Abolishing slavery by constitutional provisions settles the fate for all coming time. Not only of the millions now in bondage, but of unborn millions to come.
Daniel Day Lewis has received so much attention for his incomparable performance as Abraham Lincoln that we have somewhat ignored the other master stroke of this film. Rather than try to forge a sweeping biography of 16th president, something better suited to a television miniseries, director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner have chosen to focus on one critical interval late in his presidency, to show the full weight of his political genius brought to bear on the most critical issue of that presidency.
In January, 1865, the American Civil War is drawing to a close. It’s obvious to everyone that the North is close to defeating the Confederate South, and that leaves President Lincoln with a potential problem. The legality of his Emancipation Proclamation is dubious at best, and based largely on his powers as a wartime president. In peacetime, the courts might not uphold it, and southern states re-admitted to the Union would doom any hope of congressional action to end slavery. In short, the war could end with slavery almost exactly where it was when the war started.
The best hope for making permanent the end of slavery rests with the passage of a constitutional amendment. The Thirteenth Amendment had already passed the Senate but is well short of the number of votes needed to pass it through the House of Representatives.
Alexander Stephens: If we're not to discuss a truce between warring nations, what in heaven's name can we discuss?
Ulysses S. Grant: Terms of surrender.
Lincoln wants to push it through now, rather than wait for the war to end. His own Secretary of State, George Seward (David Straithairn), counsels against, thinking its inevitable failure will weaken Lincoln going into his second term. The President must balance at least three competing factions to secure the amendment’s passage. First, there are the conservative Republicans, led by Francis Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), who want to see the war over and would rather deal with the slavery issue later. On the other side are the radical abolitionists of the same party, led by Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), who would see any sort of negotiated peace with the South, which leaves slavery intact, as an unacceptable betrayal. They are afraid that Lincoln, whom they see as weak and vacillating on slavery, is pushing the amendment forward because he’s knows it will be defeated, allowing him to beat the South without permanently abolishing the “peculiar institution.”
In order for the amendment to pass, they will need Democrats to break ranks and vote for it. Lincoln pins his hopes on the “lame duck” congressmen who were defeated in the 1864 election, and thus don’t have to worry about their political futures. He is prepared to offer them patronage jobs in his second administration to procure their votes. To that end, Secretary Seward dispatches a team of political operatives to “persuade” the necessary Democrats to come over to the “Aye” column.
The strengths of this film are multi-fold. Rather than a hagiographic portrait of the marble man in the Lincoln Memorial, we get a full blooded human being and a consummate politician. This Abraham Lincoln fights in the trenches and fights to win. He’s not afraid to stretch or bend the truth about the existence of a peace commission from the Confederacy in order to get his way.
This is also Abraham Lincoln as husband and father. He dotes on young Tad (Gulliver McGrath), almost abandoned by his mother after the death of his brother Willie. The President is equal parts tender and stern with his wife, the brittle Mary (Sally Field in one of this film’s many great performances), just emerging from mourning over Willie and paralyzed with fear that the war will claim her oldest, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), if he gets anywhere near the Army uniform he wants to wear.
There was some controversy over the fact that, in the film, two Connecticut congressman vote against the amendment when in reality that delegation voted unanimously for it. Screenwriter Kushner claimed that he made the slight diversion from historical fact in order to create some dramatic suspense over the outcome of the vote. As the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment is a matter of historical record, I don’t see his point. The drama of his film stems not from any suspense over the ending, but from seeing how it was accomplished. I think Mr. Kushner may have bought into the conventional Hollywood wisdom that movies somehow need that kind of suspense, but whatever his reason, it was an error on his part (and an error on Spielberg’s part not to correct it).
This movie is based on one the most singularly dramatic events of American history, as well as a book of incomparable scholarship (Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals). This story doesn’t need that kind of help from a screenwriter.