The profoundly impressive “Lincoln” movie, now in theaters, will long endure as a major contributor to the national and global project in the perfection of democracy. It stands out from countless outstanding cinematic achievements for exactly this particular reason.
It was not an attempt at historical revision or the outlandish, it was not Lincoln as a vampire hunter or, for that matter, as one of those stoic hand-painted plastic figurines (I used to have a complete set of those) whose impact on history is reduced to lists of dates and events.
In the years following Lincoln’s death, there were countless accounts of his life and work, many of which were highly partisan and polemical. He was revered, and had many great enemies, as well. Most of his biographers brought their respective slants to their work, honing skills in subtlety in the process.
One of the most corrupting images of Lincoln was that as a folksy caricature akin to someone’s jolly old granddad, tall and clumsy, cartoonish and almost goofy. This perhaps unintentional effort to denigrate a giant of a spirit and a tireless leader has diminished us all.
But the “Lincoln” movie begins to remedy that, and maybe for all time going forward. It took the efforts of a truly serious historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin, a brilliant screen writer, Tony Kushner, a remarkable director, Steven Spielberg, and some superb acting to bring out something I can, for all my studies of Lincoln, agree is more akin to what he actually was.
He was a philosopher, a poet, a stinging wit, a man willing to stand his ground on moral principle against all odds, an ultimate humanitarian, on the one hand, and willing to accept the burden of prosecuting a war that would take a half-million American lives, on the other.
His famous Gettysburg Address that most young Americans used to memorize was pure and ennobling poetry, a clear record of the music that emitted from the deepest soul of this man.
In his first inaugural address in March 1861, his poetic eloquence issued forth in an appeal to avoid a civil war. “We must not be enemies,” he concluded. “Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
The “better angels of our nature” was something he was uniquely gifted to see in the souls of all persons, friends and enemies, regardless of race, ethnicity, creed, and all the other superficial divisions among us. That informed his resolute opposition to slavery.
But Lincoln did much more than end slavery and restore the Union, which were the focus of the “Lincoln” movie.
In the four short years of his presidency, Abraham Lincoln set the course for the nation’s greatest period of opportunity and economic growth in its history. Four achievements that he signed into law did this, all aimed at empowering the average American, including floods of immigrants who became the backbone that made the world’s first true democracy also into its strongest one.
The four initiatives were the Railroad Act, the Homestead Act, the Land Grant College Act and the Greenback Currency Act.
The extent to which these initiatives used the power of government to provide the infrastructure and education enabling the fullest fruits of the Industrial Revolution to transform the nation would horrify present-day anti-government Republicans.
Over the half-century following Lincoln, industrial giants who became the beneficiaries of his “American System” economic initiatives could not contain their lust for profit, smothering their own “better angels” and those of the victims of their exploitation, as well. It took a rising labor movement to curb their excesses as the Republican and Democratic parties began to reverse their roles.
So FDR’s “New Deal” initiatives became the truest incarnation of the Lincoln legacy, as important a lesson to learn from studying Honest Abe as the poignant one the “Lincoln” movie provides.