Lincoln: A Roll-Call Vote as High Art

In his review of “Lincoln” last weekend, New York Times critic A.O. Scott began by noting the “paradox that American movies – a great democratic art form, if ever there was one – have not done a very good job of representing American democracy … The squalor and vigor, the glory and corruption of the Republic in action have all too rarely made it onto the big screen.” Scott’s assessment is that Lincoln is an exception. (To avoid ambiguity, I will use Lincoln to refer to the movie rather than the man.)

I agree with Scott’s overall observation and his evaluation of Lincoln. I will consider, initially, the nature of Lincoln’s depiction of the political process, and, ultimately, the type of political fable it represents.

Lincoln is presented as being based in part on Doris Kearn’s book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Team of Rivals dwells on Abraham Lincoln’s political courage in choosing a cabinet consisting of his political rivals, and his managerial skill in inducing his cabinet to function as a team, rather than, to quote Yes Minister, as “a loose confederation of warring tribes.” But the movie Lincoln devotes much less attention to President Lincoln’s cabinet than to one critical roll-call vote in the House of Representatives.

The issue was ratification of the thirteenth amendment to the constitution, which would unambiguously abolish slavery. President Lincoln felt the amendment was necessary because the Emancipation Proclamation might be interpreted as strictly a wartime measure. By January 1865, when the amendment was being considered, the Confederacy had sent a delegation to negotiate an end to the war. Recognizing that the delegation would attempt in the negotiations to preserve slavery and that support for abolition would wane after the war ended, President Lincoln chose to ignore the southern delegation and to prolong the war and its suffering to achieve the principle for which the war had been fought.

The movie focused on the tactics used by President Lincoln, his cabinet and advisers, and the abolitionist leaders in the House of Representatives to win the necessary supermajority of two-thirds of those voting.

Some votes were won by patronage, for example promises of government positions made by President Lincoln’s advisers to lame-duck representatives. But patronage would not win all the necessary votes, and the president had to approach some representatives to argue his case on its merits.

A roll-call vote demands legislative debate, and Lincoln depicts a great deal of it. The abolitionist leaders, to win the votes of some representatives who were concerned about how the ending of slavery would transform American society, had to greatly restrict their stated vision. Thus, Rep. Thaddeus Stevens deprived the supporters of slavery of verbal ammunition by affirming that the amendment established no more than equality before the law for blacks.

The roll-call vote shows many Congressmen who had made their decisions (or their deals) in advance and calmly announce their choices. A few others were wrestling with their consciences right up to the moment of voting, and cast their votes under great duress, and are seen by their colleagues as either heroes or traitors.

Ultimately the Amendment passed, but with a minimal margin of two votes more than the required supermajority.

I can think of only one other movie that makes a legislative vote the focus of dramatic attention, namely Otto Preminger’s adaptation of Allen Drury’s novel, Advise and Consent. The issue was a critical one for the audience of the day – the stance to maintain towards the Soviets in the cold war – and the outcome was suspenseful – a deadlocked Senate, with the deciding vote cast by the Vice-President. While the cold war has rapidly receded into history, the Civil War will remain central to the American experience.

Some reviewers have question why, if the movie that focuses on the ratification vote, Director Steven Spielberg began with a gory battlefield scene (reminiscent of the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan) and ended with the pathos of Lincoln’s assassination and the rhetoric of his second inaugural address (reminiscent of the final scene of Schindler’s List).

Is this another example of what Spielberg’s critics consider to be his over-the-top emotionalism? Should he have dispensed with scenes that appear to have been intended primarily to open the tear-ducts?

I believe these scenes are integral to the movie’s character as political fable. In a sacrificial fable, the protagonist suffers in order that the political order be renewed. Evoking the suffering of fallen soldiers, as was done in several places in the movie, is appropriate. The burden of responsibility markedly aged Lincoln towards the end of the war. The passions aroused by the Confederacy’s virtually unconditional surrender should have been expected to inspire assassination attempts that, without anything approaching modern security, would succeed. Depicting President Lincoln’s personal sacrifice was thus entirely appropriate.

Finally, I thought that the lead actors – Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln), Sally Field (Mary Todd Lincoln), David Strathairn (Secretary of State Seward), and Tommy Lee Jones (abolitionist leader Thaddeus Stevens) – were all excellent, and provided entirely credible and sympathetic portraits of historical individuals acting in situations of deep intellectual challenge and emotional conflict. Playwright Tony Kushner’s screenplay was thought-provoking in its rhetoric, and perhaps too much to be comprehended in one viewing on the screen. I look forward to reading it in the future, with the same attention I would give to Shaw’s Saint Joan or Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. And I look forward to using Lincoln in my course to illustrate the mixture of ideals, ambitions, and pressures that motivate political decisions.


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