On today’s date in 1865 Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theatre. He died the next morning. He was our greatest president and he was a moderate.
Lincoln was assailed by both sides. He was careful during his 1860 campaign and during the early part of his presidency to tread a fine line on the issue of slavery. This had two effects. It angered both the most ardent supporters and opponents of slavery, and it got him elected. Southerners saw him as a threat while abolitionists saw him as weak. Just enough voters saw him as acceptable or, at least, better than the alternatives.
Since Steven Spielberg released his film, “Lincoln,” in 2012, I’ve watched this one clip over and over again. I think it’s brilliant because it has so many layers. It’s a scene where Lincoln is debating with his cabinet over the legality of the Emancipation Proclamation and the need for the Thirteenth Amendment.
I’m not sure if it’s a lawyer thinking like a politician or a politician thinking like a lawyer, but it captures that feeling of wanting to use every power you have in elected office, and then some, to accomplish something necessary. Yet, Lincoln was no dictator — well, at least, not in spirit. He knew he had to use all the power he had to end both the Civil War and slavery and, at the same time, he understood that if he did those things by crushing the law he would also crush the republic.
So, he does this intricate dance, arguing both sides of the question before his cabinet. He weaves together legal arguments, political considerations, popular opinion and some regard for his own political survival.
Of course, this a script, not a transcript. This is more Speilberg talking than Lincoln, but you do get a sense that he has captured the man pretty well. I discover something new to like about it every time I watch the six minutes of film.
What I appreciate most about it is the sense of idealistic practicality. Near the start of the scene, Lincoln tells what initially appears to be an unrelated story from his days riding the circuit. He explains how he, essentially, allowed a sympathetic client charged with murder to escape. His point seems to be that by breaking the law himself (without ever coming out and admitting it) justice had been done and the whole legal system looked the other way and let it happen.
Now, he proposes to do pretty much the same thing to end slavery.
If Lincoln were purely a “man of principle” he might well have concluded that, in order to be consistent with his principles, he could not have freed the slaves. He explains that himself, arguing that his own view that the southern states themselves were not actually in rebellion (just the rebels who had taken them over) meant that he didn’t have any legal right to negate state laws that were, after all, still in effect.
But he overlooked his own legal reasoning to issue the Proclamation anyway. He exploited ambiguity and contrary legal arguments just enough to see his way clear to do what he thought was the morally — and politically — right thing to do. The Proclamation turned the war into a moral fight to end slavery and probably ended up being the key to winning it.
Now, with the war coming to a conclusion, he fears that the courts might well find that the Proclamation had no force because it was based only on the president’s war powers. In other words, slavery could go back into effect in the South and the entire war would have had no point. That, he explains, is why his administration needed to move forward right then on a constitutional amendment to outlaw slavery, even while it was a political distraction to the main goal of ending the war.
Ironically, a highly principled “radical abolitionist” (to use the language of the times) could not have been elected in 1860 and could not have done what Lincoln did over the next four years to actually end slavery.
The lesson I take from Lincoln’s political life is how political moderation and smart, practical politics can achieve high-minded results. That’s a lesson that endures.