I finally got the chance to see Steven Spielberg's award-winning Lincoln the other night. How could a dyed in the wool politico wait so long to see such a seminally political movie? Sue me, I'm busy.
Anyway, there's much to recommend the film: production design, cinematography, and yes, the tremendous performances. But this is not a film review blog, although I do have one of those, for these purposes let's focus on the politics the film explores.
The focus of Lincoln is predominantly on the passing of the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the measure that effectively, and legally, eliminated slavery in the United States. With the Civil War nearing its end, there was concern amongst abolitionists that President Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, which declared all slaves in rebel territories freed, was only valid as a measure under Lincoln's emergency war powers. When the war was over, any slaves declared free may find themselves enslaved again. So enshrining the freedom of African-Americans across the entirety of the United States was a priority.
Now this is where history and legend sort of depart ways. Legend invokes a kind of purity, the mission was to grant freedom to African-Americans, a long overdue measure that the U.S. had been inching towards for the better part of the 19th century, but the slavery stronghold of the southern U.S. insisted that it was a vital part of their economy. This is where the very motives of the Civil War get murky too, as the war was framed more as a war against slavery as it wore on, in the beginning it was more about state's rights, even if that right was the right to own slaves.
The reality of the passing of the 13th amendment, as it was portrayed in the movie, was more political. Following the 1864 election, the Democrats suffered considerable losses in the House of Representatives. Lincoln decided in January 1865 to set his Congressional allies the goal of passing the 13th amendment in a lame duck session. This came just a couple of months after the 13th amendment failed to pass through Congress, so what was Lincoln's urgency in getting the amendment passed just weeks before a new Congress? In short, because it would be easier to buy off Congressman about to be out of a job than convince a new class to give their vote freely on a controversial bill.
Of course, "buying-off" one doesn't mean with money, but with choice, lucrative government jobs. It wouldn't be the first time politicians in the House would be persuaded to vote a certain way to secure post-political work, but it's not something we typically identify with "Honest Abe." In the film, we see the lobbyists (played by James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson and John Hawkes) hawkishly look for weak Democrats to exploit from the public gallery as the debate over the 13th amendment rages. The lobbyists are sometimes aggressive in their tactics, and while this sometimes creates some comedy in the film, if they were lobbyists for the banking industry or big pharma in the 21st century, we'd call it borderline criminal.
The balance of Lincoln's struggle in getting the 13th amendment passed was his own party. The Republicans, at the time still a young party, was a big tent made up of abolitionists and nationalists, who didn't all necessarily agree on the aims and goals of the war. To those who leaned to nationalism, freeing the slaves via constitutional amendment was a provocation, a slap in the face to the seceded states who would already be facing an uphill battle reintegrating during Reconstruction. Which is why that portion of the party had to be appeased with, at least, the appearance of outreach to the Confederates.
At the instance of Francis Preston Blair, one of the founders of the Republican Party, Lincoln invited an entourage of Confederate delegates to Washington after some initial schmoozing by Blair himself. Lincoln made the negotiators cool their heels with an overly long journey to the capital as he bought time for the passing of the 13th amendment. Any word leaked that Lincoln was pursuing peace outside of all-out defeat of the rebel states could have scuttled the wider Republican support for the amendment, and when word did leak, Lincoln did the only thing he could: deny everything. That's right, Honest Abe lied to Congress. Well, lying is a bit strong. He did say that he was not aware of any peace envoy in Washington, and that was true. The envoy was outside Washington waiting for Lincoln to give them the honour of his presence.
What I take from all this is an appreciation for politics, and for the fact that as screwed up as we think we are politically, maybe we're not so screwed up. I think these are still hyper-partisan times, and I think that both the government and the media lack the will to thoroughly pursue the important matters of the day and instead try and curry favour with trivia and nonsense, but in the broader sense, in that politics themselves have a bad name, they do not always have bad ends. If man as revered as Abraham Lincoln could play the game, play it well, and score an important victory for human rights in the process, then maybe it's not the game we hate, but the players. Or the way it's played. The game can still be played well if we have the will to play it.