Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is more than a mesmerizing history lesson.
It’s a timely reminder that racism and repression are not confined to any one period or political party.
At the heart of the film: Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) wants to win ratification of what will be the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. An amendment that will forever ban slavery.
True, Lincoln, in 1862, had issued the Emancipation Proclamation. This–in theory–freed slaves held in the Confederate states that had seceded from the Union in 1861.
But Lincoln regards this as a temporary wartime measure. he fears that once the war is over, the Supreme Court may rule the Proclamation unconstitutional. This might allow Southerners to continue practicing slavery, even after losing the war.
To prevent this, Congress must pass an anti-slavery amendment.
But winning Congressional passage of such an amendment won’t be easy.
The Senate had ratified its passage in 1864. But the amendment must secure approval from the House of Representatives to become law.
And the House is filled with men–there are no women menmbers during the 19th century–who seethe with hostility.
Some are hostile to Lincoln personally. One of them dubs him a dictator–Abraham Africanus.” Another accuses him of shifting his positions for the sake of expediency.
Other members–white men all–are hostile to the idea of “equality between the races.” To them, ending slavery means opening the door to interracial marriage–especially marriage between black men and white women.
Perhaps even worse, it means possibly giving blacks–or women–the the right to vote.
In fact, the possibility that blacks might win voting rights arises early in the movie. Lincoln is speaking to a couple of black Union soldiers, and one of them is unafraid to voice his discontent. He’s upset that black soldiers are paid less than white ones–and that they’re led only by white officers.
He says that, in time, maybe this will change. Maybe, in 100 years, he guesses, blacks will get the right to vote.
(To the shame of all Americans, that’s how long it will eventually take. Not until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 will blacks be guaranteed legal protection against discriminatory voting practices.)
To understand the Congressional debate over the Thirteenth Amendment, it’s necessary to remember this: In Lincoln’s time, the Republicans were the party of progressives.
The party was founded on an anti-slavery platform. Its members were thus reviled as “Black Republicans.” And until the 1960s, the South was solidly Democratic.
Democrats were the ones defending the status quo–slavery–and opposing freed blacks in the South of Reconstruction and long afterward.
In short, in the 18th century, Democrats in the South acted as Republicans do now. The South went Republican only after a Democratic President–Lyndon B. Johnson–rammed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress.
Watching this re-enactment of the 1865 debate in Lincoln is like watching the current Presidential campaign. The same mentalities are at work:
Those (in this case, slave-owners) who already have a great deal want to gain even more at the expense of others.
Those (slaves and freed blacks) who have little strive to gain more or at least hang onto what they have.
Those who defend the privileged wealthy refuse to allow their “social inferiors” to enjoy similar privileges (such as the right to vote).
During the 2012 Presidential race, Republicans tried to bar those likely to vote for President Barack Obama from getting into the voting booth. But their bogus “voter ID” restrictions were struck down in courts across the nation.
Listening to those opposing the amendment, one is reminded of Mitt Romney’s infamous comments about the “47%”:
“Well, there are 47% of the people who will vote for the president no matter what….
“Who are dependent upon government, who believe that–that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they’re entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing, to you name it. But that’s–it’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them.”
Put another way: “Who says people have a right to obtain medical care, food and housing? If they can’t inherit unearned wealth the way I did, screw them.”
In the end, it’s Abraham Lincoln who has the final word–and leaves his nation the better for it. Through diplomacy and backroom dealings (trading political offices for votes) he wins passage of the anti-slavery amendment.
The ownership of human chattel is finally an ugly memory of the American past.
The movie closes with a historically-correct tribute to Lincoln’s generosity toward those who opposed him–in Congress and on the battlefield. It occurs during Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address:
“With malice toward none, with charity for all….To bind up the nation’s wounds. To care for him who shall have bourne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan….”
This ending presents a vivid philosophical contrast with the increasingly mean-spirited rhetoric and policies of 2016’s Republican candidates for President–especially those of Donald Trump.
Watching Lincoln, you realize how incredibly lucky America was as a nation to have had such leadership when it was most urgently needed.