I just saw the Lincoln movie and read Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Lincoln. Thousands of books and movies have been written about him—more than any other human being.
The movie is magnificent—Daniel Day Lewis in the title role directed by Steven Spielberg—two of Hollywood’s real pros at their very best! The movie is based on a small segment of Doris Kearnes Goodwin’s, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. The focus is on the “political genius” part.
The movie depicts how Lincoln was able to cobble together the two-thirds majority necessary in the House to pass the 13th Amendment, outlawing slavery throughout the land. (The earlier Emancipation Proclamation had merely outlawed slavery in the 11 states of the South which had seceded. Slavery remained legal everywhere else.)
Lincoln’s challenge was to marry high moral vision to low political reality. How far does one compromise his values for the public good, and how far does one go to move others? Lincoln had to juggle several balls in the air at once to pass the Amendment. To acquire the votes of some pro-slavery Democrats, Lincoln used everything from idealistic charm to bribery. He needed to restrain the rhetoric of Republican abolitionists, mainly from the Northeast, in order to not scare off the converted Democrats. He also needed to solidify the support of the lukewarm Republicans, mainly from the Midwest, who fought the war to save the Union but cared less about slavery. They wanted to end the bloodshed immediately, and in order to do so, they were receptive to restricting slavery but not abolishing it entirely.
In making the ethical choice to completely abolish slavery rather achieve immediate peace, Lincoln sacrificed thousands more soldiers’ lives for what he deemed the greater common good—legal equality for all people, black and white.
To pull all of this off in just two and a half hours, Hollywood had to understate the difficulty of the real politics, but Lincoln’s mastery of leadership shines through in the film. I like to think the movie had no political agenda, but I see parallels between the extreme partisanship portrayed the film with that in today’s Washington.
The movie ends with the Second Inaugural Address, and Lincoln’s ethical basis for Reconstruction: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, …let us bind up the nation’s wounds… to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves…”
The South surrendered a month later, and Lincoln’s instructions to Grant for surrender terms were lenient, “Lay down your arms, go home, and let’s rebuild this country together.” Unfortunately, Lincoln’s assassination squelched the great voice of charity. His death may have been one of the worst defeats for the South, as President Andrew Johnson and the North ran roughshod.
A great nation should fight a hard war and grant an easy peace. Arrogance in victory only begets more hostility and frequently another war. An arrogant vindictive North poisoned Reconstruction, and 150 years later we still are still dealing with some of the fallout. The Versailles Treaty concluding WWI contained a similar yet more potent vindictiveness to the civil war conclusion, eventually sowing the seeds of WWII. Conversely, the Marshall Plan following WWII created allies and strong trading partners with our former enemies—Germany and Japan.
I always wonder, what if Lincoln had not been assassinated? Would he have had the political genius to overcome the tremendous bitterness from our country’s most horrible war and reconcile both sides to rebuild together?
Question: If Lincoln were President today, what would he be doing?