February 12, 2013

A thought on Lincoln

At one point in the film Lincoln that Steven Spielburg has just released, Lincoln comes face to face with his great radical republican opponent Thadeus Stevens and they argue about slavery. Stevens says and I cannot remember the actual words, but near enough says that Lincoln is a compromiser. He argues that he had always known what was right and wrong and had fought for the repeal of slavery for years and years. Stevens compares himself to a compass which always points north, Lincoln he says veers about all over the map. The rejoinder from Lincoln is equally powerful. Daniel Day Lewis's Lincoln responds that yes he is compromiser: but he wants to get things done. He compares himself to a traveller, journeying with a compass. Of course he knows where north is but sometimes he has to go south and then east to go round a swamp, sometimes west to go over a mountain pass. He asks Stevens rhetorically what use it would be if the traveller confronted with a desert and a swamp which were impassable, just continued to assault them. A bit more subtlety and the traveller might find his way north.

In the context of the film- the debate matters because it sets up Stevens to later accommodate the northern moderates by implying that repealing slavery will not bring in black equality. I think there are some wider points that are interesting though that flow from the conversation. The most important and probably most surprising to modern ears is the simple fact that this conversation takes place in the film after the civil war. The North had won- and yet still the problems of the war had not gone away. Civil Wars don't resolve things in that way. The English Civil War is the same: you still had to think about the royalists in 1647. What Lincoln is arguing with Stevens about are two alternative attitudes about the end of an ideological civil war. The first attitude (associated with Stevens here) is the attitude which says, we won, we now go in, reorganise our opponents, impose military rule and hope that they come round to our view. The second attitude (associated here with Lincoln) is that we won- now we can begin negotiations again: maybe this time we can get free slaves- but we might not get black equality till further down the line.

I'm not going to say that one is right or wrong or works or doesn't work. The important thing I think here is that both courses of action have costs. What Lincoln as a film is good at is portraying that cost. So Lincoln's view has an obvious cost: it is what happened. In 1865 the black slaves were free. Blacks were not free really in the south though until the 1960s and the Civil Rights act. Jim Crow was able to rule in the south for a full century after Lincoln's abolition. On the other hand the film makes it clear just what the price of conviction was: hundreds of thousands died in the civil war and all that achieved was the abolition of slavery. How many more would have had to die in the occupation of the south that Stevens wanted. I expect almost everyone reading this has strong views one way or the other. I thought the excellent thing about Spielberg's film was that it allowed you to see the strengths of both cases.

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