After the brutally long season of political campaigning where standards of truth-telling were constantly butchered and ignored, I hoped that spending 2 1/2 hours soaking in Steven Spielberg’s movie about “Honest Abe” would purge some of the cynicism about American politics from my soul. I watched the movie in a crowded Texas theater and during the previews, wondered what it would be like to watch Lincoln in a location where many are actively petitioning to secede from the union and some still seem to be fighting the Civil War--er “War of Northern Aggression.” How uncomfortable would this experience be for them? Would they boo when the slaves were freed or cheer when Lincoln was assassinated? Did they know what they were getting into?
As the plot unfolded, it didn’t take long to realize that I didn’t know what I was getting into, that with every frame of the movie I was growing more and more uneasy and disillusioned with my hero. I had known that our 16th president wasn’t a consistent champion of racial equality. He had even remarked that if he could save the union without freeing a single slave, he’d do it. But that was never a real option. What I knew was that despite his misgivings he ended up on the right side of history and did the right thing when it counted the most and paid the ultimate price for it.
The film hit me in the gut with images of Lincoln intentionally misleading congress, orchestrating a scheme to bribe representatives with government positions to pass the 13th amendment, which freed the slaves. The sense of corruption was palpable. At several points, I yearned for the “better angels” of Abraham Lincoln’s character to rise up and show him a better path but at every point he doubles-down, using every trick up his sleeve. He comes across as being as shrewd and calculating as Michael Corleone from The Godfather. Despite his innate humility, he realizes that as president he is “clothed with immense power” and he intends to use it. Spielberg casts the dirty tricks as comic relief within the darkness of the time, but it was more nauseating than funny.
Do the Ends Justify the Means?
I know of no credible ethical system which suggests that the ends justify the means. Eventually one goes too far, falling into the delusion that one is beyond the law, beyond the normal rules of ethics. In our time, any politician caught doing what Lincoln did would not only get kicked out of office, he or she would rightly spend time behind bars. Yet, the hard truth is that Lincoln was right. History opened one small window of opportunity in which to pass the amendment prior to the war’s end. If he hadn’t employed sleazeball tactics, he never would have passed the amendment. All subsequent efforts for civil rights and equality rest on the foundation of the amendment to free the slaves. I cannot imagine how worse our history would be without passage of that amendment.
Maybe the point of the movie is to say: grow up. This happens all the time, it’s how legislation always gets passed. Even the most noble legislation that we’ve ever passed only occurred because our most revered president got down in the mud and played to the worst elements of human nature. If the old School House Rock commercial showed how a bill really becomes a law, it would have been banned from children’s programming. Yet we have this ideal, this notion that it could be better, it should be better and we should always strive to “perfect our union.”
The Moral Arc of the Universe
Martin Luther King Jr. said that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice. Over time, change gets made and we improve--justice works its way into our lives. It’s the grand hope that we must have to affect change. Sometimes we fail to act because we know our actions are flawed; our intentions aren’t perfect, we benefit from the labors of someone else, we “reap where we did not sow.” Lincoln and King are woven together because of Lincoln’s choice to use his political schemes--they bent the arc. The real question that comes to us when we see our reflections in that arc is: what will we do? Will we have the courage to act?
The essence of the entire movie is spoken by Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) when he says that the most liberating constitutional amendment in history had been “passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.” After watching his methods for 2 and 1/2 hours, “pure” isn’t the first word that comes to mind. His purity wasn’t a moral purity; it was more about his intention to do what he felt was right for the country--no matter what it cost.
As a society, we keep putting people on pedestals where they cannot possibly remain. No one is that good, not even Lincoln. Yes, he accomplished one of the most important triumphs in for the history of humanity, but he also employed morally repugnant means to accomplish this feat. We know there are no perfect people; so why does it hurt so much when we take a peek behind the curtain and see our idols as they really are?
In the movie, Lincoln wishes he could travel to the holy land to walk where David and Solomon walked. It was an interesting twist to remind us of these two biblical heroes who were fundamentally flawed. As my seminary professor said the Bible shows us these men “warts and all.” Scripture doesn’t shy away from revealing that David committed adultery and murder and Solomon subjugated his own people into slavery. Similarly, our history does not need to deify Lincoln, pretending his only wart was on his upper lip. We can walk away from more honest presentations of him still feeling inspired to do what we can to bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice.