On the eve of the U.S. Inauguration, and with the country’s mounting divisiveness reaching a colossal destructive breakpoint, discussing legendary director Steven Spielberg’s 2012 historical drama Lincoln seems wholly appropriate. Racking up twelve Oscar nominations, including a win in the Best Actor Category for Daniel Day Lewis’ brilliant portrayal of Abraham Lincoln, this film focuses on the 16th President’s 2nd term and his political battle to stop the physical battle raging within his country. This highly sophisticated movie smartly stages the governmental clash behind the American Civil War (USA’s bloodiest conflict ever) and how Lincoln was able to break through white-ruling-class rhetoric, leading to the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution passing January 31st 1865. This modification effectively abolished slavery stating, ‘Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.’ A cease-fire was ultimately reached between the Union’s Northern States and Confederate Southern States April 9th 1865 only 6 days before Lincoln’s assassination.
This film effectively walks audiences through a very detailed legislative account of the administrative backstory and how parliament finally came together to end one of the worst atrocities in history. What sets this fact-based film apart from others of similar content are the solid performances from its star-studded cast. Daniel Day Lewis leads the charge doing such an outstanding job playing Honest Abe, from his stance, gait, voice, demeanor, and of course his genital yet commanding leadership qualities. Lincoln truly abhorred enslavement, rightfully believing it to be a morally irreprehensible act. Not a single moment passes in this film where viewers are not completely engaged in Lewis’ (as Lincoln) endearing sincerity and complete commitment to ending oppressed bondage in America. Sally Field also does an excellent job playing Lincoln’s high-strung loving but challenging wife Mary Todd Lincoln. Additionally David Strathairn effectively plays Lincoln’s trusted Secretary of State William Seward, with Tommy Lee Jones (a personal favorite) wonderfully playing confrontational radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens who fiercely fought to secure the rights of African Americans and end discrimination of newly freedmen and freedwomen – one of whom he loved dearly.
The earthy feel of this movie, enhanced by dim lighting that amplifies the fact that electricity was non-existent at the time, coupled with regular citizens welcomed into the White House to converse with the sitting president regarding property rights bodes well with Lincoln’s true-to-life practical approach towards people and his non-elitist personality. As depicted in this film, there is no doubt that Lincoln was a remarkable leader who was able to get the job done. Lincoln’s brilliant insight into human nature can be attributed to his humble beginnings and the personal tragedies he endured, including losing his mother at age 9. As the self-taught son of virtually illiterate farmers, Lincoln only received less than a year of formal education yet went on to become one of the most revered men of all time. He equated his success to his voracious appetite for reading, which helped him become a thriving stateman, lawyer, and eventually POTUS. Lincoln also loved maths (almost mastering the 6 books of Euclid’s geometry), which the movie also highlights with him stating, ‘Things which are equal to the same things are equal to each other. That’s a rule of mathematical reasoning and its true because it works – has done and always will do.’ This quote brings me to the critical take-away message of this movie.
Some might say the obvious meaning of the film is equality or freedom from servitude; after all that’s what ending slavery was all about right? Sure it was. Lincoln said it himself, ‘If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong’, but that’s not the life lesson this movie imparts. The moral point has more to do with one of the last scenes showing Lincoln walking out of the White House on his way to the theatre – and his imminent death. Upon exiting, Lincoln’s black porter hands him a pair of ‘black’ gloves, which he then throws on a side-table leaving them behind as he departs the building for the last time. It’s a powerful moment packed full of symbolism that signifies the incredible legacy Lincoln left in his wake. First, gloves denote a buffer between skin-to-skin contact, and during the civil war era they were a mark of class-division between the well-off and the poor. A position Lincoln detested given his longstanding sympathetic attitude towards the underdog. But more than that it represents his endless ‘gloves off’ fight to remove barriers between people. So how can I be so sure the take-away message hinges on just this one scene? Here’s why. In actuality, Lincoln did in fact take his ‘white’ gloves to the theatre the night he was assassinated but didn’t wear them. These same blood-stained gloves (found in Lincoln’s left suit pocket that became stained as the blood trickled down the left side of his body into his pocket after being shot behind his left ear) remain on display at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois, but may soon be auctioned off to help pay down debts (how sad). Walls vs. Windows – replace the dark partitions of prejudice with the light of oneness. This was truly Lincoln’s final wish.
Lincoln’s towering accomplishments go without saying. However there is much work still to be done. Unfortunately today’s America still carries the olden scars of slavery, as the civil unrest of yesteryear appears to be rearing its ugly head again mirroring recent current events. A frightening prospect considering Abraham Lincoln’s forebode of insurrection, ‘America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.’ Yikes. If you have any doubt about the rampant discrimination that still exists in the USA watch the amazing yet disturbing 2016 documentary entitled 13th available on Netflix. Surely Lincoln (a noble man with noble objectives) quoted as saying, ‘I walk slowly but I never walk backward’ did not intend for a portion of the 13th Amendment (‘…except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted…’) to be distorted and used to further exploit, punish, and deny anyone dignity and fairness. Hopefully, Joe Biden’s new administration will aim to better protect the most vulnerable as Lincoln had fought so hard to do.
Fast Facts: Abraham & Mary Todd Lincoln had four sons, three dying in childhood, with their third son William Wallace Lincoln dying in the White House of Typhoid Fever at age 11 in what’s now known as the ‘Lincoln Bed’ at 5pm on Feb 20th 1862. Only their eldest son Robert Todd Lincoln lived to adulthood. He became a lawyer, businessman, and politician who married and had three children; one son who died at age 16, and two daughters with only one producing two children, both of which had no children. Abraham Lincoln’s last undisputed descendant, his great-grandson Robert Todd Lincoln Bechwith died in 1985. Although the Lincoln line has ended he left an unmatched gift for posterity via his character, expressed through his actions and verse, ‘…in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.’ President Lincoln certainly lived a great life. Therefore, it is no surprise that Lincoln remains one of the highest rated presidents in U.S. history who left a plethora of wisdom through his wise words on so many topics still relevant today including, uprightness (‘I would rather be a little nobody, then to be an evil somebody.’), honor (‘You can tell the greatness of a man by what makes him angry.’) and life in general (‘I will prepare and someday my chance will come’). True words to live by as we must be in a state of readiness to accept our future prospects. This makes me think of the Semmering Railway and how Austrians build train tracks through the Alps before a train even existed that could make the trip! They laid the rails because they knew that despite the challenges one day a sturdy engine would come, and it did. This film reminds us that progress and positive change is possible when we set out to make it happen. Tomorrow, as the world welcomes a new U.S. President, let’s hope everyone has ‘prepared’ for a peaceful transfer of power – then perhaps that’s exactly what will come.
P.S. I have been to the U.S. Capital Building in Washington D.C. a few times. Once when I was flown in by ABC’s Good Morning America for an interview, and another time during a work-related trip. This national symbol is a stunning architectural wonder, with its lovely mammoth double-dome roof-top reconstructed during 1855-1866 and was not even completed when Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated the second time. It’s so sad to think this extraordinary building, that is arguably the most significant historical structure in all of America (where just a few years ago I roamed freely and openly admired its beauty), was recently infiltrated, deeply damaging not only the physical building itself but also the liberties it stands for. Now D.C. and particularly this building looks like a fortress in a warzone no longer accessible to the public. How sad. But all is not doom and gloom. On a positive note the 16th President was able to bring his nation together through his vestige of resolve. Let us hope the 46th President can do the same. God please bless the ‘United’ States of America.