Steven Spielberg’s Film “Lincoln” – A Movie Review by Gary S. Smolker combined with a Book Review by Gary S. Smolker of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Book “Team of Rivals – The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln”
Steven Spielberg’s Film “Lincoln” – A Movie Review by Gary S. Smolker combined with A Book Review by Gary S. Smolker of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Book “Team of Rivals – The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln”
MANKIND WAS IN DANGER OF LOSING THE TREMENDOUS WEALTH OF RAW EXPERIENCE THE WORLD GAINED THROUGH THE PASSAGE OF THE 13TH AMENDMENT OF THE U.S. CONSTITUTION UNTIL STEVEN SPIELBERG’S FILM LINCOLN WAS RECENTLY RELEASED TO THE GENERAL PUBLIC.
We were in danger of losing the past itself as it relates to the abolishment slavery in the United States with the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States by Congress while the Civil War was raging until general release to wide audience acclaim of Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln.
The story told in Spielberg’s film helps us understand what the members of the U.S. Congress were debating, what they were thinking about with respect to the concept of “equality”, and why they voted the way they voted with respect to passage of the 13th Amendment (abolishment of slavery in the United States).
It is important for us to understand why the Congress of the United States passed the 13th Amendment because the continued financial success, economic vitality, social vigor, political strength and the existence of capitalism and democracy in the United States and the world depends upon it.
If you want to understand what is going on in Egypt today, and/or if you want to see extraordinary effective political leadership in action through the exercise of critical thinking by a man acclaimed by history to have been a political genius go see Spielberg’s film Lincoln.
Leo Tolstoy had this to say about Abraham Lincoln:
“The greatness of Napoleon, Cesar or Washington is only moonlight by the sun of Lincoln. His example is universal and will last thousands of years … He was bigger than his country — bigger than all the Presidents together… and as a great character he will live as long as the world lives.”
THE POLITICAL GENIUS OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN
Steven Spielberg’s film “Lincoln” is supposed to be based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals – The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.”
I saw Spielberg’s movie Lincoln and I read Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals.” But, I didn’t see any parallel between Spielberg’s movie and Goodwin’s book, albeit both of them derive their underlying dramatic tension from the fact the Civil War was raging while Abraham Lincoln was the President of the United States.
Lincoln is Spielberg’s version of the “back story” on how and why the 13th amendment became part of the Constitution of the United States while the Civil War was raging.
According to Spielberg:
- Lincoln was afraid if the 13th amendment was not passed before the Civil War ended, it would never pass and therefore slavery would remain in states that still allowed slavery.
- Lincoln was afraid if the Emancipation Proclamation was challenged in Court, after the Civil War ended, a court would find the Emancipation Proclamation was unconstitutional which would mean that slaves that had been declared to be free by virtue of the Emancipation Proclamation would still be the property of their masters.
- Lincoln paid Congressmen to vote for passage of the 13th amendment, who were inclined to vote against it, by giving them lucrative government (patronage) jobs.
- The Confederacy sent a delegation by steamship to Washington to negotiate a peace. Lincoln arranged for that steamship to not be able to get to Washington before Congress voted on passage and passed the 13th amendment.
In particular, Spielberg’s movie dramatizes (1) why is was of utmost importance to Lincoln that the 13th Amendment be passed before the Civil War ended, and (2) how Lincoln went about getting that done, including Lincoln’s willingness to continue the Civil War in order to assure its passage.
Goodwin’s book is NOT about why it was important to Lincoln that the 13th amendment become part to the Constitution of the United States before the Civil War ended.
Goodwin’s book is NOT about how Lincoln went about making that happen.
Goodwin’s book does not raise the issue, broach the topic, or illuminate the possibility that Lincoln might have stopped the enormous amount of killing taking place in the Civil War if he was not intent on getting the 13th amendment passed by Congress before the Civil War concluded.
COST PAID FOR PASSAGE OF THE 13TH AMENDMENT: THE COST OF LINCOLN’S DECISION TO PROLONG THE CIVIL WAR IN ORDER TO ASSURE PASSAGE OF THE 13TH AMENDMENT
The 13th amendment abolished slavery in the United States.
