The Lincolns among us

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Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln opens with a screen of uniformed men brawling in a formless mass on a rainy field. Two black soldiers in Union uniform emerge from the scene and speak to a man who hunches toward them. We see this is President Lincoln, with whom the soldiers are soon discussing emancipation, equality, suffrage and civil rights in the century to come.

The film’s proper story is a handsome tale about the president’s struggle, early in 1865, to have Congress pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery — a closely fought contest as well as the first substantial effort to amend the Constitution since the Bill of Rights. The president has a clear premonition of something that we in the audience well know: he himself will never step upon the sighted shore. So he is keenly determined for the amendment to pass the House in its current session. With skill and care, he fires up his political men — including a hilarious trio of lobbyists — to do their work.

For most viewers, Lincoln is likely to be their first image of our 16th president as a living being. Especially striking is the way he is seen to function as storyteller-in-chief. To the pleasure of some and the impatience of others, Lincoln really did govern by anecdote. Those of us who have only known the man in the monument — a leader who wields great armies and invokes the favor of God — will be delighted to meet a flesh-and-blood human of quicksilver intelligence and burnished wit.

It is, however, Lincoln’s eternal fate to be surrounded by unsmiling people; so he was in office, and so he is in this film. Most somber of all are the abolitionists who by early 1865, in political terms, are the gang still standing. Lincoln himself is not an abolitionist, but by early 1865 history has led the president to the abolitionists’ ground or — more properly — has brought the abolitionists to Lincoln’s.

The war had been a co-creation of two extreme groups: the party of “Southern rights” which wanted out of the union, and the party of abolition which wanted the slave-holding South destroyed or purged from the union. Lincoln was firmly opposed to slavery. At the same time, he was for the union and for the Constitution. That put him at odds with both groups of extremists, who despised him in varying degrees.

The Southern extremists felt they had the Constitution on their side, and believed it gave them the right to withdraw from the union. The abolitionists were determined to end slavery even at the cost of peace; and they can well be said to have launched the war 18 months before Fort Sumter, with the attack on Harper’s Ferry in late 1859.

Lincoln’s consummate achievement was to bring about the end of slavery while steering clear of the ultimate destruction — the loss of the union — that the extremists had invited. But Lincoln’s “twilight of the gods” awaited him at Ford’s Theater. In its death-rattle, the specter of Southern extremism took our president away. The loss was overwhelming for everyone; most of all for the South, which then faced a victor who wielded Lincoln’s power but knew nothing of the “flexibility, adjustment, compassion” — John Hope Franklin’s phrase — with which he had wielded it.

We are still living in the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination. The forces that nearly broke the union are living with us in different forms, and we have no Lincoln to help us through them. Or if we do, that person has yet to show the signal traits.

The force that drove the war — even more than slavery did — was a careless combativeness that stymied our talent for compromise and opened the door to calamity. Does it sound familiar? And today’s divisions are entirely shorn of the decency, simplicity, heroism and gallantry that marked the war period.

If indeed we are facing another national calamity, it may turn out, like the war, to be unlike anything we expected. It would surely make that frieze of fighting men in Spielberg’s film look like a halcyon episode. It might even make the flaming towers of 9/11 look like an interlude.

Unlike the rest of the world, we do have a place to look if we are serious about avoiding such a fate. Lincoln was unique among us; he was also unique to us. The soil of America produced him, and can produce another like him.

We know about nightmare scenarios. How about an inspiring one? May we not imagine that another Lincoln is working to appear among us, fighting even now to be known?

David Landau, a novelist in San Francisco, is writing a drama for stage about the Civil War.