By John Reynolds
Lincoln: the guy on the copper penny; self-taught student of Shakespeare and the Bible; rail-splitter, backwoods lawyer; jokester with a crazy-assed wife; 16th president of the United States and preserver of the Union; said a few words at Gettysburg and turned out to be the most quoted American in history; the subject of 14,000 books, hitting the big time when one was made into a Hollywood movie. And if he were still alive, he'd be on Oprah.
I picked up the DVD at the library last week. Being the movie came out in 2012, I figured
The movie showed how Lincoln was able to buy and persuade votes in order to pass the 13th Amendment which freed the slaves, while also trying to end the bloody war and minimize the carnage, which up to that point cost the North and South 600,000 lives. Hollywood stresses the ending of slavery – the feel-good story of righting the wrongs caused by the slave economy, and of the equality of all people – and minimizies the role that states rights and the economic-political-cultural struggle between the industrial North and the agrarian South played in the Civil War.
Daniel Day-Lewis captured the essence of Lincoln: the awkward, stooped gait; the high pitched western twang; the folksy humor and political shrewdness; and his moral strength in the face of great adversity – the American experiment in democracy was failing and the country was breaking apart. He battled members of his own party, the Northern abolitionists who thought he was too soft on the seceding South, and the moderates who thought he could end the War sooner by negotiating with the South. He was called an uncouth hick by Ivy League Republicans, and worse by the rival Democrats who thought he was wasting too many lives in a War instigated by the abolitionists. Southerners would have lynched him on the spot.
At the beginning of the War, for two years, he received nothing but bad news from the front in Virginia. His Generals were getting whipped by the Confederate Army led by Robert E. Lee, and when he came home at night after a hard day at the office, he faced his biggest battle with his wife who was losing her mind, going on shopping sprees to decorate the White House. Through it all, he held it together, along with his family and the country.
His wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, was played by Sally Field who did a great job portraying the self-pitying, border state aristocrat who was going through a mental breakdown, losing a young son at the beginning of the War, and cracking up as the War dragged on and the criticism of her husband mounted as the dead bodies piled up.
The self-righteous, abolitionist Republican, Thaddeus Stevens was played by Tommy Lee Jones, who also put in a fine performance. After Lincoln was assassinated, the vindictive radicals like Stevens took over, and for ten years during reconstruction, exacted severe retribution from the conquered South which took over one hundred years to redress, delaying the reconciliation between the North and South. If Lincoln would have lived, I believe reconciliation would have taken two generations.
The best scenes in the movie were on the floor of Congress where the Democrats and Republicans were debating whether ending slavery or the War was more important. The rhetoric was running at full throttle, and watching the verbal sparing between those connoisseurs of caustic wit was worth the price of admission.
I give Lincoln two thumbs up and the radical Republicans like Stevens the finger for causing unnecessary loss of life and bitterness between the North and South for over a hundred years after the War, from Reconstruction to the Civil Rights movement, and beyond.