Ir has been estimated that over 2% of the population of the United States were killed during and as the result of the Civil War. That would be equivalent to 7 million people being killed today.
It has also been estimated that almost 25% of the United States was devastated and as a result of the Civil War.
Spielberg’s movie leaves no doubt that Lincoln could have ended the Civil War before the 13th amendment was passed but Lincoln did not end the Civil War before the 13th amendment was passed by Congress because Lincoln knew if Lincoln had done so the 13th amendment would not have passed.
Neither Spielberg’s movie nor Goodwin’s book present any figure (that I recall) of the number of people killed or the proportion of the Unites States devastated during and as a result of the Civil War and/or as a result of Lincoln prolonging the Civil War to insure passage of the 13th Amendment.
People will find it hard to understand what is going on in the movie (Lincoln) because Spielberg’s movie lacks any argumentative structure.
Spielberg’s movie dramatically portrays that Lincoln had it under his control and that it was within Lincoln’s power to stop/end the Civil War before General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House.
Although there are graphic scenes of carnage (scenes of piles of dead bodies on battlefields and a scene of a wheel barrel full of body parts leaking blood as it is being taken from a military hospital to be dumped in a pit), no character (in Lincoln) mentions the price paid in the number persons killed maimed and injured or the amount and kinds of property destroyed or the number of lives destroyed (in North and/or South) and/or of the amount of the land of the United States devastated in the Civil War in exchange for insuring the end of slavery.
That being said, “What did Spielberg” accomplish in this film?”
Spielberg tells a spell-binding story in this film.
In this film, Spielberg accomplishes the goals of portraying the naked ugly truth of the times (portraying how people in the United States thought at the time of the Civil War – people accepted the idea that women and Negros should not be allowed to vote) while simultaneously opening viewers’ minds to new ways of thinking about the concept of equality under the law and the word “equality.”
The debates in Congress leading up to passage of the 13th Amendment portrayed in the film make make it dramatically and memorably clear that the issue being debated by Members of Congress was NOT whether people (i.e. black people and white people or men and women) are socially or mentally equal. Everyone in America at the time of the Civil War agreed that people are different.
The issue being debated by the Members of Congress of Congress was whether people should be equal before the law.
The concepts of “equality under the law” and “equality” are incredibly important concepts which should be brought to bear on the issues currently being raised and litigated before the courts with respect to “Affirmative Action” laws and issues related to the use of merit (i.e. test scores) and the use of diversity (a gender or racial or ethnic quota) as a basic criteria in determining who who should be admitted to elite public high schools, and to colleges and universities, as well as who should be hired for a job and who should be promoted.
At the time Congressmen were arguing whether or not to pass the 13th amendment everyone agreed that discrimination is an indispensable social right.
It was clearly understood that without discrimination of some sort, society would simply cease to exist and very important possibilities of free association and group formation would disappear.
Various scenes in Spielberg’s film portray differences in certain groups which different people belonged to whose very identifiability demands that they discriminate against other groups.
[PERSONAL ASIDE #1: If everyone in society was forced to be the same there would be mass conformity, no diversity. The advertising industry would go out of business. The fashion industry would go out of business. Every industry which sells the proposition that consuming a product or a brand will give you status and/or make you “different” would go out of business, and on and on and on.]
Spielberg’s film makes it abundantly clear that at the time of the Civil War, figuratively speaking, every male and every white person in America clearly understood that a mass society — which blurs the lines of discrimination and levels group distinctions — would be a danger to society as such.
[PERSONAL ASIDE #2: In American society today, people group together. Most people understand that it makes sense that only only those that conform to the general traits of difference which keeps a group together should be admitted to that group. Groups of people in America discriminate against each other, along the lines of profession, income and ethnic origin without raising a ruckus.]
In Spielberg’s film Lincoln, unpleasant facts about how Lincoln got the 13th amendment to the Constitution adopted by Congress are not swept under the rug of imagery or images that try to be substitutes for reality.
