Does the End Justify the Means? A review of Lincoln, the movie.

11 Nov

Last night Mr. B. and I saw the new movie Lincoln. At the Lincoln Cinema. After some pickpocket snagged a bunch of my Lincolns on the subway to the movie. (Within half an hour they’d already spent $1200 in Macy’s on my credit card, which we won’t have to pay for, thank god.) Not to mention my precious cash, medical card, etc. But the killer part was that I had spent two hours waiting outside in the freezing cold to get my new driver’s license on Wednesday—and I only had it TWO FREAKING DAYS before I had it stolen. That’s an hour per day! I actually had had such a sucky day I just had to cry right there in the movie theatre while they were showing those twenty minutes of movie trailers and that stupid ad where four young people are sucking on their cokes in their movie seats while greenery grows around their feet. And of course, everyone else in the entire movie theater had remembered to reserve for Mr. B. and me the very special seats we always seem to get, right in the very first row so that you practically have to be horizontal to see the screen. Seriously, we end up in the front row so often I’ve seen the nose hair of every major screen star looking five feet long. Of course, seated behind us were Mr. Talky and Mrs. I’ll Dig My Knees into the Back of Your Seat if I want To. So, I wasn’t sure if I was going to have the intestinal fortitude of Daniel Day-Lewis doing Lincoln in what was reputedly a squeakily high voice.

However, the movie did draw me in. My mother told me she heard a review that the movie was as wooden as George Washington’s teeth. (nota bene history fans: George Washington’s teeth were not, I repeat NOT, wooden, according to MSNBC–


Anyway, the basic premise of the film, drawn from the sometimes lauded, sometimes shamed, part-time plagiarist yet still reputedly gifted author Doris Kearns Goodwin, was about how Abraham Lincoln did absolutely every sneaky, conniving, semi- and illegal trick he could think of in order to get the 13th amendment of the United States Constitution passed before the war ended. Because he had used his War Powers in a semi-constitutional way to free African-Americans as “chattel” and make them war property of the North against a hostile country, the freed slaves were in a precarious position—if the war ended, his war powers would end. The South could re-enter the Senate and the House and take back their “property”—and the entire war would have been for nothing.

This movie made for interesting, if uncomfortable viewing, because it made it clear how Lincoln wasn’t just an angel, but a thoroughly tricky and at times unprincipled politician—even though the manner in which he himself was treated in the movie was almost hagiographic. I didn’t hear Daniel Day-Lewis squeaking, but when he told tales in his Old Folkie voice, I was practically ready to get out my corn cob pipe and some tobacky to set on the old crackerbarrel for a spell. And yet, it really did bring up an interesting question: If you have to bribe, cajole, threaten, and use truly dirty tricks to get people to vote your way, is that fair? Is that right? Is that who we are as a nation? Should it be as celebrated as uncritically as it seemed to be in this film? Are we NOT a nation of laws? Is it right to protect the Constitution by acting in a way contrary to its laws?

I was reminded of Thomas Jefferson’s discomfort with the quasi-Constitutionality of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, when the U.S. paid what would be about 42 cents an acre for vast sections of what would be the U.S. It was an act that saved us from the threat of Napoleon, and was one of the greatest bargains in history. But it didn’t fit in with Jefferson’s ideals and it was hard to justify. Except—it had to be done. The opportunity had presented itself, and Jefferson could not NOT use his awesome powers as U.S. president to refuse to make that deal on principle.

Ultimately, that is what I think of Lincoln’s maneuvering. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers had shed their blood for our national sin of slavery. It was simply unworkable and impossible for slavery to continue in our country any longer. Even taking the just fate of African-Americans out of the picture—which is a very big thing to take out—the issue of slavery had made further development of the United States impossible. Just one example of this utter deadlock was the Transcontinental railroad, built between 1863 and 1869. This vital transportation line could have been built far earlier—railroads were being built in the U.S. in the 1830s and California was a U.S. territory by 1848. But the Northern states wanted the railroad built through the northern “free states” , and the Southern states wanted a (frankly more practical) railroad built through a southern Slave State route that would not involve crossing the Rockies at high elevations or facing heavy snowfalls. This was especially true after The Gadsden purchase of 1853 gave the U.S. New Mexico and Arizona. Whichever of the two who got the railroad would benefit tremendously, financially and in every other way. But neither side would give in. And so, each year, thousands of settlers headed west carrying their goods in Conestoga wagons and walking thousands of miles—while the technology and wealth existed that would have made it possible for them to cross halfway across the U.S. to California in 8 days for about $65. We don’t often connect these two parts of our history together, but the connection exists. Lincoln was in a position where he had wagered hundreds of thousands of human lives on expiating our national sin of slavery, and only he had the power and responsibility not to let the country return to it. By no means would a smooth road be ahead. Bitterness and injustice remain—probably more than Lincoln could have imagined. But as I think about it, that is exactly what being a real leader is about sometimes—you have to do things not that appeal only to your own high-mindedness, but sometimes have to do things that simply have to be done.  


Writing Prompt: Do you think there was any way the U.S. could NOT have ended up fighting the Civil War?


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