Some thoughts on “Lincoln” – the man and the movie

September 28, 2012

President Abraham Lincoln occupies a unique position as political and spiritual leader. The former was attained through the electoral process. His principle intention was to preserve the Union intact; all of it, every last square foot. The secessionist states had previously received a great deal of improvements and military assistance to maintain the social order which, oh by the way, included the routine buying and selling of human beings. One must not get too indignant over the offenses of another generation. President Lincoln was, in the first instance, willing to allow slavery to survive if it could be contained within the existing southern states.

Lincoln was a political pragmatist. When he spoke in south Illinois, the racial slurs flow freely. Up in the north part of the state, the language was much more restrained. Two faced? Absolutely. Devoted to the survival and expansion of America? Certainly.

The assassination of President Lincoln altered his place in history by changing a regular man with the typical faults into a civic saint. Forget that Lincoln raised taxes, imposed a military draft, and suspended habeas corpus. John Wilkes Booth rewrote American history with a single bullet. Mind you, I am not signing on with the bunch of historical revisers that have so denounced the 16th President. Lincoln needs to be enshrined as a great man and national savior.

The assassination can be taken as the last act in a large redemptive tragedy and an atoning sacrifice. Now that is pretty heady stuff there and certainly subject to criticism and correction. My point is that, somewhere along the way,  a pretty good politician became a national icon.

I am anxious to see how the new film approaches this aspect of the Lincoln presidency. History buffs know that, during that era,  religion was a very influential aspect of American life. When the president-elect traveled from Springfield to Washington, it was necessary to stop along the way so that the Sabbath would not be violated. Lincoln avoided the consumption of alcohol in his residence, but it is more difficult to suggest that he abstained completely. He does not seem to be a denominational, go to church every Sunday kind of Christian.

Lincoln’s Second inaugural Address is a theological statement. He argues that the Civil War is divine punishment for the sin of slavery. He quotes the 19th Psalm; “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” For a President of the United States, this is a transformational moment. In this instance, Lincoln deliberately assumes the prophetic role.

Any film dealing with Abraham Lincoln will be lacking because there is no way to catch every glimmering aspect of the enormous landscape of a life. The trailer’s treatment of the Gettysburg Address is a brief disappointment. Daniel Day Lewis is a marvelous actor and he probably gets the high-pitched Kentucky twang just about right. The recitation sounds like something from an eighth grade history class; “OF the people, BY the people, and FOR the people.” Of course, the emphasis is properly placed on “people.” It is not a small thing, but I am hopeful that the film will provoke useful discussion of the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War.

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