I’ve been reading a lot about Abraham Lincoln of late. A book by William Hanchett called “The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies” reminded me that while President Jackson is the closest historical match for the populist, outsider aspect of Donald Trump’s rise, the startlingly close match for the antipathy and hatred Trump has faced from the moment of his election eerily traces the experience of Abraham Lincoln.
Like Trump a minority President, Abe won only 39.8% of the popular vote but was still comfortably elected by the Electoral College. As with Trump, his opposition refused to give him a chance to govern or unify the nation, although in his case, the Democrats divided the country literally, seceding from the union before Lincoln took the oath of office. Today’s Democrats are without that option (thanks to Lincoln!), but are doing everything else in their power to undermine the elected leader. (And California, the most Democratic state, is saber-rattling about seceding.) Also like Trump, Lincoln did not concede that his lack of a popular vote majority in any way robbed him of a mandate to govern.
From the moment the election results were known, many Democrats proclaimed the election of Lincoln itself to be an act of aggression, a “declaration of war.” Many in Lincoln’s own party—even his own Attorney General—accused him, with some justification, of engaging unconstitutional measures. The Governor of New York evoked the Revolutionary War generation, saying that they would not stand for such incursions on their rights. Constitutional expert George Ticknor Curtis of Massachusetts predicted that the Lincoln Presidency would “be an end to this experiment in self-government.”
Meanwhile, pundits and critics heaped personal abuse on Lincoln, calling him grotesque, a barbarian, ” gorilla.” Diarist George Templeton Strong, whose words are so often quoted by Ken Burns in his documentary about the Civil War, called him a “yahoo.” It was said that fashionable New Yorkers would be ashamed to be seen in the presence of someone as boorish and uncultured as Lincoln; it was rumored that he rejected handkerchiefs and “blew his nose through his thumb and forefingers, frontier-style.” As late as 1864, a New York editor wrote,
“[The President] is an uneducated boor. He is brutal in all his habits and in all his ways. He is filthy. He is obscene. He is vicious.”
Somehow, despite this cruel barrage of ad hominem rhetoric, arguably more successful then that it would be now since the public has more knowledge of the President and can make their own observations, Lincoln persevered to meet the greatest challenges any President ever faced.
While still pondering some of the parallels with today’s relentless attacks on our current President, I watched again the 2012 Stephen Spielberg-directed film “Lincoln,” which was almost unanimously praised when it was released, and which I enjoyed a great deal when I first saw it. This time, however, “Lincoln” revealed itself as an ethics corrupter.
The product of the Hollywood left and leftist ideologue Tony Kushner, Tony-winning playwright of “Angels in America,” “Lincoln” takes one chapter out of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” the one that recounts Lincoln’s political maneuverings to pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. It is a little known story (What percentage of the public knows it? 5%? Less?) about a President stomping on laws and ethics to accomplish what he believes is an essential goal.
In January of 1865, the South’s defeat was a forgone conclusion. The Emancipation Proclamation had been based on Lincoln’s wartime powers as commander-in-chief, but would not guarantee the end of slavery after the war was over. A new Congress was scheduled to convene in December 1865, and because the Republicans had routed the Democrats in the 1864 election, the 13th Amendment, ending slavery for all time, would be easy to pass despite the 2/3 vote requirement. Lincoln, however, needed to negotiate peace with the Confederacy and end the war before December, and he needed the amendment in order to make abolition non-negotiable. Only when the rebels realized that slavery could not be saved, Lincoln reasoned, would they lay down their arms.
Thus even though the current, soon-to-be-replaced House of Representatives was 20 votes short of the majority needed to pass the revolutionary change, Lincoln ordered his party and his cabinet to get it accomplished in January by any means necessary. We see him approving outright bribery, and selling appointments and patronage for votes. This is almost certainly accurate, and represents corruption, illegal conduct and illicit distortion of the process mandated in the Constitution. Lincoln also lies to Congress, giving a false representation in writing and under his signature. even as his secretary warns him, correctly, that it is an impeachable offense.
All of this takes place as Spielberg and Kushner portray it as a great man and a brilliant politician accomplishing a noble deed. A noble deed it was, and also a crucial one: Lincoln was convinced that slavery was the potentially fatal defect of the nation’s birth. He had already sacrificed hundreds of thousands of lives to the end of eliminating it; he wasn’t going to blink at bribery and lies. Nonetheless, the film never clarifies the essential ethics principle that the ends do not justify the means, in politics, war or any other human enterprise, except in the rarest of circumstances, the realm of the Ethics Incompleteness Principle where the laws and rules don’t apply. This was the ticking bomb that will destroy the planet when only torture might reveal the code to stop it. This was dropping the atom bomb so a million U.S. soldiers wouldn’t die invading Japan. Assuring that the Civil War wasn’t fought in vain and that American slavery was outlawed forever was another rarer than rare exception when the unethical becomes ethical in the pursuit of the undeniable greater good.
“Lincoln,” however, never says this. “Lincoln” appears to argue that when a leader or a party is convinced that they know what is best, laws, ethics, fairness and the Constitution itself can and should be violated at will for the greater good. “Lincoln” frames a unique and anomalous moment in American history as proof of the legitimacy of expediency and the willingness to evade process and transparency. Consistent with this message is the film’s kindly portrayal of Radical Republican leader Thaddeus Stevens, an abolitionist fanatic who never recoiled from extreme and Constitutionally dubious measures to accomplish his objectives. He understood and approved of Limcoln’s methods, famously saying after the amendment passes, “The greatest measure of the nineteenth century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”
After Lincoln’s assassination (following five years of political enemies calling for it), Stevens dealt with the obstruction by President Andrew Johnson by maneuvering him into a trumped-up impeachment trial, and after Johnson was acquitted (by a single vote), continued to submit bills of impeachment on other grounds. He was, in fact, the forerunner of today’s Democrats, willing to rend the Constitution and divide the nation beyond repair if that is what it took to achieve the ends he was certain were the right ones. Incredibly (or maybe not), the New York Times review said of “Lincoln,”
“And the genius of “Lincoln,” finally, lies in its vision of politics as a noble, sometimes clumsy dialectic of the exalted and the mundane.”
Bribery, crimes, lies and extortion are noble? Sure, says “Lincoln,” if the good guys do it.
At the ends of the film, we see Stevens (perfectly cast with Tommie Lee Jones) return home with a copy of the new Amendment, which he gives to his black housekeeper Lydia Hamilton Smith, who many believe also shared his bed for 20 years (as the film portrays.) This is shown as proof of Stevens’ humanity and egalitarianism, but that is a cheat. Thaddeus Stevens was a powerful white man who may have had sex with his housekeeper. Black, without rights and dependent on him, she was no more a consenting participant in her master’s sexual activities than Sally Hemmings, Thomas Jefferson’s concubine. Kushner and Spielberg’s conceit that they were as much equals as any old married couple shows what might well have been abuse and hypocrisy as bliss.
For Kushner and Spielberg, as with 2017’s partisan Machiavellians (of both parties) whose brutal and undemocratic tactics “Lincoln” sanctifies, the ends justifies the means.