“Lincoln:” The Film and his Evolving Views on Slavery

Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln

“Lincoln,” starring Daniel Day Lewis, directed by Steven Spielberg, was truly one of the greatest movies I have seen in…I can’t remember how long. Easily Spielberg’s greatest movie since “Saving Private Ryan.”

My purposes in writing this post are two-fold. One, to offer a very brief review, which can really be distilled down to the simple fact that I loved just about every minute of it. Second, I have noticed a slightly disturbing trend in some criticism of the film, attacking its portrayal of Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator” and arguing that Lincoln was far from consistent regarding his views on slavery and hardly altruistic in his motives for destroying the institution. These notions are true…but to really understand Lincoln’s courage, one must examine the evolution of his views on slavery, his decision to dispense with political games and simply do what he believed to be morally right.

Daniel Day Lewis gave what just might be the most brilliant performance in recent cinematic history. I really believe that…this is no hollow hyperbole. Historians and reenactors who read this blog share, I’m sure, the powerful desire to be a fly on the wall for certain historical events…or better yet, to be transported and to have even just a minute to shake the hand of historical figures whom we have studied and admired. This movie felt oddly like that opportunity. Based on everything I’ve read (and I would never tout myself as a Lincoln scholar…but I’ve read the major biographies and carefully studied much of Lincoln’s own writing) Lewis absolutely nailed Lincoln’s character. As did screenplay writer Tony Kushner.

This film felt remarkably like watching a historical figure come to life…like a window through time. The stiff, baritone-voiced portrayals of Lincoln over many decades have all been completely off the mark. Lewis’s Lincoln was perfect, from the high pitched twangy voice (described in some period accounts as shrill and falsetto), his quirky penchant for reciting jokes and anecdotes, and his habit of allowing son Tad the run of the White House even when it came to interrupting crucial meetings…it all rang true.

The sets, costumes, even hair and make-up were all remarkable. Seriously, if the people involved in these technical aspects of the film don’t win Academy Awards, it will be a real travesty. Among the many breathtaking moments was the portrayal of Lincoln’s recurring dream of travelling on a fast moving ship towards an unknown shore. This has been written about again and again. To see it dramatized was just mesmerizing.

Alright. Enough gushing. On to the historical debate. Lincoln is not so popular with some. And although I think Spielberg’s portrayal was fair, delving into his faults, particularly Lincoln’s own uncertainty as to whether some of his war measures were even remotely constitutional, there are critics who claim that Spielberg’s Lincoln is too glorified. That Lincoln was, in fact, racist. That he stated, time and time again, that he really was not opposed to slavery as an institution and the Emancipation Proclamation was simply a pragmatic means of weakening the Confederacy.

To evaluate this, let’s take a look at Lincoln’s own words and how his attitude evolved over time.

First, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, 1858. Lincoln, a somewhat upstart politician with only one term in the U.S. House of Representatives was trying to unseat incumbent Stephen Douglas–the “Little Giant,” the “lion voiced orator”–a formidable opponent.

On August 21, 1858 during the first debate in Ottawa, Illinois, Lincoln stated:

This declared indifference, but, as I must think, covert real zeal for the spread of slavery, I cannot but hate. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself….I will say here, while upon this subject, that I have no purpose, either directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so. I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality….but I hold that, notwithstanding all this, there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence-the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

A number of contradictions here. A professed hatred of slavery and yet a denial of the equality of whites and blacks…and above all an assurance that he was no abolitionist. We must remember that at this time Lincoln was a relatively inexperienced politician trying to win votes. It was crucial for him to utilize the Free Soil rhetoric of containment of slavery to win over moderates and distance himself from radicals.

Now, on to his first inaugural address. Here we have almost identical ideology as stated during the debates in 1858. But this time, it is not to win votes, but to avoid a war. On March 4, 1861, in front of an unfinished Capitol Building, he stated,

Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States that by the accession of a Republican administration their property and their peace and personal security are to be endangered…I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so…

Indeed, he went further than that. He brought up the Corwin Amendment, a measure which had actually passed Congress as a last-ditch attempt to mollify the South. This Constitutional amendment would have prohibited Congress from abolishing slavery in those states where it already existed. Of the amendment, Lincoln said during his inaugural address, “I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.”

