Lincoln the Movie


This note is more response to the extant objections to “Lincoln” than a reading of the movie itself.  I saw it with my girlfriend, not exactly your basic history buff, on a Friday afternoon at the Chelsea Clearview Cinema on West 23rd Street, and was enchanted, like everybody else in the theater, including my girlfriend.  I never once looked at my watch; when it was over, I wept.  Still, the reception of the movie on the Left, not the thing itself, is my text.

The objections from the Left take two broad forms, from the New York Times op-ed page to the Trotskyist blogs.  First, the movie reinstates the outmoded and pernicious idea that black folk had no role in liberating themselves from the bonds of slavery.  Second, Lincoln is thereby restored to the role of Great Emancipator, the leader of a movement rather than a president who was forced by radicals no less than historical circumstances to do the right thing.

I don’t get it.  The first fifteen minutes of the movie introduce us to the black soldiers who fought in the Union Army, who made the difference in the war against the rebellious states of the Confederacy.  As any number of reviewers have noted, the cruelty and carnage on view in the opening sequence—the 1864 battle of the Crater near Petersburg, Virginia?—recall the beginning of “Saving Private Ryan.”  What they haven’t noted is that the two visuals have the same visceral effect: you know these are the ordinary people who died to make you free, you know this was an army of liberation.  The grotesque cinematic parody of World War II, the “good war,” is followed by a colloquy between Lincoln and four soldiers, two black and two white.  The black sergeant has the last word, quoting the closing lines of the Gettysburg Address as he walks away, toward another battle.  It’s a challenge to the president worthy of Frederick Douglass.


Black troops as well as black folk are everywhere you look when the camera moves beyond the cramped interiors the movie forces us to remember, from the overstuffed rooms of the White House, where the personal and the political converge, to the House of Representatives, which is no bigger than the family room of a contemporary McMansion.  When the Confederate Commissioners cross enemy lines to negotiate a peace, for example, they are escorted, and clearly unsettled, by rows of uniformed black soldiers, who simply stare at these exotic growths of slave civilization.  When Robert Todd Lincoln accompanies his father to a military hospital, black men are in the background of every long shot, and they deliver the goods that make the young man calculate the cost of war—the price of his enlistment—as dismemberment.

The suffocating interiors unobtrusively remind us that the range of political possibility was extremely narrow in 1865 even though the Republicans had triumphed in November 1864—the opposition party’s presidential candidate, the former commander of the Army of the Potomac, ran on a pro-slavery peace platform, and made a respectable showing, getting 45% of the vote—and that Lincoln had always to contain himself, to bring himself back from the extremes of emotion and commitment which animated both his private life and his public role.

It’s not a biopic, all the critics say.  I think it is, and has to be—otherwise it can’t engage us in the arcane details of amending the Constitution.  Most of us come to the movie wondering about Lincoln’s role in this great struggle over the shape and soul of the American nation, but we just know he’s no Great Emancipator.  Because we’ve been to high school, we know that the General Strike of the slaves themselves broke the back of the Confederacy, as per the arguments of W. E. B. Du Bois in Black Reconstruction, 1860-1880 (1935), of Eric Foner in Reconstruction (1988) and of Steven Hahn in A Nation Under Our Feet (2007).

So, going in, we ask, was he the charming racist who freed the slaves in spite of himself?  That is why the intimate portrayal of Lincoln is crucial to the movie’s success—like Edwin Stanton, the punctilious Secretary of War, we can’t be charmed by the rustic stories and the easy laughs, not after we’ve held this president to contemporary standards of comportment on race.  We have first to be drawn into the most private moments, as when the father lays himself down next to his sleeping son in quiet, clumsy stages, so that he might wake the boy gently.  Thanks to Daniel Day-Lewis, and of course the director, Steven Spielberg, we are drawn in, and, having learned to care about this private Lincoln, we can begin to identify with his public purposes.


The movie doesn’t ignore or displace the arguments of Du Bois, Foner, Hahn, and many others with respect to the agency of black folk in reconstructing the nation.  But neither does it restore Lincoln to the role of Great Emancipator.

Instead Tony Kushner’s screenplay is very careful to emphasize two cardinal facts about the president’s position.  On the one hand, the Proclamation would have no legal or constitutional standing when the war was concluded because Lincoln offered and implemented it as a military necessity.  Quite apart from its standing at the law, he and everyone else knew it would be at risk as soon as a Congress enlarged by the return of the South was convened—regardless of the heroism of black troops and escaped slaves.  Without the 13th Amendment, every dangerous moment of their agency would count for nothing in the aftermath of war.

On the other hand, Lincoln appears, and portrays himself, as no less a creature of historical circumstance than any other actor on this scene, in the sense that everyone does and says what he or she is able to, no more and no less.  Yes, he is forceful, even eloquent, in arguing the case for an amendment.  But in this movie, he is depicted as more politician than prophet, always saying here is what can do now, so let us do it.

