In my recent post on the movie Lincoln I focused on the question of its historical accuracy. In my judgment, the film gets quite a bit right historically, particularly in showing the complexity of nineteenth-century northern attitudes with regard to the issues of slavery and racial equality. A commenter on this blog has raised a different and very important point having less to do with the movie’s accuracy than with its message: what is the movie “saying” to us?
This is a great question. I would be very interested in hearing what others think the message of the movie is. Many of the reviews that I have read suggest that the message of the film is one of hope, that it should remind us of the potential of the democratic political process to effect great things even in the most contentious of contexts. As historian Louis Masur has written in The Chronicle Review, “the film serves to restore our faith in what political leaders, under the most trying of circumstances, can sometimes accomplish.” I’m no film critic, and I don’t know for sure what producer Stephen Spielberg or playwright Tony Kushner intended, but this certainly seems to be the message that emerges. Not coincidentally, it is a message that many Hollywood liberals would find comforting: a determined leader uses the power of government to push a reluctant nation toward a self-evidently righteous end. With this central point in mind, I thought one of the most dramatically critical moments of the movie was when Lincoln grows angry at naysayers in his cabinet. As they insist that the votes necessary to pass the Thirteenth Amendment in the House simply aren’t there, Daniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln rises to his feet and thunders, “I am the President of the United States of America, clothed in immense power! You will procure me these votes.”
In fairness, I don’t think that such a reading of Lincoln’s leadership is entirely off base. Lincoln was an adept politician who successfully held together a diverse coalition during the greatest trial our nation has endured. More specifically, the movie’s portrayal of Lincoln’s sense of urgency in pressing for a vote on an emancipation amendment before the war’s conclusion is well grounded in historical evidence. And in the end, it is undeniable that our sixteenth president forcefully promoted a measure—the abolition of slavery—that a large majority of the nation’s free population opposed. At the same time, however, the movie’s simplistic message requires a selective reading of Lincoln’s private papers and public pronouncements. Such a selective reading is facilitated by the chronological focus of the movie, which centers almost entirely on the first few weeks of 1865. A broader focus might have complicated the film’s central message enormously.
Ever since Lincoln’s assassination, well meaning Christians have insisted that “the Great Emancipator” was a sincere follower of Jesus. I would never say dogmatically that he was not (who can know the human heart save God alone?), but I will say that almost none of Lincoln’s closest contemporaries viewed him as a man of orthodox faith. The best modern scholarly study of Lincoln’s religious beliefs—by a nationally respected Christian historian, Allen Guelzo—argues persuasively that Lincoln never fully accepted the Christian concept of a God who intervenes in the world to effect the salvation of individual sinners who trust in Him. (I highly recommend his biography Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President.) And yet Lincoln did believe in Providence. In his youth such faith amounted to little more than a belief in a “First Cause” or “Prime Mover,” but by the beginning of the war Lincoln had come to believe in a God who actively superintended human affairs. As the war grew long and its human cost soared, furthermore, it is clear that the president ached to find some larger meaning or divine purpose in the conflict.
Long before the events dramatized by Stephen Spielberg, Lincoln had begun to ask profoundly religious questions about the war. Possessing a logical bent of mind (the movie rightly hints at his appreciation for Euclid’s theorems), the lawyer Lincoln wrestled with the possible implications of the war’s unexpected length and butcher’s bill. Sometime in 1862 he jotted down his inchoate thoughts on the matter, and the undated memorandum was preserved later by his personal secretaries and given the title “Memorandum on the Divine Will.” Lincoln’s memo to himself begins with this bedrock assumption: “The will of God prevails.” In the brief paragraph that follows, Lincoln noted that God could bring victory to either side instantly, and “yet the contest proceeds.” This suggested a conclusion to Lincoln that he was “almost ready” to accept as true, namely, that “God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party.”
Lincoln’s suspicion that God was at work for some larger purpose continued to grow as the war dragged on, and increasingly he suspected that the divine design was to bring an end to slavery. Lincoln understood full well that the North had not gone to war in 1861 with that objective in mind, and over time he came to believe that God was prolonging the war until the North embraced and accomplished that goal. If Salmon Chase and Gideon Welles can be trusted (two of Lincoln’s cabinet members who kept careful diaries during the war), Lincoln privately explained his decision to declare the preliminary emancipation proclamation as the result of a vow to “his maker.” If God allowed the Union army to repulse Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Maryland, Lincoln told his assembled cabinet, he had resolved to “consider it an indication of the divine will and that it [would be] his duty to move forward in the cause of emancipation.”
Lincoln gradually developed this theme more publicly as the war continued. In the spring of 1864, for example, in a speech in Baltimore he observed that neither side had anticipated “that domestic slavery would be much affected by the war. “So true it is,” Lincoln noted, “that man proposes, and God disposes.” That same month Lincoln wrote similarly to a Kentucky newspaper editor. “I claim not to have controlled events,” he related, “but confess plainly that events have controlled me. Now, at the end of three years struggle the nation’s condition is not what either party, or any man devised, or expected. God alone can claim it.” A few months later Lincoln wrote to a political supporter that “the purposes of the Almighty are perfect, and must prevail, though we erring mortals may fail to accurately perceive them in advance. . . . Surely,” Lincoln concluded, the Lord “intends some great good to follow this mighty convulsion, which no mortal could make, and no mortal could stay.”
The culmination of such reasoning came in Lincoln’s rightly admired second inaugural address, a speech that also serves as the culmination of Lincoln the movie. Yet playwright Tony Kushner has chosen to include only the final fourth of that very short speech (the original was only 703 words long), and he leaves out the most religiously significant passages of an address that is arguably the most profoundly religious public reflection ever uttered by an American president. The movie ends with Lincoln’s famous call for “malice toward none” and “charity for all,” but that plea can only be understood in the context of what had preceded it. Echoing the insight that had come to define Lincoln’s personal understanding of the war, the president had told the assembled throng that neither side had anticipated the end of slavery and both had hoped for an outcome “less fundamental and astounding.” Although both sides “pray[ed] to the same God,” the prayers of neither side had been fully answered. “The Almighty has His own purposes.” Since neither side had been fully in step with God’s will, it made no sense for the victorious side to impose a self-righteous and vengeful peace.
I have observed in this blog that history can function in a number of valuable ways as we go to the past for enlightenment. As a form of memory it aids our understanding. As a kind of mirror it sharpens our self-perception. History is also a kind of conversation across the ages. In the midst of our nation’s greatest trial, Abraham Lincoln wrestled with questions of profound importance. We would benefit from hearing him and from wrestling ourselves with his conclusions. For all its virtues, Lincoln won’t help us with that.