The movie, based on Lincoln’s biography – Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln written by Doris Kearns Goodwin is directed and produced by Steven Spielberg. More on the movie review below, in the last two paragraphs. But first, let us explore the historical context of the time and learn a little about Lincoln, the man.
So, before I say more on the movie, here is a foray into history, with an alternate perspective. After reading the review by the Examiner, http://www.examiner.com/review/movie-review-the-lincoln-movie-is-propaganda , I went back to Howard Zinn’s “A people’s history of the United States”, to get a sense of how this drama was impacting and unfolding in the lives of millions of ordinary Americans, at the time. The real issues between the two political parties, between the Democrats and the Republicans, were primarily fiscal issues, and not social issues. This was the first social issue of some consequence, that had emerged and it would soon be followed by African Americans’ right to vote and (not soon enough), women’s right to vote. The parties would begin to evolve around social issues, and do so firmly, by the time the legislative bodies were enacting EEO and Affirmative Action laws, under Democrat President Lyndon Johnson. (A point to be noted – democrats championed the cause of farmers, laborers, and trade unions, long before they championed equal rights for African Americans, women, gays and so on). During the time of Lincoln, the parties were primarily divided around fiscal issues. Similarly, the primary issue around which the North and the South were engaged in the Civil War, was much less around abolition of slavery and more around the South’s objective to secede from the Union and Lincoln’s goal to “preserve the Union”. Then you might ask, why did the North seek to secede, if not to preserve slavery? Zinn explains, “In the schoolbooks, those years are filled with the controversy over slavery, but on the eve of the Civil War it was money and profit, not the movement against slavery, that was uppermost in the priorities of the men who ran the country”. And while Lincoln opposed slavery, he did not see blacks as equals and constantly spoke of his approach to send them back to Africa.
So, prominent issue at the time for the politicians, was around class, not race. Lincoln’s political campaign was bankrolled by Northern industrialists, who aimed to hike taxes on the South to fund welfare for corporations in the North. The Northern elites were seeking “economic expansion, free land, free labor, free market, high protective tariff for manufacturers, a bank of the United States”. Zinn. Southern states felt bullied by the Northern majority, and preferred a policy of free trade. Both in the North and the South, lives of poor ordinary Americans were intensely challenging, on account of very high unemployment and high inflation. Trade unions were active and rebellions were common. Racism was as entrenched in the North, as slavery in the South. And conservative Supreme Court reinforced laws favoring the rich. “By 1863, Lincoln had suspended habeas corpus for draft dodgers and rebel sympathizers and the government also opened private mail and shut down newspapers. Working people were attacked by soldiers if they dared to strike, Indians massacred in Colorado by the U.S. army, and those daring to criticize Lincoln’s policies were jailed without trial, with almost up to thirty thousand political prisoners. Lincoln’s iron fist gained him many enemies in both the North and the South. While, from time to time, he did state that slavery was an immoral institution, he clearly did not support granting freed slaves the right to vote or participate in government.
The Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves in the 10 Confederate states, but not in any of the Union states. Lincoln called it a “war measure that allowed free slaves to join the Union Army. As more blacks entered the war, the more it appeared a war for their liberation. “Together with a draft, another form of involuntary servitude, this gave him the manpower to win the war” The Examiner. Almost all other nations abolished slavery without spilling a drop of blood, and yet, over 600,000 died on both sides and nearly half a million others were wounded, in a population of 30 million at the time, during this Civil War. With the nationalist passions stoked, the class issues were shelved and both people in the North and in the South, united behind their causes. As Prof. Howard Zinn states, “The unity was weaned by rhetoric and enforced by arms”. It was a war proclaimed as a war for liberty, primarily motivated by Lincoln’s objective for preserving unity. On account of secession demands of the Confederate States, as the war grew more bitter and casualties mounted, and the abolitionists began to severely criticize Lincoln’s lack of stand on slavery, Lincoln took a firm anti-slavery stand. The 13th Amedment was a masterstroke that while based on strong moral ground, also cut away the financial foundation of the Confederacy.
The movie, Lincoln covers the last four months of Lincoln’s life, as the civil war rages on. Lincoln is striving to lead the Union Army to victory, end the civil war, end slavery and then begin the healing process. As he struggles through these efforts the movie also depicts all the challenges he faces within his cabinet and inner circle as well the people who supported and advised him along the way. Daniel Day-Lewis, playing the title character, Lincoln, looks so much like the photographs of Abraham Lincoln and plays the part so beautifully and the entire cast is superb. The movie immediately draws you into the greatest event of the time, which undeniably altered the course of history.
Lincoln left many legacies, as he skillfully seized the opportunity that was presented. One, he blended the interests of the very rich with the interests of the blacks at a time in history, when it mattered. William Seward, Lincoln’s cabinet minister warns Lincoln, “It is either the amendment or this confederate peace, you cannot have both”. But Lincoln is deterministic in achieving his objectives and attains both the amendment and peace with many political maneuvers. Amid the attention grabbing, behind the scene deals, interspersed with Mrs. Lincoln’s occasional emotional outbursts, and their son’s determination to fight in the war, despite his parents’ objections, Lincoln manages to play the most important political game in history with manipulation, bribery, clever oratory, and stretching the truth. While playing savvy practical politics, Lincoln manages to argue with lucidity and passion against slavery on moral grounds. As the amendment is to be passed, he says, “This settles the fate for all coming time. Not only of the millions now in bondage, but of unborn millions to come. Shall we stop this bleeding”? Two, while being morally on sound ground, the 13th Amendment also undermined the financial foundations of the Confederacy, thus greatly weakening the opposition. Three, Lincoln, considered the principal framer of the constitution, inspired the nation and deepened the influence of the fundamental principles of the constitution. As Lincoln had said, “The assertion that all men are created equal, was of no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain, and it was placed in the Declaration not for that, but for future use”, he was a master at using the opportunity presented to him. In one scene, Lincoln ruminates, “Can we choose to be born? Are we fitted to the times we’re born into”? Clearly, he grew and fitted into the time he was born into, whether by wheeling and dealing or stretching the truth. And so he brought forth the passage of the 13th Amendment crafted from that basic self-evident truth, “all men created equal”.
Greatly enjoyed the movie – I love history movies and I rate it a 4.8 on a scale of 1-5 with 5 being excellent.