Monday, January 28, 2013

February Excerpt: Lincoln and the Radical Defense of Liberty by Olav Bryant Smith

Lincoln and the Radical Defense of Liberty
Olav Bryant Smith
Lincoln Memorial
PHOTO: Anna Fox

On November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln began a speech with these words at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania: “Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The speech became known as the Gettysburg Address. It is widely known as one of the great speeches in human history. One aspect of its greatness is that it re-asserts a principle of American political philosophy as the touchstone of our republic–this principle that “all men are created equal.”

Nations–as opposed to a collection of more-or-less isolated individuals, or individual states–must have some philosophical principles that guide it through thick and thin, and bind together an otherwise disparate population. Teddy Roosevelt astutely pointed to the real power of the presidency when he referred to his “bully pulpit.” Time and time again, it is the president’s primary role to rally and unify the nation around one or more foundational principles. For Lincoln, it was the principles of liberty and equality, and the preservation of a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

I turn to Lincoln in this issue partly because February is the month that we celebrate the birthdays of Washington (22nd) and Lincoln (12th). But I turn to Lincoln especially because the movie sensation of late autumn was Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, with a wonderful screenplay written by Tony Kushner, and with Lincoln portrayed by actor Daniel Day-Lewis. In the first 26 days, Lincoln grossed almost $86 million in ticket sales. As I watched this film in a local theater, twice, I saw a wide variety of citizens (from young to old), wanting to participate in this democratic experiment of ours, on the edge of their seats as they waited anxiously to find out the resolution of a story that was in fact resolved 150 years ago. What was the hook? Why were we drawn to a movie about the struggle between a president and congressional leaders over a legislative action taken during the Civil War? What does this interest say about us as a people? Why are we drawn to the feet of Lincoln once again to learn what it is to be American?

One clue, I believe, is that Spielberg has repeatedly directed films that reveal heroes in struggles of good versus evil. The great dramas of world history are always struggles of good versus evil, though it is not always easy for those caught up in the struggles to recognize their own evil. World War II has provided the backdrop to a number of Spielberg’s films, such as Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. This time, Spielberg has clearly recognized an opportunity in something much closer to home. In his films about World War II, we never stray far from the fact and horror of the Holocaust. In this film about Lincoln, we never stray far from the fact and horror of slavery.

The film begins after Lincoln’s second term has begun and African-American troops had begun to serve in the Union Army. Using special war-time powers, Lincoln had freed slaves through executive fiat–The Emancipation Proclamation. But he was concerned that this would not hold up in the courts in the long run. Thus, a constitutional amendment was introduced, and had been passed by the Senate once, but had subsequently failed in the House. With the closing days of the war ahead, Lincoln was determined to see it through to passage this second time before reuniting with the southern states.

Familiar enough to contemporary ears, we learn of a divided Congress. Deals would have to be made to assure enough Democratic votes to reach the required majority of two-thirds. The amendment had failed the first time due to a vote strictly on party lines: Lincoln’s Republican Party voting in favor, and Democrats voting against. The film thus becomes an entertaining adventure of political wrestling and intrigue as Lincoln’s administration, led by Secretary of State Seward, unites various factions of Republicans and attempts to win over Democrats by any means possible. The movie is great fun, and I leave it at that, recommending that you see it for yourself. Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance as Lincoln has left many of us in awe. Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of Team of Rivals, when she saw the film, said that she felt like she’d seen the real Lincoln.

If you would like to read more of this article in Empirical, the February issue is now available at your local bookstore and online at our website.

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