Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln is brilliant. I make that blunt, enthusiastic, and direct assessment free of Hollywood hype and hyperbole. Since last Friday evening when I first saw the film, I have spent considerable time reflecting upon what might not only be the best cinematic portrayal of the 16th president ever but the best filmed explanation of how radically this nation needed to change in order for Jefferson’s promise of equality to take hold in the lives of all Americans.
As I have written repeatedly, Lincoln is one of this nation’s greatest exegetes of the Declaration of Independence. “Exegete” is a dangerous word to use: Exegesis is usually applied to understanding the Bible, and I am not suggesting the Declaration is holy writ. (By the way, this is no time to pick on Mitt Romney’s lack of historical understanding.) It was written by a man for humanity. But understanding those words, their meaning, and why Americans should take them to heart as our defining statement, yes, our creed, is the work of those willing to hazard an explanation or critical interpretation of a text. That work is not easy. Words are all we have when reading the Declaration and Lincoln spent his adult life considering those words. No one quote will suffice, but one that sums up Lincoln’s belief in the Jeffersonian imperative comes from a time when he considered how the Constitution is the natural inheritor of what the Revolution and the Declaration wrought, incomplete as both were in their absence of a full offer of liberty. Sometime in 1861, Lincoln during one of his many reflective moments scribbled some lines on the subject of the course of liberty in the United States, and how the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States must be aligned because they are entwined and because liberty was not the exclusive domain of a white man. He wrote:
All this is not the result of accident. It has a philosophical cause. Without the Constitution and the Union, we could not have attained the result; but even these, are not the primary cause of our great prosperity. There is something back of these, entwining itself more closely about the human heart. That something, is the principle of “Liberty to all”–the principle that clears the path for all–gives hope to all–and, by consequence, enterprise [sic], and industry to all.
The expression of that principle, in our Declaration of Independence, was most happy, and fortunate. Without this, as well as with it, we could have declared our independence of Great Britain; but without it, we could not, I think, have secured our free government, and consequent prosperity. No oppressed, people will fight, and endure, as our fathers did, without the promise of something better, than a mere change of masters.
The assertion of that principle, at that time, was the word, “fitly spoken” which has proved an “apple of gold” to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn, and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple–not the apple for the picture.
So let us act, that neither picture, or apple shall ever be blurred, or bruised or broken.
That we may so act, we must study, and understand the points of danger.
The film is awash in details small and large that capture so much that is difficult to pin down about Abraham Lincoln. If Daniel Day-Lewis does not receive an Academy Award for his portrayal of the president, then the collective heads of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences need serious, serious psychological examination. His stoop-shouldered, wise-cracking, slang-sputtering, introspective, soul-suffering Abraham Lincoln displays why some who considered Mr. Lincoln at first glance a rube only discovered (usually at a high cost either in a court room or the political arena) the integrity, brilliance, and steel in the man. Tommy Lee Jones portrayal of Thaddeus Stevens might be the best characterization of an American politician since Frank Capra gave the world the fictional Jefferson Smith. However, the power of film is not only found in the men and women portrayed, moving and compelling as even minor characters are in the movie. It is in the picture of liberty that he held dear. It is in the dead-accurate portrayal of the United States as a nation where most of the political figures and the vast majority of the nation – even good-hearted individuals who detested slavery – are still struggling with whether they will acknowledge not only the full rights blacks are granted under the Constitution, but the full humanity given them under the Declaration of Independence. I marveled at how Lincoln the father is shown indulging Tad’s goat cart rides through the White House corridors, the only slightly submerged madness of Mary Todd Lincoln (who, frankly, was also shown as being crazy like a fox when it came to matters of Republican politics), and the viciousness of the various political factions in a Congress so hostile that it makes today’s polarization look like an Amway convention. The film is a time machine, though, when it shows how so many were unwilling to even consider “something better” for black Americans, where the promise of the vote and the chance to keep what the sweat of one’s brow had earned him or her was a cause for violent controversy. We have traveled light-years as a nation and we are a better people comprised of a majority of individuals who cannot even conceive of questioning the proposition that all men are created equal. That started with what Lincoln of all people knew best: His Emancipation Proclamation was a wartime move that would not stand a constitutional test. The apple of liberty would not be bruised if the frame was expanded in the way it should have been built from the very beginning.
One final note: Friends have flattered me by asking, “Is the film historically accurate?” At first blush, my answer is “yes,” although I want to watch the film again so I can take a more clinical eye to the plot. One weakness in the movie is an omission: Despite passage in the House and Senate, constitutionally 27 states of the then 36-state Union needed to ratify Amendment 13 for final approval, which did not take place until December 6, 1865. The last state to ratify the 13th Amendment, Mississippi, did not do so until March 16, 1995 – that is not a typo – having rejected the amendment yet living under it because once ratified an amendment applies to all of the states under the doctrine of incorporation.