And yet, and yet.  What is missing from this movie—rightly so, to my mind—is what the Left always misses about Lincoln, anyway.  That of course is the President of the United States who dispersed pro-secessionist legislatures at gunpoint, who suspended habeus corpus throughout the free states so that he could incarcerate Copperhead Democrats and suppress anti-war newspapers, who used his powers as commander in chief to make the Union Army the swing vote in border-state elections, who imposed a blockade and a military draft to wage total war against the South.  That is the President of the United States who vowed to “make the Union worth saving” by ridding it of the curse of slavery—not just on October 16, 1854, in his Peoria debut as an anti-slavery firebrand, but again on February 27, 1860, in the Cooper Institute speech that sutures the Declaration and the Constitution,  and that concludes, in capital letters, with a call to arms.

That is the radical Abraham Lincoln.  But of course we assume he was also the conservative Lincoln who granted the constitutional legitimacy of slavery, always insisting that he had no intention of disturbing it where it already existed—until forced to do so by military necessity, as in the Proclamation—and that he would save the Union by any means possible.


One of the wonders of Spielberg’s movie is to call this assumption, this historiographical commonplace, into question, by letting us hear the various logics and scenarios of reunion that could have preserved slavery.  From the movie, it’s pretty clear that Lincoln might easily have ended the war without formally ending slavery via amendment to the Constitution.  He didn’t—or rather, he wouldn’t.

Why not?  Here’s a clue, from the secession crisis.  It’s a letter of January 11, 1861, to a Republican congressman who was wavering, like most congressmen of both parties, on whether to compromise with the South, so that civil war could be averted.  By this time, seven southern states had seceded, and more were waiting to see whether Lincoln would compromise his adamant “no extension” stand on the spread of slavery into federal territories.  He wouldn’t.  To every correspondent he kept saying “Hold firm, as with a chain of steel, the tug has to come and better now than at any time hereafter.”  He meant the tug of war.

“What is our present condition?  We have just carried an election on principles fairly stated to the people.  Now we are told in advance that the government shall be broken up unless we surrender to those we have beaten, before we take the offices.  In this they are attempting to play upon us, or they are in dead earnest.  Either way, if we surrender, it is the end of us and of the government.  They will repeat the experiment on us ad libitum.    . . . They now have the Constitution under which we have lived for over seventy years, and acts of Congress of their own framing, with no prospect of their being changed; and they can never have a more shallow pretext for breaking up the government, or extorting a compromise, than now.”

“They now have the Constitution.”  We can make it ours, Lincoln implies, but first comes the tug of war.  Four years later, as the war this president wanted was waning, the American people had to ask how—or whether—to conserve the emancipatory results imposed on all of them by military necessity.  The president’s question was never whether, always how, but he knew that the people would have to consent to whatever he or the Congress proposed, sooner or later.  How to secure that consequence with their consent?

The scene in the basement of the White House, played out between Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens, the radical Republican from Lancaster, PA—he was converted to the anti-slavery cause by Theodore Weld himself!—is instructive.  Stevens, played perfectly, which is to say histrionically, by Tommy Lee Jones, explains that he’s doing good for the people, not of and by the people, because their opinions are mostly worthless.  Lincoln explains that such radicalism can undermine even the best of intentions.

“The difference between you and me is four to six weeks,” the president would say to the radical delegations that came to the White House to protest the deliberate pace of his congressional and military strategies: “Go out and make me some public opinion.”

That’s the Lincoln at work in this movie—the man willing to be called a Black Republican, a despotic, radical revolutionist, another Robespierre, and, at the same time, a timid, tedious, backwoods trimmer, another Henry Clay.  He was clearly both, judging from just this movie.  Is that combination what makes him such a mystery to the Left?



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3 responses to “Lincoln the Movie

  1. SN

    “Because we’ve been to high school, we know that the General Strike of the slaves themselves broke the back of the Confederacy. ”

    Your assessment of what the consensus view of Emancipation in American high schools is ridiculously optimistic.

  2. Bruce Robbins

    That’s very eloquent, Jim, and it helps me understand some of what I liked about the movie. But it doesn’t answer the objection that kept coming back to me once I could stop being so damn moved. And that is that, in the movie, the abolition of slavery was not a cause embraced by a democratic majority, and certainly not a cause embraced by a majority of white people. You can hem and haw– Thaddeus Stevens on one side, the couple who come to visit about the toll both on the other. But basically white people are pretty racist, which makes Lincoln a miraculous visionary as well as a brilliant political leader. So Lincoln is in the position he recommends to Tommy Lee Jones: trying to manufacture a public opinion that’s not there. Breaking the law out of confidence that in the long run the law–the Constitution–will work its quiet magic on public opinion.

    Shit, if I’m going to go on like this I’ll put it on FB so I can join the conversation…

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