My students know that even my love for teaching Massachusetts Politics pales before my love for teaching The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln. So I saw Lincoln the day of its release. The film is accurate on many levels, including the portrayal of the politics of getting the amendment through, the relationship of the president to the co-equal branch of Congress, and the divisions within even a dominant political party that make measures difficult to pass. Let me briefly say something about two matters: Lincoln’s constitutionalism and the tension between Lincoln and radical abolitionist Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens.
Lincoln is considered by some as a great transgressor of constitutional principles but many scholars, including me, recognize the nuance in his approach. The film portrays Lincoln correctly as concerned with the fate of emancipation. He had good reason. The Emancipation Proclamation was a very limited document and did not apply to states or localities not in rebellion. Slaves in such places were untouched by the Proclamation. Lincoln had limited constitutional power to infringe on the constitutionally protected property rights of the slave holders. Consider his explanation of that power in the Emancipation Proclamation:
Now, therefore I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief, of the Army and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion,
As the film portrays, Lincoln knew that his power would diminish at the war’s end. The Supreme Court might even declare the Proclamation a violation of the constitutional rights of the states. So the 13th Amendment was essential. But this derives from Lincoln’s constitutionalism.
I also enjoyed the tension between Lincoln’s precise and measured drive for an amendment abandoning slavery and Congressman Steven’s wish for a declaration of the full equality of African Americans. The Stevens position is no doubt more morally satisfying. But as Lincoln knew it would also destroy any chance for the passage of the amendment. Lincoln was fully conscious of the moral tragedy of slavery (read his Second Inaugural) but was also aware of the necessities of working within what the political system could be pushed to tolerate. The many dimensions of Lincoln make the study of him as thinker, politician, party leader, strategist, military leader (we could go on and on) – so much fun.
Professor Seth Masket at Mischiefs of Faction rates Lincoln as likely the best movie about the presidency ever made in Finally, a good film on the presidency. Read it for Prof. Masket’s views on the virtues of the film from a political science perspective. The post is very good.