Main cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, James Spader, David Strathairn, Peter McRobbie, Lee Pace (There is a very extensive cast, but Day-Lewis is so dominant in terms of screen time that the main cast could have been him alone)
Director Stephen Spielberg
Running time: 150 minutes
What is the most damning word that can be applied to a film? I suspect it is dull. That is the word for Lincoln. Too many characters, too much poorly orchestrated verbal scrummaging in Congress, an avalanche of posturing earnestness and a good deal of ham acting – yes, that’s you James Spader I am particularly wincing at for your Republican fixer William N. Bilbo and you Tommy Lee Jones for your painfully ridiculous abolitionist Thaddeus Stephens, a man unable to open his mouth without engaging in abuse. The only performance of any note is that of Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln.
If there was ever an actor capable of single-handedly rescuing an indifferent film it is Day-Lewis. He did it magnificently in Gangs of New York with his riveting performance as Bill the Butcher. The man does his level best here and in truth is a pretty convincing Lincoln, but the film is so generally flaccid, overly wordy and positively cartoonish in its representation of the debate over the Amendment to abolish slavery that he cannot obscure its seriously disabling weaknesses. Day-Lewis is also handicapped by the character of Lincoln which is devious while he maintains a façade of reasonableness. It is too quiet, too restrained a personality to rescue a poor film by obliterating the mediocrity around him, especially one of this length.
To those considerable weaknesses can be added the film’s gross dishonesty in representing Lincoln’s position on slavery and blacks generally. This misrepresentation is made simple by restricting the action in the film to a few months at the very fag end of the American Civil War during which the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution abolishing slavery was brought to the House of Representatives, debated and eventually passed. The short time span allowed Lincoln’s earlier equivocal and changing positions on the relative importance of abolishing slavery and respecting state rights and for modern liberals his distinctly embarrassing views on blacks to be almost entirely hidden from view.
What did Lincoln’s think of slavery? He was very much the Lincoln convertible, with different messages, often subtly different, for various audiences and political circumstances. But there is a clear line to be followed in his thought. There is no reason to believe that he did not find the institution obnoxious in the abstract and the actual mistreatment of slaves distressing. But the fact that Lincoln was distressed when for example, he saw blacks being transported chained – a story repeated in the film – did not mean he thought of blacks as the equals of whites or wanted them to have full legal equality with whites. Here he is putting his views unambiguously in 1858:
“I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the White and Black races – that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes – nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to inter-marry with White people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the White and Black races which will ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality, and in as much as they cannot so live, while they do remain together, there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the White race.” (ABRAHAM LINCOLN, in his debate with Senator Douglas at Quincy, IL, on Oct. 13, 1858 and quoted in Abraham Lincoln – Complete Works, published by The Century Co., 1894, Vol. I, page 273).
Lincoln’s belief that white and black could not live in equality led him to be an advocate of colonisation, which in this context meant the transfer of blacks in the USA to other parts of the world , especially Liberia in West Africa. He had doubts of the practicality for in the Douglas debates we find him saying “My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia,—to their own native land. But a moment’s reflection would convince me that whatever of high hope (as I think there is) there may be in this, in the long run, its sudden execution is impossible. If they were all landed there in a day, they would all perish in the next ten days; and there are not surplus shipping and surplus money enough in the world to carry them there in many times ten days.
But if that is not the answer Lincoln has no ready solution for he goes on to say:
What then? Free them all, and keep them among us as underlings? Is it quite certain that this betters their condition? I think I would not hold one in slavery, at any rate; yet the point is not clear enough to me to denounce people upon. What next? Free them, and make them politically and socially our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not. Whether this feeling accords with justice and sound judgment, is not the sole question, if, indeed, it is any part of it. A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, cannot be safely disregarded. We cannot, then, make them equals. It does seem to me that systems of gradual emancipation might be adopted; but for their tardiness in this, I will not undertake to judge our brethren of the South.” ( http://www.bartleby.com/251/12.html).
Despite his concerns at the practicality of colonisation, Lincoln was still promoting the idea during his presidency. He mentioned it in his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in 1862 and created a special office to oversee the process of colonisation under the control of the Rev. James Mitchell of Indiana and established a Bureau of Emigration.
Lincoln’s feelings towards slaves are suggestive of those of the man who sees animals being cruelly treated and wishes for the mistreatment to stop. Those feelings do not signify that the animals would be welcome round and about the homes of the pitying onlooker merely that the onlooker wished the mistreatment to stop.
Then there is the question of priorities. When he became president Lincoln had no hesitation in making clear his first concern was the preservation the Union. He did this in his first inaugural presidential address on March 4, 1861 when he offered no objection to the pending Corwin Amendment which ran “No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.” ( Volume 12 of the Statutes at Large at page 251).
This would have effectively made the abolition of slavery by Congress impossible by reserving the power to be a free or slave state to the individual states Lincoln said this at his inauguration:
“I understand a proposed amendment to the Constitution . . . has passed Congress, to the effect that the Federal Government shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service. I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.” (http://www.bartleby.com/124/pres31.html)
Well into the war Lincoln was unequivocal about the priority of the ends for which the war was fought, the primary end being the preservation of the Union:
“I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views. I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free…” Lincoln, Abraham. “Letter to Horace Greeley, August 22, 1862”. In Miller, Marion Mills. Life and Works of Abraham Lincoln. Current Literature. Retrieved 2011-01-24.
