in the fight to get the House of Representatives to pass the Thirteenth Amendment. One has to watch the movie carefully; the cast of characters is so diverse that a historical novice can be overwhelmed by the complexity of the plot. But isn’t that the way history is--especially when a great moral question is in play? The “Lincoln” movie script is so well done that I came home with an enhanced appreciation of Abraham Lincoln, as a person and as a president.