I just saw Lincoln a couple of days ago. As a history major I couldn't help but appreciate a movie that not only was set in a historical period, but also stayed close to what actually happened. I do not claim to vouch 100% historical accuracy, however I do believe it was a breath of fresh air compared to most movies set in history, that seem to completely ignore history entirely. And besides, the biographer of the book the movie was based on, Ronald C. White Jr., seemed to agree with the portrayal for the most part. Indeed, he even approved of the depiction of the administration stooping to corrupt methods to win votes. While of course Spielberg took creative license with the feel of the movie and his portrayal of the myriad of characters, he does not blatantly falsify anything.
This brings me to my point. The fact the movie is accurate on the facts, means that we must grapple with those facts. We cannot so easily dismiss them as just the fantastical imaginings of yet another raving director. We have to face the real Lincoln, not the one we wish to remember. We have to struggle with the fact that such an important piece of legislation was passed by "Honest" Abe with corruption and intrigue. Indeed, Lincoln allowed the war to prolong to end it, resulting in more death and destruction, when peace was in his grasp. The fact is, despite how easily we accept that anything "Honest" Abe did must have been justified, it is not quite that simple. We cannot allow our American bias to accept these decisions unconditionally without deliberate thought. I wish now to dive into the assortment of issues addressed in this film and analyze them.
First, it is no small thing that Lincoln's administration resorted to corrupt means to achieve the most noble of ends. In the movie it acknowledges this but clearly trivializes it with its jovial portrayal of the men responsible for "convincing" the congressmen to vote for the bill or abstain. They are running around bribing several members of congress, and the movie, by the tone it sets, creates an impression that this was not something to look down upon. The fact is that the movie draws off of Lincoln's aura of perfection to justify this. If Lincoln thought it was necessary, then it must have been worth it. However, when one draws this line of reasoning further, it clearly falls apart. We might not find bribery a big deal, but what about threats? What if the President threatened to remove members from office by force? What if the President used an "executive decision" to make slavery illegal? I do not believe anyone who reads this would argue for a dictatorship, no matter how benevolent the despot. Then one must be led to question the Lincoln administration's actions. What is acceptable within a democracy? When does democracy end and dictatorship begin? Is the principles of democracy ever worth violating for the greater good? Indeed, the answer may be yes. It may very well be that the ends justified the means in this case. Nevertheless, it is critical we think about this, and not just blindly accept it as necessary.
Second, the movie makes it clear the war could have been ended earlier, if the North allowed the South to keep its slaves. A delegation was heading North to negotiate peace, but Lincoln never intended to hear them out. Again, this is something that all Americans have been preconditioned to accept as the right course of action. Yet, why do we so naturally reject an earlier peace? It may well have been worth making peace to spare the lives of thousands of men. The fight against slavery then could have continued within Congress.
Both of these points of debate are clear throughout the entire war. Indeed, the Federal government could have let the South leave peaceably, and prevented the catastrophic war that ensued. Instead, the Federal government slowly expanded its power to fight the war, and as the war went on, the gloves were slowly slid off until the the art of warfare had degenerated into an all out brawl with no rules. Endless land was ravaged in Sherman's infamous march to the sea. The south was starved into submission by a devastating blockade.
After the war it becomes even more obvious. The Federal government becomes dominated by one party rule, and the Republicans strive to limit franchisement in the South and preserve their power. Indeed, Ulysses S. Grant's Presidency, who was the second President after lincoln, is infamously known by many historians as the most corrupt Presidency in our history. The South was to suffer in poverty for the indefinite future, and the economic plight on many former slaves improved little as they were forced to turn back to their former owners for work.
If your blood boiled a little bit reading this, I am glad. I want you to be upset that I dare challenge your comfortable self assurance that the Civil War was absolutely necessary and absolutely right. I want to make you question if Abraham Lincoln was perfect, and to wonder if perhaps he did the wrong thing. Its easy to rest in the Laurels of victory, its not so easy, to question what we assume to be right. What we have been taught since birth to never question. Let me make this clear, these are not necessarily my opinions on the matter, however I thought them necessary to bring up. Next time you smugly revel in self righteousness, consider the unthinkable, that you may be wrong.