The story told in the film Lincoln forces viewers to reconsider Abraham Lincoln’s (aka “Honest Abe’s”) public image by looking at Abraham Lincoln a new way and to see the unpleasant realities of the real operation of real politics created by the real demands of leadership in guiding human affairs.
In Lincoln, President Lincoln explains that it is necessary to pass the 13th Amendment before the Civil War ends to make sure slavery will be abolished in all states in the United States because in the Emancipation Proclamation Lincoln had “freed” the slaves.
Lincoln was afraid that if peace came, slaves that had been emancipated and had fought against the Confederate Army would have to be returned to their Southern masters if the Supreme Court struck down the Emancipation Proclamation as being an unconstitutional exercise of power by President Lincoln.
More than 180,000 black men served in the Union Army, the great majority of them were emancipated slaves.
More than one-fifth of the of the nation’s adult male population under age 45 fought for the Union Army, about 10% of the entire Union Army.
The Emancipation Proclamation
Neither Spielberg’s movie nor Goodwin’s book discuss what the Emancipation Proclamation was about or what slavery was about.
Slavery existed because of state laws, and the president had no power to declare state law invalid.
In the Emancipation Proclamation, President Lincoln “freed” the slaves but only in parts of the United States which on the day of the proclamation (January 1, 1863) were in rebellion against the United States. It specifically exempted from emancipation of slaves that remained loyal to the Union, as well as several areas of the of the South occupied by the Union Army.
No thinking person can go away, after watching Spielberg’s film Lincoln, without thinking Abraham Lincoln’s image with the general public is based on a very successful public relationship campaign having been waged on his behalf which continues to be waged.
President Lincoln took the position that the “war powers” granted to the president gave him power to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. President Lincoln claimed that slavery was enabling rebels of the South to carry out their war, he maintained that abolition of slavery was “warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity” to save the government.
THE IMPORTANCE OF SPIELBERG’S FILM
After watching this film, many people will examine and perhaps reconsider their previous opinion of Abraham Lincoln.
In its own way, the release of Spielberg’s film Lincoln, to the general public for viewing, is as important as the simultaneous publication of the Pentagon Papers in the New York Times and the Washington Post, probably the greatest journalistic scoop of the 20th century.
Although the opening credits claim Spielberg’s film is based in part on Goodwin’s book “A Team of Rivals – The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln”, Spielberg’s film is not about “Lincoln’s Team of Rivals” — i.e., it is not about the men President Lincoln brought into his cabinet after Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States.
HISTORY, MANAGEMENT, SUCCESS, POLITICAL GENIUS AND ABRAHAM LINCOLN ACCORDING TO GOODWIN
Goodwin’s book (“A Team of Rivals”) is about the highly successful brilliant hard working patriotic men Lincoln brought into Lincoln’s cabinet.
It is also about Lincoln’s background and the personal qualities that enabled Lincoln to succeed in accomplishing goals.
According to Goodwin:
- Lincoln won the Republican Party’s nomination to be its candidate for President of the United States because Lincoln was shrewder and cannier than all his rivals. Lincoln took control of the process leading up to the nomination.
- After winning the presidential election, Lincoln imported into his cabinet the eminent men who had been Lincoln’s rivals for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination — New York Senator William H. Seward, Ohio Governor Salmon P. Chase, and Missouri’s distinguished elder statesman Edward Bates.
- While those men were in his political family (his cabinet), through his vibrant personality, gift for story telling and life affirming sense of humor, Lincoln guided, inspired and bent all of those men to his will.
- Every member of Lincoln’s cabinet was better known, better educated, and more experienced in public affairs than Lincoln.
- Lincoln was a self-taught man: “Everywhere he went, Lincoln carried a book with him. He thumbed through page after page while his horse rested at the end of a long row of planting. Whenever he could escape work, he would lie with his head against a tree and read.”
- He quarried the thoughts and ideas he wanted to remember. “When he came across a passage that struck him, he would write it down on a board if he had no paper, and when the board would get black he would shave it off with a knife and go on again. Once he obtained paper, he would write it and keep it in a scrapbook so it could be memorized.”
Goodwin’s book is also about management and leadership; about forging and guiding a team of exceptionally brilliant independent thinking ambitious men.
Goodwin description of Lincoln’s personal qualities provides helpful insights on how to be successful in life, including how to be successful in winning political campaigns.
Below are rules of conduct followed by Lincoln/personal traits which Goodwin opines are responsible for Abraham Lincoln’s success.
- Have an invigorating impact on people’s moral.
- Display dignity and wisdom.
- Have a vibrant personality which captivates imagination and inspires emotion.
- At all times maintain your poise and charm.
- Project keen intelligence, genuine kindness of heart, and the promise of true friendship.
- Put all at ease with an amiable disposition.
- Retain emotional balance in difficult situations. Regulate your emotions. Resist the impulse to strike back.
- A bellicose tone can render useless all the hard work and all the risks you have taken in the past. Project the better angels of your nature.
- Be genial.
- Be admired for your courage, unquestioned integrity, impressive intellect, good nature and genial disposition.
- Be propelled by a sense of purpose.
- Once committed, demonstrate singular tenacity and authenticity of feeling, ambition and conviction united.
- Speak as if people were listening to their own thinking out loud.
- Be earnest, strong, honest, simple in style, and crystal clear in your logic.
- Communicate complicated issues with wit, simplicity and massive oral persuasion.
- Appeal to the moral and philosophical work of the nation.
- Act in the spirit of harmony.
- Accept criticism with good-humored serenity.
- Tone counts. Violent and injudicious speech will ultimately harm you. Do not hastily say anything in a moment of vexation. Anger is the poorest of counselors.
- Intemperate denunciations of opponents will cut short what might have been a promising future.
- Be indefatigable in your efforts to arrive at the fullest comprehension of the present situation.
- Study well, until you can tell a clear reasoned, and compelling tale.
- Study until you know your subject “upside and downside.”
- Speak from your heart. Speaking goes to the heart that comes from the heart. Eloquence produces conviction in others because of the conviction of the speaker himself.
- Speak from your heart. In order to win a man to your cause, you must first reach his heart, the great high road to reason. This is the only road to victory.
- Do things that make your life worth living.
- Be engaged in a sacred effort.
- Impress upon people your purpose, perception and resolution. The course you take must e judicious and appropriate.
- Have others see you as engaged in a sacred effort.
- When you think you are right tenaciously pursue your purpose. But, don’t allow your firmness to degenerate into sheer obstinacy; your enthusiasm into intolerance; or your strength of will into arrogance.
- Anxiety can leave a man unfit for any labor. Intense anxiety is oppressive and almost unfits the mind for mental activity. You must have relief from terrible anxiety or it will kill you.
- An acute self-awareness and an enormous capacity to dispel anxiety in constructive ways will enable you to retain your emotional balance in difficult times.
- Provide yourself with respite and renewal, freedom from care and worry. Draw your mind into other channels of thought.
- Immerse yourself in a recreational activity, such as going to a play or a movie or a sporting event or listening to music or reading a book — to give yourself an hour or two of freedom from care and worry.
- The “drama” inherent in such activities will draw your mind into other channels of thought, will afford you the most entire relief. Enthralled by live drama you will be transported into a realm far from the troubling events that fill the rest of your waking hours. Enjoy literary recreation.
- Avoid irritating bickerrings. A man does not have time to spend his life in quarrels. If any man ceases to attack you, never remember the past against him.
- Do not speak with unbecoming harshness. Pursuing a personal war is dangerous. Watch out, don’t kick over a beehive.
- Make sure you have a worthy goal which is worth fighting for, i.e., to secure an inestimable jewel.
- Leave behind a trial which will make known that you once lived when you are gone.
Goodwin, through the example of Abraham Lincoln, provides the following proscriptions to keep your spirits high and to maintain peak mental health, while you are under great pressure and feeling anxious.
