Not So Honest Abe

The New York Times began Disunion, a blog on their website telling the story of the Civil War as it unfolded 150 years ago. The title of its first entry, Will Lincoln Prevail?, is a question Oscar-watchers will be asking themselves, now that Argo has emerged the firm frontrunner with Best Picture victories at the Golden Globes, the Screen Actor Guild Awards and even — horror of horrors — the BAFTAs. The questions the blogpost asked, however, were more important than mere awards season punditry: could the Illinois lawyer take advantage of a fractured Democratic field and become the first ever Republican President? And how would the southern states react to a candidate from an anti-slavery party in the White House?
The answers, of course, are known. However, what the blog managed to do was dispell some of the notions about Abraham Lincoln being an unbridled idealist. His election victory, after all, was predicated on winning New York, where competing gangs of armed hoodlums assaulted and intimidated voters in scenes that would not be out of place in Indian elections today. Neither was he unambiguously against slavery: he constantly avoided taking a public position on the issue, repeatedly leaving the question to the states. The sense one gets from a deeper reading of the Civil War is that Lincoln — like that other Illinois lawyer elected to the White House 148 years later — was a committed pragmatist who couched his pragmatism in the high idealism of his speeches.
It is that pragmatism that Steven Spielberg taps into in his masterful biopic, which finally released in India last week. The film deals with the passage of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution that rendered slavery illegal, “the greatest measure of the 19th Century; passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America”, as abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Jones) puts it. The national myth about Lincoln says that he freed the slaves with a stroke of his pen, through the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Reading Disunion today, 150 years after the proclamation came into effect, shows that the proclamation, a wartime measure, did not effectively do much. “It’s hard to say,” writes James Oakes on its impact, “because the significance of that document has always been obscured by both myth and cynicism — either it freed all the slaves, or it didn’t free a single one — so much so that 150 years after it was issued we still cannot answer the simplest but most important question: what did the Emancipation Proclamation actually do?”
Lincoln’s solution was a Constitutional amendment that required a two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives. To secure the votes necessary, he did not use, as one would expect, inspirational speeches, preferring instead to procure them in exchange for government posts in his upcoming second term. Lincoln’s antithesis in the film, the thundering idealist Stevens, despite his personal distaste for “Lincoln the inveterate dawdler, Lincoln the Southerner, Lincoln the capitulating compromiser, our adversary, and leader of the Godforsaken Republican Party, our party”, finds that he must compromise as well in order to get the amendment passed. The most powerful moment in the film is when he is forced to say that he is not in favour of equality in all things, but only in equality before the law. But even though he uses underhanded means (to great comedic effect), one never finds oneself bristling with self-righteous anger. Daniel Day Lewis’ brilliance in the role plays no little part, but the fact is that Lincoln’s corruption humanises him in the same way that reading about Nelson Mandela’s political machinations and acceptance to compromise in No Easy Walk to Freedom humanised Mandela.