Today is Abraham Lincoln’s birthday (he was born 207 years ago, if you’re wondering), and a great way to commemorate the occasion would be to watch one of the best movies about American history ever made, the 2012 Stephen Spielberg film Lincoln, starring Daniel Day Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, and Sallie Field. On the whole, academic historians praised the movie when it came out, and I generally concur. Lincoln can be criticized for numerous factual inaccuracies (most of them minor), but by Hollywood standards, the film makes room for an unusual degree of historical complexity. I recommend it highly.
To begin with, the entire structure of the film drives home the complicated interrelationship between the issues of slavery and race in mid-nineteenth century America. One of the most important things to understand about the coming of the Civil War is that southern whites tended to believe that the defense of slavery and white supremacy were inseparable, while northern whites thought otherwise. As the sectional crisis of the 1850s intensified, southern whites tended to see any criticism of slavery as an assault on racial hierarchy. Northern whites, in contrast, were divided on the matter. While northern Democrats regularly condemned abolitionism as part of a fanatical crusade for racial equality, northern Republicans went out of their way to separate the issues of slavery and race. Indeed, they had no choice if they wanted any kind of political future. Northern voters were not ready to embrace racial equality, even as a hypothetical goal, but the majority, at least, might be convinced to support the end of slavery if emancipation did not seem to threaten the privileged position of whites in American society.
Lincoln makes this point wonderfully in the scene in which Pennsylvania Republican congressmen Thaddeus Stevens (played by Jones) disavows support of political or social equality for former slaves, even though he had long been a supporter of both. The clear message of the scene—a historically accurate one—is that passage of the Thirteenth Amendment required that the party of Lincoln frame the racial implications of emancipation as conservatively as possible.
The movie also illustrates nicely the considerable diversity within the Republican Party itself with regard to emancipation and racial equality. Whereas scenes situated in the House of Representatives commonly pit Republicans against Democrats, many of the movie’s more intimate conversations—in the president’s cabinet room, the executive office, even the White House kitchen—were designed to highlight differences of opinion among Republicans themselves. So, for example, we see Jones’ Thaddeus Stevens chiding Lincoln for his timidity and telling the president that the only acceptable course is to free the slaves, expropriate the land of their masters, and totally remake the southern social and racial structure. But we also listen in as Maryland Republican Francis P. Blair (played by Hal Holbrooke) lectures Lincoln that conservative Republicans will never support emancipation at all unless they can convince their constituents that the measure is absolutely necessary to win the war. The movie does an outstanding job in helping us to imagine just how difficult a task it was for Lincoln to satisfy the disparate factions of his own party and still fashion a reasonably coherent public policy.
Yes, Lincoln gets a lot of its history right, and in a medium in which that rarely occurs. And yet the message of the movie is historically inaccurate and anachronistic. What is Lincoln trying to say to us? I suspect that historian Louis Masur is correct (writing in The Chronicle Review), when he observes that the film aims “to restore our faith in what political leaders, under the most trying of circumstances, can sometimes accomplish.” I’m no movie 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 substantial 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 early adult years 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.