- In times of anxiety it is critical to avoid being idle, business and conversation of friends is necessary to give the mind rest from that intensity of thought, which will sometimes wear the sweetest idea thread bare and turn it to the bitterness of death.
- Humor is the most mature and healthy means of adopting to melancholy. Humor permits one to focus upon and bear what is too terrible to be borne. It saves us from our pretensions; and it provides an outlet for feeling that expressed another way would be corrosive.
OVERLAPPING TAKE AWAY MESSAGES AND FAVORITE SCENES
The messages I found in Spielberg’s movie Lincoln which overlap with messages in Goodwin’s book A Team of Rivals are: (1) Lincoln’s own resolution to succeed was more important than any other thing in Lincoln’s successful career. (2) Lincoln’s indomitable sense of purpose sustained him. (3) Lincoln’s story telling genius matched his political genius. Lincoln communicated with stories, by illustrating the point he wished to make, not with abstract arguments. (4) Lincoln refused to be provoked by petty grievances, to submit to jealousy, or to brood over perceived slights. (5) Modest aspirations never satisfy men of “towering genius” who scorn a beaten path.
Spielberg doesn’t talk about the men in Lincoln’s cabinet.
Goodwin has this to say about what Lincoln offered the men in Lincoln’s cabinet and what they accomplished by joining his cabinet: By calling these men to his side, Lincoln afforded them an opportunity to exercise their talents to the fullest and to share the labor and glory of the struggle that would reunite and transform their country and secure their own place in posterity.
One of my favorite scenes in Spielberg’s movie is a scene in which Abraham Lincoln retells the following story of a personal experience told to Lincoln by an American diplomat about an attempt to “put down” General George Washington experienced by that American diplomat.
While he was a dinner guest at a dinner party in London, England in the house of a powerful English nobleman, the diplomat had to relieve himself, go to the bathroom.
The nobleman host directed the American diplomat to the bathroom.
In the bathroom, actually a “water-closet”, is a portrait of General George Washington.
When the American came out of the bathroom, the nobleman asked him: “What did you think of the picture of Washington hanging in my bathroom?”
The American diplomat replied: “I think it is a great idea to have a portrait of General George Washington in your bathroom. I am sure there is nothing that could make a English Nobleman sitting on a toilet shit as fast as looking at a picture of General George Washington.”
That is one of the examples of the brilliance, wit, wisdom and story telling skill and charm which according to history was one of Abraham Lincoln’s most endearing traits.
Another one of my favorite scenes in the “Lincoln”, is a scene in which Congressman Thadeus Stevens [the strongest proponent of the 13th Amendment) explains to the rest of Congress, during the debate on the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, why it should be self-evident that all men are not created equal. Congressman Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones, brilliantly did this by personally attacking another member of congress as being lower than a reptile.
I don’t know if someone could see “Lincoln” and not talk about it.
I agree with Faulkner, “The past is never dead, it’s not even past,” for the very simple reason that the world we live in at any moment is a world of the past.
We are born into a world that already exists; it consists of the memories and relics of what has been done before. It is a world that has become what it is now.
To be alive is to live in a world that preceded one’s own arrival.
“Lincoln” makes us intelligently aware of where Americans come from by making us think about and become aware of where America came from.
POSTSCRIPT – HISTORY AND CONTEXT OF THE DEVELOPMENT OF NEW LEGAL DOCTRINES AND LEGAL PRINCIPLES
Abraham Lincoln lived in times of dramatic change including the transformation of the American economy from an agrarian economy to and industrial economy. American law changed to keep up with the demands of technological progress.
During Lincoln’s lifetime the United States was transformed by the building of dams and mills, railroads, toll roads and canals.
In order to encourage the building of dams, mills, factories, rail roads, toll roads and canals, during Lincoln’s lifetime, the restrictions inherent in enforcing the common law conceptions of property and of the law of real property, nuisance and trespass were modified and/or done away with courts adapting new legal principles and new legal doctrines in order to further the economic growth inherent in such developments.