So here the man who would one day be known as the Great Emancipator states that he would agree to the perpetuation of slavery in the South. Amazing.

As the Civil War dragged on, many Radical Republicans began pushing Lincoln to use his executive powers to emancipate the slaves. Horace Greeley, abolitionist editor of the New York Tribune was among the foremost. Responding to Greeley, Lincoln famously wrote in July 1862,

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.

Still clinging to political rhetoric. And yet, even as he wrote these words, he was already working with his cabinet to implement an emancipation proclamation. Truth is, Lincoln deeply hated slavery. And he had only to find the courage to act on his convictions and abandon political concerns. Easier said than done!

Back in 1855, Lincoln had written his former business partner Joshua Speed,

You know I dislike slavery; and you fully admit the abstract wrong of it…I confess I hate to see the poor creatures hunted down, and caught, and carried back to their stripes, and unrewarded toils; but I bite my lip and keep quiet. In 1841 you and I had together a tedious low-water trip, on a Steam Boat from Louisville to St. Louis. You may remember, as I well do, that from Louisville to the mouth of the Ohio, there were, on board, ten or a dozen slaves, shackled together with irons. That sight was a continued torment to me; and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio, or any other slave-border. It is hardly fair for you to assume, that I have no interest in a thing which has, and continually exercises, the power of making me miserable.

The true internal conflict where Lincoln was concerned, was the struggle between doing what is politically wise and what is absolutely, morally right. I think Spielberg’s film captures this struggle perfectly. And what I most admire about Lincoln is that, at some point in 1862, he decided that justice should trump politics. He abandoned the Free Soil talk. And he decided to kill slavery. How many of today’s politicians would have the guts to make a similar decision?

From that point forward, his rhetoric changed completely. Just look at the Gettysburg Address. I won’t quote it at length as it is so well known. But he essentially states that the entire reason why the honored dead gave the “last full measure of devotion” was for a “new birth of freedom.” He has gone from supporting the perpetuation of slavery to a devote belief that the purpose of the war is to destroy slavery.

Lincoln’s second inaugural address

This sentiment is stated in even more profound terms during his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865,

If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

So very many historians have contrasted Lincoln’s first and second inaugural addresses. I hardly need to do so here. But I will simply point out that the political posturing of his first address was replaced with a profoundly fatalistic view that the horror of Civil War was the cost…the just cost ordained by God…for the horrors of slavery. Could there possibly be a more dramatic shift in a leader’s philosophy?

Spielberg captured all of this splendidly. Not an easy task.

Oh, and a footnote…Thank God Spielberg did not cast Liam Neeson as originally planned!

3 responses to ““Lincoln:” The Film and his Evolving Views on Slavery

  • navyphoto22

    Great post Patrick! I saw ‘Lincoln’ this past weekend and really enjoyed it. I think it is one of Spielberg’s best movies ever, and he has quite an accomplished list of great films.

  • Doug Lyons

    Interesting and thoughtful Patrick. I enjoyed the film save for the overly contrived opening scene. Another interesting detail was watching Lincoln’s gait. I thought that Lewis did a nice job with that.

    With regards to Lincoln’s views on slavery it is critical to take Lincoln’s words in the context of the time. My moderate amount of readings about Lincoln suggest that he saw the institution dying of natural causes so to speak and certainly with the Industrial Revolution that was indeed going to be the case.

    Ironically I was thinking this evening that it would be interesting to do a vignette of the 22nd Mass Debating Society at a Living History and this would be an interesting topic to debate!

    See you on the field.

    • Patrick Browne

      Thanks, Doug. I agree that the opening scenes were a bit clunky, but I liked that it set the stage with the Gettysburg Address…it’s important context to have for what comes later in the film.

      I am looking forward to the 22nd Mass Debating Society…or Gove Lyceum, whatever we want to call it!

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