The film’s presentation of the pro and anti-abolition arguments will ring a bell with anyone who is familiar with the BBC’s idea of balance. The pro-slavers are allowed to say something but they are always outnumbered and are never allowed the last word. Moreover, the fact that Day-Lewis’ Lincoln takes up so much of the screen time allotted to argument that any other voice is lost in the general babble of an overloaded cast. Interestingly, the pro-slavers in the film engaged in argument while the abolitionists readily turned to crude abuse. This is very reminiscent of the way modern liberals behave in real life (see https://livinginamadhouse.wordpress.com/2010/10/17/the-liberal-bigot/). There is also the gaping hole of a virtually absent Confederate voice, not so much to give the pro-slavery arguments but those of the state rights versus federal powers conflict.
Perhaps the most telling facet of the film is the depiction of the double dealing of Lincoln and his fellow Republicans. Opponents of the amendment are shamelessly bribed with offers of government jobs with the full approval of Lincoln who also engages in a piece of gross dishonesty by delaying the arrival of a peace delegation from the Confederacy to ensure the Amendment passes. This also requires him to give a lawyer’s evasion to the question of whether such a peace delegation exists by answering that he knows of no such delegation in Washington rather than saying he knew of no peace delegation. All of this skulduggery is portrayed as a legitimate means to an end, which of course, is the besetting sin of liberals today who eagerly embrace any enormity provided it is intended to move some part of the world towards their nirvana of unalloyed political correctness. The problem with such dishonesty and is that even if it gains the immediate object –which often it does not – it invariably has a corrosive effect on political trust . Even today there are still the lingering resentments in the states of the Confederacy over their treatment after the war during the reconstruction era.
In the end the question has to be asked, was the abolition of slavery as it was done worth 600,000 dead and many more injured, often hideously? What was the greater good, no civil war and the retention of slavery for a time or the immediate abolition of slavery bought at the costs of huge numbers of killed and maimed ? It might seem a simple calculus to us today because slavery to us is self-evidently beyond the Pale, but in mid 19th century America things looked very different, just as they have looked very different to every society which has had a form of legal servitude, which includes most societies in most times and places with servitude ranging from full blown chattel slavery through serfdom to indentured labour. It is also worth bearing in mind that the free poor in the vast majority of societies throughout history have in practice been in a de facto servile position because of their material circumstances and the general imbalance of power between employer and employed. Indeed, the iconic English abolitionist William Wilberforce was much taunted with the fact that while he made a great uproar about slaves he bore with equanimity the abject poverty of many of his countrymen.
The abolition of US slavery was reckless in its execution because it was made without compensation (with the exception of Washington DC) to slave owners and was not staggered over several years. The British abolition of slavery in British colonies used both devices (the British taxpayer expended the then colossal sum of £20 million in compensation which represented two fifths of the annual British budget) and, though far from an easy transition, it did remove both the problem of the ruination of a very large part of the colonial economy (the slave related part) and provide the wherewithal for the now ex-slave owners to continue their various economic enterprises by paying wages and to make the necessary practical adjustments . It also brought time for the transition from slave to wage-earner to be psychologically absorbed. Slavery is the ultimate form of institutionalisation . A man or woman born to slavery and knowing nothing but servitude may find themselves disorientated when suddenly freed even if they have long dreamt of freedom, just as long-term prisoners or mental patients often do when released. That had benefits for both slave owners and slaves because it was preferable to the sudden disorganised shock of immediate and uncompensated
Had Congress arranged to compensate the slave owners at an honest price and staggered the ending of slavery there is good reason to believe the Civil War could have been avoided and slavery ended within a relatively short period of time. As it was the abolition as it stood made a mess of slave owning states economies, left the freed slaves in a precarious position to be subject to Jim Crow laws and segregation for nearly a century and often the recipients of the practice of convict leasing whereby convicts were effectively sold to private contractors for a set period of time.
If the abolition of slavery been peacefully accomplished it would also have had the great benefit of leaving state rights and powers unsavaged by the gross violations of the Constitution which Lincoln perpetrated during the war with his proclamations made as commander-in-chief which included the suspension of Habeas Corpus and his ignoring of rulings by the Supreme Court. (http://www.civilwarhome.com/pulito.htm). Interestingly, the question of legality of his proclamations was addressed at some length by Lincoln in the film, although primarily in the context of the legality of his Emancipation Proclamation.
It should be very difficult for any person without a political axe to grind to come away from the film without seeing Lincoln as a slippery hypocrite with no regard for the truth. Needless to say in these PC times you would not guess it from the reviews. The critics have generally grovelled before the film’s prime politically correct subject matter. The review by Rupert Christianson of the Daily Telegraph (a Tory newspaper) gives a taste of the tone in the British media: “I cannot vouch for the movie’s historical accuracy – so much about Lincoln remains contested – but, without resorting to pomposity or sentimentality, Spielberg has built the story into a stirring drama of dilemma worthy of Racine or Schiller… The word that came to my mind as I left the cinema is an unfashionable one: noble. This is a noble film, about noble people. Quentin Tarantino doesn’t do noble.” ( http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/baftas/9857721/Baftas-2013-Spielbergs-Noble-Achievement.html).
Should you go and see this film? Well, if you do, visit it in a spirit of inquiry into exactly how blatant in their bias the politically correct can be when producing what can only be described as unashamed propaganda. Talking of modern liberals, the film has provided me with some amusement. Discussing it with the politically correct in Britain it is remarkable how many believe Lincoln to have been a Democrat and the opponents of slavery in the film to have all been Republicans. It is a treat to watch their credulous little faces drop when I tell them the truth.