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Monday
Jan282013

"Lincoln" Focuses Only On 13th Amendment Ratification

LincolnDaniel Day Lewis was fine as the President who caused tens of thousands more Americans to die by playing games with a peace offer to end the Civil War!

First an admission or two--I'm not a movie goer.  The last movie I saw, with Sean Penn trying to bump off Richard Nixon, was five or six years ago in a bizarre out of the way rep theater in Montreal.  It was a bad film...I doubt if anyone reading this has every heard of it...but I was fascinated by the title, The Assassination of Richard Nixon.

Secondly--I'm by no means one who idolizes Abraham Lincoln.  In fact, the more I read about him (and I've recently finished lengthy new biographies of William Seward and Ulysses Grant as well as Gore Vidal's old fictionalized Lincoln),  the lower he falls in my rankings of Presidents.

He falls even farther after I sat through Steven Spielberg's new film Lincoln which is getting rave reviews.  "You've got to see this," I was told by more than one person whom I respect.

I've always felt Lincoln blundered his (and this country's) way into the Civil War, that he handled it with particular ineptitude, and that he stomped on common freedoms in the process.

Now, Spielberg makes it manifest that Lincoln's sins didn't end there.  Lincoln, in his zeal to get the 13th Amendment passed (the one ending slavery), caused tens of thousands more lives to be lost by missing a chance to end the war earlier and he countenanced bribing of Congressmen in an ends justifies the means strategy.

No, I'm not fan of Lincoln; and although I enjoyed the movie, I would not recommend it for most people.

You'll be sadly mistaken if you go in thinking it's about the life or even the death of Lincoln.

It's not.  The movie deals almost exclusively with the months January and February of 1865 when Lincoln and Seward were doing whatever it took, including having envelopes of cash delivered to Democratic Congressmen in support of the Amendment.

An amendment, then as now, needed two-thirds vote in both the Senate and the House to be passed along for approval by three-quarters of the states.

When the movie begins, the Senate has already passed the amendment, and Democrats have suffered major losses in the election of 1864, but Lincoln feared that if he waited for the new Congress to take office (remember it wasn't until March back then), the war would be over, and he would never get the amendment passed.  Thus, he needed to sway, by hook and mostly by crook, 20 Democratic Congressmen to vote with Republicans.

I trust the movie is historically accurate; and that's what makes it all the more disturbing.  Remember that last week I alluded to how Seward had arranged for an extra $200,000 in the purchase price of Alaska for the bribing of Congressmen to approve funding.  That, of course, was after Lincoln was assassinated (Booth's colleagues nearly killed Seward as well), but the idea of bribes for votes was certainly not alien to Secretary of State Seward.

This entire movie is devoted to the 13th amendment, so we get more details than I trust most movie goers will want.  For anyone to claim it's pro Lincoln makes about as much sense as saying revelations of Thomas Jefferson's fathering six (or seven) children by his slave Sally Hemmings is good for TJ because it proves he loved (as in had sex with) his slaves and didn't simply oversee them being beaten to fund his profligate lifestyle (a movie based on Henry Wiencek's new book Master of the Mountain, Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves, would be a real eye opener).

As for Lincoln The Movie, I can't imagine it attaining box office boffo status.  In fact, I saw it in the Hooksett Theater complex and they used the room which sat only 70 people; still it was only half full Sunday afternoon, and most of those in attendance were two or three times the average age of movie goers.

Daniel Day Lewis will most likely win an academy award for portraying Lincoln; he deserves it, but some of the other roles were not as well played.  Do we really need an actress who makes us think of the flying nun every time we see Mrs. Lincoln?  That's what Sally Fields did for me.

Or do we need to think of Mark Twain whenever we see Blair, the venerable patriarch, nodding to his minions about how to vote?  Since Hal Holbrook played Blair, that's what happened.

Then there was Tommy Lee Jones as abolitionist Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens; he was merely tolerable because he wore such a bad wig than he looked more like Fred Willis than Tommy Lee Jones.

I'm only thankful that I didn't know the actor playing Seward, so he couldn't ruin the part for me.

Don't get me wrong; I enjoyed the movie; we're informed that it's based on the Doris Kearns Goodwin book Team of Rivals, but if so, it's only based on a miniscule portion of that very long book.

The screenplay for this movie, replete with Lincolnesque stories--the one about Washington in a w.c. in London is especially delicious--is outstanding; Oscar-worthy in my opinion.

Occasionally we wander into areas away from the 13th Amendment--Mrs. Lincoln's spendthrift (and most likely illegal) ways; her fear of son Robert going off to war; Lincoln's explanation of how the war would have been lost back in 1861 had Stevens had his way.   (Robert, by the way, survived the war, and was present at not only the assassination of his father but of James Garfield and William McKinley as well).

The problem is that unless you're a student of Lincoln or the Civil War, it would be hard to follow all these references.  Equally it would be hard to put names to the faces as they come and go; Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles (an enemy of the New Hampshire abolitionist senator Hale whose portrait hangs in Reps Hall) is only identified by Lincoln calling him Neptune. 

If you go see Lincoln, keep in mind that he was a late comer to emancipation.  Remember his famous quote about being willing to free all slaves or no slaves if either course of action would preserve the union.  Remember how he called black leaders to the White House to try to convince them to lead their people out of the country once freed (how Jeffersonian).  Remember too that Lincoln was not convinced that the Emancipation Proclamation was even legal.  That explains the full court press to get the 13th amendment passed.

To the extent this movie shows that, it succeeds, but don't go with the expectation of learning anything else about Lincoln. 

That would be wrong.

Look; up in the sky.  Is it the Flying Nun or Mary Todd Lincoln?  "You like me; you really do like me,".  Sorry not in this role, Sally!

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Reader Comments (1)

Error--I got my words mixed up yesterday. Thaddeus Stevens was an abolitionist; not a secessionist. I corrected it before anyone else did. I don't know why but this was one of the things running through my mind as I was falling asleep. Sure enough; I checked it this morning and I had typed in the wrong word. Bizarre!
I also ran into another State Rep walking over from Storrs Garage. She loved the movie, but then, she's a reader of history. She suggested a book on TR (another President I've never been overly fond of), but here's a great bit of trivia. You know John Hay, Lincoln's aid; he was Secretary of State for TR and McKinley. In the movie, we see him in the background but unlike the other aid (Nicolay), Hay isn't mentioned by name (at least I didn't catch it).
January 29, 2013 | Registered CommenterRep Steve Vaillancourt

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