147 Years Later, Lincoln is Still Relevant

[Author's Note: I discuss what may be considered spoilers below, so if you haven't seen Lincoln, or don't want to wikipedia the events surrounding the 13th Amendment's passage, read no further.]

There are two moments towards the end of Lincoln that made me realize why the film should be shown in every high school civics class.

In the first, Lincoln is surrounded by his advisers and they warn him that passing the 13th Amendment at the expense of a negotiated peace with the south is impossible.  In fact, it is tantamount to political suicide. By this point, however, Lincoln is exhausted from all the jabbering and naysaying and decides to put an end to it.  He doesn't want to hear why they CAN'T pass the Amendment, he wants to hear HOW they can pass the Amendment.  He wants to get his way, come hell or high water.  For only the second time in the film, Honest Abe loses his temper and thunders the most quotable line in the movie: "I am the President of the United States of America! Clothed in immense power!" The room goes silent and the point is clear: there is only one item on the President's legislative agenda that matters, passage of the 13th Amendment.

Shortly after, Lincoln goes to meet with the three negotiators hired by Secretary of State William Seward to get the 22 democratic votes needed in the House of Representatives to pass the Amendment. Lincoln not so subtly discusses with the negotiators - played by John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, and James Spader - exactly how to "convince" these democrats how to vote across party lines in favor of the Amendment. Some of those convincing techniques involve bribery, threats, and favors to lame duck congressmen who weren't reelected (one settles for becoming the postmaster of his county).

Taken together, these scenes perfectly encapsulate the thematic bottom line of Lincoln: that politics is about getting things done, even if it means breaking the law to do it. Certainly the film has a lot more on its mind... bravery, morality, how little our political system has changed over the centuries. But make no mistake, Lincoln wants us to see how the sausage gets made, so to speak, and come away with the realization that lawmaking isn't a zero sum game. Just because your bill is righteous and takes the moral high ground doesn't mean it will pass automatically.  It is okay (and often necessary) to do a little evil in order to do a great good. Lincoln certainly believed that during his political life. The 13th Amendment, the largest progressive restructuring of America's social contract, happened mainly because palms were greased, wheels were dealed, and favors doled out... all at the order of the President of the United States (at one point, the vote on the Amendment is stalled when rumors arise that delegates from the south have come to seek a peace. Lincoln writes a note to be delivered to the Speaker of the House denying that such an event has happened... even though it is in fact true.  Lincoln's aide refuses to deliver the fraudulent note. Lincoln smiles, takes the note, tenderly holds the hand of his aide as if to say "I understand", and then gently hands it to another aide to deliver, who promptly sprints back to the Capitol building to deliver it.)

Today, the media saturates the American public with all the ups and downs, and ins and outs of our political system. As a result, we feel like we see a lot about how our laws are passed in this country. We understand that politicians vote along the party line and do not cross the aisle unless they are compelled to do so for a moral reason or because they've been "convinced." Lincoln argues this is indeed the case, but maybe that isn't a bad thing. Lincoln and his supporters have no compunction about buying the votes they needed in a flawed and messy system because they knew that the future of the country depends on the Amendment's passage. And while it's easy to get discouraged by the apparent lack of progress in this country, the film argues that America's system of passing and amending laws is painfully slow by design. It prevents zealots from taking over and changing the nation's social, political, and class structure on a whim. Real change takes a magnanimous effort to overcome the significant political inertia that's built up over time.  The result is this: when that change comes, it's here to stay.

Lincoln knew why the 13th Amendment was so important.  Like a canonball to the gut, it signaled that America was finally on the path towards achieving the heart and soul of the Declaration of Independence: "we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." That's a battle we're still fighting today, but at least we're winning it. Even still, Lincoln doesn't shy away from the messiness of that balancing act. In one scene, he discusses the 'slipperiness' of his interpretation of his powers. In yet another scene, he acknowledges to another character that he has no idea what's in store for the country or it's black population after the Amendment passes. But he knows that this is a battle that needed to be fought, and he was going to use every tool in his arsenal (regardless of its legality) to win that battle.

It's a pragmatic view. It's a realistic view. It's a view that understands morality has a place in politics, but should not get in the way of politics. It is completely unromantic and it cuts against the moral righteousness and manifest certainty we are taught about our country. And that's exactly why it should be taught in our schools. We need to have a much more sophisticated understanding of how our government works. Only then can we get our government to truly work for the people. Lincoln is a masterpiece because it doesn't coddle us and give us the 5th grade version of things. It's a masterpiece because it understands that we can still do great things, even when we do them wrongly.

Greg Kanaan

The [Legal] Artist, Boston, MA, USA