Friday, December 14, 2012

Lincoln, Slavery and the Historians

This was initially published by the Los Angeles Review of books

One of the most gratifying aspects of Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln has been the debate that its release has generated historians, a debate that is more important than the movie itself.  What were the complex   dilemmas that Lincoln faced as President?  What were the political realities and conduct at the time?  How should we interpret the decisions that Lincoln and others made?  What role did slaves and free blacks play in their own “liberation?”    

So despite the fact that the film focuses on a short period of time in Lincoln’s presidency and deals primarily with the political cut and thrust associated with the passage of the 13th Amendment, there is a real sense in which the film can be described as deeply “philosophical.”  

Lincoln is portrayed as a man of discipline, concentration and energy, all characteristics that sociologist Max Weber defined as part of the serious politician’s “vocation.”  By forging an effective and realized political character - one aspect of Weber's definition of Charismatic authority - an astute politician can change the nature of power in society.   By controlling his all too human vanity, he can avoid the two deadly political sins of lack of objectivity and irresponsibility.   For Weber, a certain “distance to things and men” was required to abide by an “ethic of responsibility” for the weighty decisions that leaders are often required to make.   

Lincoln has always been a man for all political seasons; There is Lincoln the principled politician who believed that war was a necessary and legitimate means to sustain the Union; Lincoln the timid compromiser who as late as sixteen months into the war declared that if he “…could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it”; and Lincoln the reconciling healer of “With malice toward none, with charity for all…” of the Second Inaugural.

Conservative New York Times writer David Brooks argued in a November 22nd column that it was Lincoln’s internal strength and ability to compromise that allowed for the possibility of public good.   For Brooks, the temptations of fame and ideological rigidity are what undermine the average politician’s ability to compromise.   Weber called the losers in that wrestling match with fame, political “windbags.” 

But for liberal Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, it was Lincoln’s principled stand on the 13th Amendment and the need to ban slavery that accounts for his iconic status as one of our greatest Presidents.   In an October 19th piece, Dionne encouraged Obama to “follow Lincoln’s example” by refusing to compromise with current economic and financial injustice.

While most political journalists have viewed the film with an eye towards the current  political stalemate, our most prominent historians have looked for accuracy and context in Lincoln.

To finish reading this essay go to: