This article is from The Objective Standard, Vol. 8, No. 2.
Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by Tony Kushner. Based on the book Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, and Tommy Lee Jones. Rated PG-13 for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage, and brief strong language. Running time: 150 minutes.
Lincoln is not what I expected. It is not primarily the dramatization of the life of a man, Abraham Lincoln, the nation’s sixteenth president. It is instead the dramatization of the passage of a law, the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, the first section of which states, “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.” However, as the film makes clear, it is largely the force of Lincoln’s character that gave those words the force of law, so the film is aptly titled.
Few films deal fundamentally with the passage of a law. One of the few is Amazing Grace, the 2006 film about William Wilberforce, who in 1807 led the political movement to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire. Lincoln is a worthy successor, dealing with the American continuation of the same fight to abolish slavery.
And a bloody fight it was, with some six hundred thousand dead in the Civil War at a time when the population of the nation was just over thirty million—a tenth of what it is today. Mountains of bodies filled the gap between the Declaration of Independence in 1776—which declared “that all men are created equal”—and the Thirteenth Amendment in 1864.
The film begins with Lincoln on the battlefield talking to a couple of Union soldiers who, with great admiration and respect, recite to Lincoln some of the opening text from his Gettysburg Address: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. . . .” This film, the viewer quickly becomes aware, is about the ideas that move men to action. . . .