The Deep Shadow of Abraham Lincoln
Just saw the Steven Spielberg epic Lincoln.
The performance of Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln was titanic; all the anger and villainous darkness he channeled into his earlier memorable characters Bill “the Butcher” and Daniel Plainview are eclipsed in his Lincoln by wisdom and a transcendent, melancholic grace. The supporting cast was equally strong, with Sally Fields alluding in word and deed to the shrewish madness that troubled First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln; Tommy Lee Jones humanized – probably more than is historical – the implacable political ferocity of Radical Republican leader Representative Thaddeus Stevens; and James Spader added lighthearted realism as Secretary of State Seward’s cagey political fixer and bagman, William N. Bilboe.
Spielberg has done a magnificent storytelling of the passage of the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery in the United States and he has done even better at capturing Lincoln’s towering stature as a statesman. Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is Periclean – in possession of heroic, historical vision and mastery of grand strategy along with an intimate grasp of the granular, grubby mechanics of political deal making and a humane tolerance of other’s frailties needed to make things happen. The scene where Day-Lewis explains to his squabbling Cabinet Lincoln’s coup d’oeil – the real Constitutional, moral, military and political exigencies of emancipation governing the imperative questions of the 13th Amendment – is one of the most brilliant expositions of strategy in the fusion of policy, politics and war that I have ever seen on screen.
In a sense, that was the genius of Abraham Lincoln – surpassing his own humble origins to solve herculean problems without ever losing sight that lasting resolution of Civil War and slavery were going to have to occur on Earth with fallible human beings, operating in a political reality that would never be ideal. The limits of vision of Lincoln’s contemporaries, copperhead and abolitionist, is marked but the comparison between Abraham Lincoln and politicians of our own day is yet for the worse. Our problems are so much smaller, our resources and capabilities infinitely vaster than the severe test the Republic faced in Lincoln’s time, yet our leaders are grossly inadequate even to these.
Martyrdom naturally magnified the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, but even without the assassination he would have still been reckoned our greatest president, one of the rare individuals whose leadership made an irreplaceable mark upon history. If one of Lincoln’s rivals for the Republican nomination had become president in 1860 instead, or had Lincoln not been re-elected in 1864, the Union cause would have failed. We would not be who we are nor the world what it is without a United States in the 20th century to stem the tide of first German domination, then Fascism and then Soviet Communism. The world would be a poorer, darker place and we would be lesser peoples of lesser nations of the former United States.
Lincoln’s shadow is not merely long, it is deep.
November 26th, 2012 at 6:49 pm
Excellent commentary.We could use a few Lincolns today.
November 26th, 2012 at 7:22 pm
Or even a Cadillac. unfortunately, I think all have are 1994 Ford Escorts
November 27th, 2012 at 2:34 am
easily America’s best president. ever
November 27th, 2012 at 8:07 pm
Disagree as to America’s best president. I would place both Washington and Jefferson before Lincoln.
November 28th, 2012 at 1:24 am
I would highly recommend reading Gore Vidal’s writings on Lincoln to understand the strong counter-narrative that exists with any discussion of Lincoln. Vidal thinks he’s one of the worst President’s as he increased the power of the Federal government so greatly…
November 28th, 2012 at 1:46 am
[…] icon for the ages: Mark Safranski looks at Spielberg’s Lincoln and why Honest Abe was the GOAT: Spielberg has done a magnificent storytelling of the passage of the 13th […]
November 28th, 2012 at 2:57 am
Bear in mind, Gore Vidal, like many “men of letters” figures was also something of a crank. At times, more than just something.
The critical case against Lincoln is that he 1) acted unconstitutionally at several points, notably in regard to suspending habeas corpus without an act of Congress 2) did vastly expand the reach of Federal power in American life generally and c) refashioned the nature of Federalism as understood during the antebellum period to a model with the Federal government superior to the States.
My assessment of this case is as follows:
If Lincoln is guilty of these things, he would not have been successful at any of them without the precipitating actions of his co-conspirators – the Southern sectionalists who upset the prevailing constitutional compromise between North and South (1820, 1850) with Dred Scot and the Fire-Eating Secessionists who created the crisis of 1860 by refusing to accept Lincoln’s election and then starting the war itself. It was not like they had not been warned they were courting Civil War disaster for the South by their opponents in their state conventions. Sam Houston, for example, predicted exactly what the outcome would be if Texas voted to join the Confederacy and pleaded with the delegates to at least consider independence for Texas as a sovereign nation instead. This was the case in virtually every Southern and Border state that entertained the idea of secession, except, if I recall correctly, South Carolina. Had the Southern states not done these things, there was very little Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party could have done legislatively to attack slavery and a re-united Democratic Party would have ousted Lincoln in 1864. Furthermore, had Fire-Eaters not been such overweening and unreasonable extremists, the Democratic Party would not have been split into northern and southern parties in the first place.