For example the exploitation of water resources for irrigation or mill dams which necessarily required significant interference with the natural flow of water.
The construction of large integrated cotton mills after 1815 unleashed such an enormous demand for water power that, as one observer noted in 1829, “in very many cases, only one of many proprietors can, in fact, improve a [stream] because the occupation of one mill site may render the others useless. Which proprietor shall, in such case, be preferred?”
For almost two decades after the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, New York judges continued to debate whether mill owners on the banks of various large upstate freshwater rivers were entitled to compensation for injuries resulting from diversion of water into the canal.
There was fear that ruinous judgments would be awarded against transportation companies.
Under the pressure of damage judgments, American courts began to change legal rules in order to subsidize works of public improvement.
In 1873, The New York Supreme Court summarized the changes that had taken place in the conception of property as follows:
The general rule that I may have the exclusive and undisturbed use and possession of my real estate, and that I must use my real estate as not to injure my neighbor, are much modified by the exigencies of the social state. We must have factories, machinery, dams, canals and railroads. They are demanded by the manifold wants of mankind, and lay at the basis of our civilization.
By the time of the Civil War, American courts had created a variety of legal doctrines whose primary effect was to force those injured by economic activities to bear the cost of those improvements.
In one case, where the state undertook to improve navigation on public rivers through various public works, the New York Supreme Court held that both overflowing of riparian lands and obstruction of access to private docks were noncompensable injuries, even though the value of the plaintiff’s property was considerably reduced.
In another case, in 1839, the highest court in Kentucky reversed an injunction issued by the chancellor, who had restrained the Lexington & Ohio Rail Road from running trains through the city of Louisville on the ground that it constituted a nuisance. The Kentucky Court of Appeal asserted that “private injury and personal damage…must be expected from…agents of transportation in a populous and prospering country.”
The onward spirit of the age must, to a reasonable extent, have its way. The law is made for the times, and will be made or modified by them. The expanded and still expanding genius of the
common law should adopt it here, as elsewhere, to the improved and improving of our country and of our countrymen. And therefore, railroads and locomotive steam-cars — the offsprings, as they will also be the parents, of progressive improvements — should not, in themselves, be considered nuisances, although in ages that are gone, they might have been held, because they would have been comparatively useless, and therefore more mischievous.
That was the legal climate when Abraham Lincoln became President of the United States.
President Lincoln had to deal with the chaos and crisis of a the young nation (the United States of America) at war with itself.
As a result of the war there was martial law in parts of the country, civil liberties such as the Writ of Habeas Corpus were suspended.
Lincoln maintained it was all right to arrest people for criticizing the war.
He told his critics in a letter dated June 18, 1863, that he possessed the necessary constitutional power to criminalize criticism of the war, and he explained why dissent could not be safely tolerated. He suggested that even silence could be a crime:
…arrests by process of courts, and arrests in cases of rebellion, do not proceed altogether upon the same basis. The former is directed at the small percentage of ordinary and continuous perpetration of crime; while the later is directed at sudden and extensive uprisings against the government, which, at most, will succeed or fail, in no great length of time. In the later case, arrests are made, not so much for what has been done, as for what probably would be done. The latter is more for the preventive, and less for the vindictive, than the former. In such cases the purposes of men are much more easily understood, than in cases of ordinary crime. The man who stands by and says nothing, when the period of his government is discussed, can not be misunderstood. If not hindered, he is sure to help the enemy. Much more, if he talks ambiguously — talks for his country with “buts” and “ifs” and “ands.”
That is all part of the history of the United States.
For more information on the state of civil liberties during the Civil War, read “The Fate of Liberty” by Mark E. Neely, Jr., winner of the Pulitzer Prize in History, 1992.
For more on the transformation of American Law, read “The Transformation of American Law, 1780 – 1860” by Morton J. Horwitz, winner of the Bancroft Prize in American History, 1978.
For a quick view of what it was like to be a slave in the South at the time of the Civil War, see Quentin Tarantino’s movie Django Unchained.
(c) Copyright 2012 by Gary S. Smolker