Taking advantage of an early Thanksgiving dinner with family and a late Patriots game, we ventured to Tyngsboro for a 3:50 pm screening of Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s new film about our 16th President. If you have any interest in American history or politics, you will immediately judge the movie a classic. A large cast of familiar actors bring to life the fascinating story of the passage of the 13th Amendment in the House of Representatives in early 1865. Having read nearly half a dozen biographies of Lincoln, I confess to being ignorant of this important episode, perhaps because Lincoln was involved in so many other momentous events.
The movie opens with Lincoln, having just been re-elected to a second term, discussing with Secretary of State William Seward the prospects of passing the 13th Amendment during the lame duck Congress. The amendment, which would abolish slavery forever in all of America, had already passed the Senate but did not have the votes to pass the House. Seward advises waiting until the new Congress is seated since 62 Democratic Congressmen from the north had just been swept out of office in the election, replaced by more reliable Republicans. Lincoln, however, wants to move quickly, sensing that with the war winding down, the window of opportunity for passing the amendment was rapidly closing. Without the impetus of the war, support for the amendment will wane.
In the pursuit of this highest of ends – freedom for all – Lincoln and his allies resort to the crassest of politics to win the necessary votes (the amendment passed by a margin of 2 votes). This is what I think makes the movie so important: it shows the intersection of principle and politics. To achieve noble ends in a democracy sometimes means cutting deals. From our twenty-first century perch, the nobleness of this cause is self-evident but the movie does invite the question of when does the end justify the means?
Aside from the deep philosophical questions, the movie provides a glimpse into nineteenth century America with lots of wool coats and rooms made hazy by omnipresent oil lamps and fireplaces. With a distinctive voice, look and walk, Daniel Day Lewis is superb as Lincoln. When future generations imagine Lincoln, this portrayal will come to the mind’s eye. The rest of the cast is outstanding as well. As I said up top, if you have an interest in history or politics, go see this movie.