Secondly, for the same reason, if compromise to preserve the Union had been possible, there were no shortage of anti-Black, anti-abolitionist, anti-radical Northern politicians in both the Democratic and Republican parties with whom Southern leaders could have compromised and “gotten around” Lincoln. Such people constituted a majority of Union voters until probably early 1864 when Northern attitudes began to significantly harden towards Southerners as a consequence of the bloody nature of the war. The problem was the Southern leaders really did want and seek independence and – until their last gasps before defeat in 1865 – would not have considered union on any terms short of unlimited expansion of slavery and their assured minoritarian dominance of the Federal government that they had enjoyed for decades. The Southern leaders left because Lincoln’s election was a harbinger that they were going to eventually be peacefully outvoted, not just in the House but someday in the Senate as well. The economy of the South, based on cash-crop commodity export based upon slave labor was the richest part of the country but the laws and policies to support that political economy (free trade abroad, fugitive slave act, paternalistic economic management at home, geographic expansion southward, no central banking, restrictions on internal public improvements etc.) were diametrically at odds with what the North required for a successful industrialization. They had a package of strong incentives to make a bid for Southern independence by force of arms and argued to the very end (and until today, in some cases) that an independent nation is exactly what the Confederacy was
November 28th, 2012 at 5:02 am
no to both jefferson and washington
November 28th, 2012 at 5:45 am
Much of the blame for the Civil War lies with one buffoon: our nation’s fifteenth (and worst) president James Buchanan. Buchanan is also responsible for the growth in Federal power during the twentieth century: during his time as minister to Great Britain (1853-1856), James Buchanan made the acquaintance of a rich 25-year old New York patroon. Buchanan convinced this young man to become his embassy secretary. Because of his acquaintance with Buchanan, his secretary remained vaguely affiliated with the Democrats for the rest of his life. Though he died at age 72, when the only child of his second marriage to a 26-year old debutante was only 18, James Roosevelt’s influence was enough to create a lifelong bond between his Democrats and his son Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
November 29th, 2012 at 2:35 am
Mark – my only point was to understand that there is another narrative associated with Lincoln that should be understood to have a more balanced perspective of the man. I suspect this perspective is completely absent from the new movie.
November 29th, 2012 at 2:41 am
As Dr. Brooks said:
“MY Friends, May I ask you to linger while I say to you a few words more, which shall not be unsuited to what I have been saying, and which shall, for just a moment, recall to you the sacredness which this day the Fourth of July, the anniversary of American Independence–has in the hearts of us Americans. If I dare generously permitted as I am to stand this evening in the venerable Abbey, so full of our history as well as yours to claim that our festival shall have some sacredness for you as well as us, my claim rests on the simple truth that to all true men the birthday of a nation must always be a sacred thing. For in our modern thought the nation is the making-place of men. Not by the traditions of its history, nor by the splendor of its corporate achievements, nor by the abstract excellencies of its constitution, but by its fitness to make men, to beget and educate human character, to contribute to the complete humanity, the “perfect man” that is to be, by this alone each nation must be judged to-day. The nations are the golden candlesticks which hold aloft the candles of the Lord. No candlestick can be so rich or venerable that men shall honor it if it holds no candle. “Show us your man,” land cries to land.”
For America, that man is Lincoln. Of greatest presidents, first Washington, then Lincoln.
November 29th, 2012 at 5:45 pm
I’m not trying to come down on you for raising the issue – I was just putting on my sometimes unused and dusty academic historian hat 🙂
Lincoln historiography is voluminous (one of my grad school amigoes, btw, took up the thankless task of digitizing Lincoln’s papers forthe state of illinois) and there is a long-established counter-narrative on Lincoln. It suffers because the school of thought critical of Lincoln is not a school but a collection of tribes of scholars, activists, journalists and amateurs with wildly different agendas, some of whom do more damage to their own side. The problem for the critical side in a professional historical debate, beyond divesting itself of the kook portion, is addressing causation and alternatives to Lincoln’s policies and the holes in the Constitutional argument of the Southern states ( while South Carolina freely entered the union as a sovereign state, as did Texas, states like Arkansas and Mississippi were creations of Congress from Federal and not state territory)
November 30th, 2012 at 7:07 pm
I saw the movie last week and agree with your assessment.