By Patti Brown
I first met Abraham Lincoln when I was going into fifth grade. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say I was introduced to the historical Lincoln when my family made a trip to Springfield, Illinois in 1965. Former Illinois Governor and United Nation’s Ambassador Adlai Stevenson had died and his body lay in state in the capitol building. We lived in a Chicago suburb and though my folks were staunch Republicans, they saw the state occasion as an opportunity for us to witness a piece of history and pay respects to a statesman. While in Springfield we also took in Lincoln’s home, his tomb, a tour of his office, and New Salem, the pioneer village where he lived as a young adult.
That weekend’s journey ignited a life-long interest in America’s sixteenth president. I brought that enthusiasm to the theater Friday night to see Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and I was not disappointed. But this is not so much a movie about Lincoln as it is about politicking, the messiness of legislative sausage making, and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.
The film takes place between the beginning of Lincoln’s second term and his death four months later in 1865. The Civil War had crippled the South and the Confederacy was interested in negotiating peace terms with the Union. Lincoln knew that the cessation of war alone, however, was not enough. Too much blood had been spilled, and to what end?
Lincoln worried that his executive order of emancipation of the slaves in the Confederate states would not guarantee their continued freedom— or the freedom of their decedents— after the war. Because he had issued the proclamation in 1863 during the Civil War, Lincoln argued that his action was justified as a war power granted by the Constitution to the president as commander-in-chief. But, as a legal scholar, Lincoln was concerned that his order could be challenged in federal court and struck down after the war. And then what – the possibility of re-enslavement?
In 1857 the Supreme Court had ruled in Dred Scott that persons of African ancestry could not claim U.S. citizenship. In all, some 180,000 emancipated and freeborn blacks had fought for the North, accounting for nearly 10 percent of Union troops. Lincoln understood the moral dilemma: How do you ask a soldier to risk life and limb in battle and then not treat him like a man in the eyes of the law? How could you continue to deny freedom to his family? The only way to ensure the abolition of slavery after the war was to amend the Constitution.
Spielberg’s Lincoln is portrayed as a folksy man who was a skillful politician. He knew how to count votes and how to buy them with promises of political patronage if necessary. He also knew how to appeal to pathos and employ eloquent rhetoric. The film begins after the capture of Savannah in late December 1864. Lincoln is determined to see the Thirteenth Amendment pass out of the House of Representatives before entertaining discussion terms of surrender from the South. The Amendment had passed the Senate in April 1864, but had failed in the House due to the cause of states’ rights. In November, Lincoln won reelection and increased the Republican seats in the House by 50 giving the president’s party a 71 percent majority. The Democrats lost 34 seats and barely held a 20 percent minority.
Lincoln seized upon the circumstances of the lame duck session to bring the amendment back up for a vote. In one scene Lincoln pays a personal visit to the home of a Democratic member of the House of Representative to persuade him to vote in favor of the amendment. Previously, this same Congressman had slammed his front door on one of Lincoln’s hired lobbyists. When the President makes a personal appeal, the Congressman confesses that although he wants to preserve the Union he holds a deep-seated hatred toward Negros. The Congressman’s brother had died from wounds sustained in fighting for the Union and he could not abide the thought of equality of the races. The dialogue in this scene is part of recorded history. In an 1866 biography of Lincoln by Illinois Representative Isaac Arnold, Lincoln is quoted as having said to a member of the House whose brother died from wounds sustained in the battle of Chancellorsville that the brother “died to save the Republic from death by the slaveholders’ rebellion. I wish you could see it to be your duty to vote for the Constitutional amendment ending slavery.”
Lincoln’s politicking paid off. Eleven Democrats broke with their party to vote with the majority of Republican to pass the Amendment –119 to 56—enough for the requisite two-thirds majority. The Republicans supported abolition and the Democrats were opposed.
Lincoln held the position that the Union was not at war with the southern states but rather with the rebels who sought to divide United States. After the amendment’s passage Lincoln moved quickly to discuss the terms of the rebellion’s surrender, but he did not get to witness the rebuilding of the Union or the reconstruction of the South. General Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to General Ulysses Grant on April 9, 1865; six days later Lincoln was assassinated.
In grand Spielberg fashion, the movie shows us a gritty capital city and the elegance of Washington’s high society despite the ravages of war. Candle light, gas lamps and fireplaces illuminate the rooms casting moods and shadows. Costumes and room settings usher us into the 1860s. Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as Lincoln is award-worthy, as are many others.
If I have a complaint with the film it is with unnecessary cameo appearances by many familiar Hollywood faces. At the end of the day on which the Thirteenth Amendment passed, Rep. Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, played by Tommy Lee Jones, arrives home and is greeted at the door by his housekeeper, Lydia Smith, played by S. Epatha Merkerson. My first thought was, “What is Lt. Van Buren from Law & Order doing here?” Such cameo casting in a period film is distracting.
The institution of slavery as well as its abolition 147 years ago of course had enormous sociological and economic consequences for the country. Prior to 1865. the social institutions of marriage, paternity and family did not legally exist for slaves. Slaves could not own property because they were themselves property. It was only because of the slaves who continued to work the fields that the South was economically able to afford to send its sons off to fight in a rebellion against the Union. A constitutional amendment to abolishing slavery was the only way to get the South to capitulate. The war would have ended eventually—most likely in 1865—without the amendment, but the abolition of slavery in a nation founded on the principle of liberty and equality would not have happened for some time to come.
Spielberg’s film does an excellent job in telling the story of the Thirteenth Amendment:
Section 1. 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.
Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
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