Saw Lincoln last night.
On 2d try. The 1st time theater was sold out.
So this time I got my tickets in advance. But because I made the "mistake" of showing up 10 mins after "screen time" -- still a good 15 mins before end of the annoying previews -- I had to sit in the first row of an overpacked theater. Overpacked w/ ordinary people in an ordinary central CT "suburban" (what passes for that in CT) multiplex.
The full house burst into applause at end, and the theater didn't empty until all the credits had run out...
The movie was beautiful & moving.
Learning (the hard way?) that so many other people -- ones with nothing particular in common with me except for belonging to the same vast and vastly diverse society -- also found the movie so beautiful & moving was even more so.
A thoughtful friend pointed me to this link, in which a blogger reflects on the movie’s “true North” scene. In that scene, Lincoln implores (successfully, it is ultimately revealed) Thaddeus Stevens, the leader of the Radical faction of the Republican Party, to moderate his advocacy for racial egalitarianism, in order to avoid furnishing a power rhetorical foil for the opponents of the 13th Amendment in the House of Reps. Steven Snyder, the author of the post, sees that as demonstrating the virtue of moderation and willingness to compromise.
His interpretation of this scene surely isn’t incorrect. Indeed, Lincoln’s moderation was an important theme of the film, which shows Lincoln as variously unaffected by or as heroically denying gratification of sensibilities of enmity toward those who oppose him – not just the leaders of the Confederacy, but the Democrats in the House, the dueling factions of his own Party, and even members of his own cabinet.
But any suggestion that Lincoln was virtuously moderate is grossly incomplete—in at least two ways.
First, Lincoln’s “true north,” I’d say, can be gauged only relation to the position of Stephen Douglas, who, sadly, is barely mentioned in the movie. Douglas the moderate, & Lincoln the extremist.
In the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 – when the two squared off against each other for U.S. Senate – the main issue was whether to permit slavery to be extended to the Northwest Territories. Lincoln opposed extension. But the pragmatic Douglas advocated “popular sovereignty” – i.e., let the “people decide,” the white ones, that is, whether to make the territories they were settling would be “slave” or “free” upon admission to the Union as states.
But second, Lincoln was in fact not an extremist on slavery itself—a point that the “true North” scene in a sense sanitizes, since by Jan. 1865 the only issue was basically parliamentary tactics on the 13th Amendment. Lincoln ran for President in 1860 on the same platform on which he had run for Senate in 1858: No extension of slavery. Any extension, he believed, would destroy the imperfect principle of equality that animated the American political regime. But the principle was imperfectly realized, Lincoln understood, and the question was what sort of action was necessary to perfect it. He concluded it was sufficient simply to contain slavery in the South, where it would die out peacefully, Lincoln believed, in four or five decades. It was Lincoln’s refusal to back off that position—no extension – & not any commitment to abolish slaver that drove the Southern States to secede.
Actually, the movie doesn’t miss this entirely. Some of the most poignant scenes in the movie involve ambivalent interactions between Lincoln and African Americans, including a soldier fighting for the Northern Army, and Lincoln's household servant, who lost her son in the War. Lincoln had selected a particular place on a continuum between accommodation and resistance -- one in between Douglas and the Radical Republicans. The African American soldier and the African-American servant, while clearly valuing Lincoln’s stance, both let him know that they were unsatisfied with his persistent, racialized conception of American citizenship. And with more than ample justification.
There is not only complexity here, but an abundance of tragedy. Lincoln was an extremist, Douglas not. Lincoln was right. But he was right even though, as Douglas understood, it is fundamentally wrong to be an extremist on the nature of the "regime" in a liberal democratic state. But it’s wrong to be extreme about the nature of the regime only so long as it is a liberal democratic one. Douglas was wrong—Lincoln’s argument was better—about how the meaning of allowing extension of slavery would itself constitute a kind of destruction of the American’ regime’s animating principle of equality. But Lincoln’s own assessment of how the imperfection of that principle in our political life should be addressed was itself riddled with compromise—not just strategic, but moral.
There might be a correct response to all of this, but I think, but no answer that purports to dispel the difficulty the questions pose can possibly be right.
Holmes, S. Gag Rules or the Politics of Omission, in Passions and Constraint: On the Theory of Liberal Democracy 202-235 (University of Chicago Press, Chicago; 1995)
Jaffa, H.V. Crisis of the house divided; an interpretation of the issues in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Edn. 1st. (Doubleday, Garden City, N.Y.: 1959).
Wills, G. Lincoln at Gettysburg : the words that remade America. (Simon & Schuster, New York; 1992).