Steven Spielberg’s new film on Abraham Lincoln is not the biopic that I was expecting – it’s something much better. Rather than focusing on the major events throughout Lincoln’s lifetime, Spielberg delves deeply into the final few months of Lincoln’s life. We get to peer into various facets of the man – the statesman, the politician, the husband, the father, and even the jokester storyteller. It’s a rich portrait and an excellent job by Daniel Day-Lewis in the lead role.
Central to the story was Lincoln’s efforts to abolish slavery. We see this as his major goal, yet he also wants to end the war and preserve the union. The movie brings out an interesting dynamic whereby these two ultimate intentions both support one another while simultaneously are in competition.
Although Lincoln has issued his Emancipation Proclamation, he recognizes that his freeing the slaves may only be temporary if the country does not pass the 13th amendment to abolish slavery permanently. Lincoln must work with different factions within his own Republican Party as well as seek the support of Democrats to gain enough votes to pass the bill through the House of Representatives. The Senate had already approved it. The House had already rejected it earlier in the year. Yet Lincoln realized that with the recent election where he had won a second term, there was a window of opportunity.
The movie becomes a fascinating story of political maneuvering, as Lincoln and his key advisers seek to appease individuals with different motivations, motivations that spanned a spectrum from staunch abolitionists to those would never give in to the ending of slavery. On the one end, there were Republican abolitionists who not only wanted to abolish slavery, they wanted to push forward towards equal rights for all. Lincoln needed them to temper their public comments so as not to raise fear in those who were not ready for that step. Then there were Republicans who favored abolition as a means to ending the war, but if they could end of the war then their support of the amendment was lessened. Lincoln had to keep them appeased by entertaining a peace offer from the South. Yet Lincoln knew that if peace meant slavery continued, we would be facing this issue again in the future.
Lincoln also needed some Democratic support. Next along the spectrum were sympathetic Democrats whose party was against the 13th amendment. Some had recently lost their reelection bid. Lincoln sought their support by encouraging them to vote their conscience during this lame-duck time. At the far other end were those supporters of slavery, extremely vocal opponents of the amendment.
It’s hard not to draw comparisons to today’s political battles. In the 1860s, just as today, there was a wide range of worldviews and political beliefs. There are people on either end of a wide schism of an issue.
Lincoln was an idealist as well as a realist. At one point during the film, he chides an abolitionist supporter by essentially saying “what good is knowing true North when the direct path along the way takes you into a swamp?” His point was to hold firm on the direction of true North even if you had to steer from side to side away from your goal so as to continuously be progressing.
Although not in the film, it is worth mentioning that the closing line of Lincoln’s first inaugural address was memorable for both its conciliatory tone to the South and its recognition that one day the union would come back together when we were all touched by the “better angels of our nature”. Lincoln recognized by this phrase that there is some higher calling within us as humans which seeks to transcend the limitations seemingly placed upon us by human interactions. His efforts to abolish slavery, as reflected through Spielberg’s film, are shown to be guided by these angels placed within us. Lincoln knew and Spielberg reminds us that we each carry within us a vision for our highest possibilities for the human species.
In Lincoln’s time, there were those motivated by fear – be it fear of change, fear of economic loss, fear of the unknown – who would seek to maintain the status quo of the horrible institution of slavery and could not listen beyond their fears to hear the angels calling them to something higher. Luckily, many could touch the better angels of their nature and progress humanity to a better place, a country where slavery was banned.
Yet even today, we have those who are still motivated by fear and seek to live in a world of competition, separation and survival. These individuals are so scared that they seek to manipulate our political, financial and social systems to benefit themselves at the expense of the greater good. They must “win” even if others “lose”. In their beliefs, this is a dog eat dog world and they must be on top.
Yet there are also those who hear a higher calling, who recognize that there is a better vision yet for what humanity can be. There is the possibility of a world free of war and poverty and disenfranchisement. There is a world where everyone from birth gets the opportunity for a good education, a chance for a good job, to live in prosperity and to express their talents. The better angels of our nature are still calling us to a world where everyone has an equal chance to thrive. Can you hear them?
Check out all of Mark Gilbert’s books—available at Amazon. Click here to visit his Author Page. This includes his recent one Our Spiritual Rights and Responsibilities. In this book, he offers what he suggests are the 5 basic rights we all possess by virtue of our being these spiritual beings on planet Earth — and our 2 responsibilities we all hold in relation to one another! Check it out!