Nov. 19, 2012
This is the 149th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address.
An old man in Boston in the 1830s peeked out from his closed shutters at the horrible spectacle in the streets below. His house was locked up tight against the visit of that monster, the President of the United States. He had sent his family away, but the old man stayed behind to guard the estate, to protect the family silver. When the presidential carriage passed below, however, the old man saw the happy throng of his neighbors. He saw not a rough, savage backwoodsman, but a tall, spare, white-haired war hero, cloaked in dignity, and wrapped in goodwill. The old man couldnt help himself. He threw open the shutters and waved enthusiastically. He yelled out the window: Hurrah! Hurrah!
Graciously, President Andrew Jackson tipped his hat and bowed to Mr. Boston. Mr. Bostons heart was the first of the many Old Hickory won that day. I am like Mr. Boston. I went to the local theater today to see Lincoln. I expected to hate it. I know the politics of the director and the producers of this film. And what could I expect of that British actor, Daniel Day-Lewis? But I fling open the shutters of my heart and Im yelling: Hurrah! Hurrah! This is a wonderful movie. Go see it! Take your children (your teenage and above children.) View it as a family. Day-Lewiss performance as Lincoln may be the best Lincoln we will ever see. He is wise and funny, sometimes crude, and yet elevated beyond the ken of normal men.
You will see here why his young secretaries, John Hay and John Nicolay, called Lincoln the Tycoon. Most Lincoln biographers treat his White House years as a burden, a trial. They deplore the fact that poor Mr. Lincoln was beset by an endless parade of office seekers and those wanting favors of every kind. Well, why didnt Lincoln tell his shrewd and politically savvy Secretary of State William Seward to handle the appointments? Or why didnt he summon Sewards man Thurlow Weed down to Washington and let Weed handle all political patronage?
Because Lincoln knew thats where the power was. He knew that this was how you learn what the American people are thinking, feeling. To have given those reins to another was to let that man drive the team. Not going to happen. Early in his administration, Lincoln had told Hay and Nicolay, I cant afford to let Seward take the first trick. Wings clipped, but not too severely, Seward became Lincolns ally and then his best friend. Daniel Day-Lewis has rescued Abraham Lincoln from the embalmers. Sometimes I think Im the tiredest man on earth, Lincoln said late in his term. Day-Lewis walks as if his feet hurt. His shoulders are hunched. He slumps in the saddle.
If you want a Napoleonic figure on horseback, call for Gen. George B. McClellan. That Young Napoleon had all the qualities of the Corsican conquerorexcept, of course, decision. And speed.
The movie covers only a few weeks at the end of Lincolns life. And yet it captures so much of the drama of the times Lincoln lived through. Did he shape events? He was quick to say no. I confess events have shaped me, he said. We know, though, that Lincoln was the central figure in Americas Civil War. Okay.
Does Hollywood mess up the history? Yes and no. They certainly get U.S. Grant wrong. They show Gen. Grant giving Lincoln political advice and dealing with the Confederate peace commissioners as a proconsul. Thats not Grant. Thats one of his greatest qualities. Unlike McClellan, who lectured Lincoln on his political responsibilities, Grant avoided all such. He was strictly subordinate to Lincolns authorityat all times. But the movie certainly gets Grant right at Appomattox. And thats the big thing. This is the Grant who orders his jubilant artillerists to cease firing their One Hundred Gun salute. The rebels are our countrymen once again, says Grant, determined not to allow a single gesture that might humiliate Lees defeated gray legions.
The story involves the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in a lame-duck session of the U.S. House of Representatives. January, 1865, was the first time the Constitution mentioned slaveryas it abolished it forever. President Lincoln signed the Thirteenth Amendment. There is no provision in the Constitution for a president to sign an amendment.
So why did he? Those on the right today who try to argue that Lincoln didnt really care about slavery all that much will have to answer this question: Why therefore did he feel compelled to sign that instrument? Too bad the movie didnt show Lincoln signing the amendment. Hollywood shows Sec. of State William Seward dealing with some low, shady characters. Are they some of Sewards Albany, New York, wire-pullers and backroom manipulators? Probably. Did Seward bribe Democratic House Members who had been defeated in the previous November election? Did he offer them federal jobs as a reward for voting for the Thirteenth Amendment?
I will quote the Great Emancipator himself: Damfino. I wont spoil the ending by telling the reader what happens. Suffice it to say it is probably not news that the Thirteenth Amendment is part of the Constitution. What may be news is that every vote cast against the Thirteenth Amendment was cast by a Democrat.
How can I maintain that this is a pro-life Lincoln? He speaks of the sacrifice of his day as necessary for millions yet unborn. We know Lincoln thought the Civil War was being fought for a vast future. We know he looked to an America in the 1930s that would have 130 million peopleand he welcomed that quadrupling of our population. Would he have disapproved of abortion? We cannot say. He certainly did approve of womens suffrage and said so. But he might well have been like Susan B. Anthony and the other early Suffragists who were for womens rights and strongly pro-life.
Liberals today embrace Lincoln. Good for them. Let us rally around Lincoln. Lincoln said nothing stamped in the divine image was sent into the world to be trod upon. Are not unborn children so stamped? Lincoln spoke in parables. Even an ant knows when he has been wronged. Take from him the crumb of bread he has earned from his own labor and he will resist.
TIMEs Joe Klein tells us that ultrasound has made it impossible to deny the reality that that thing in the womb is a human being. Look at The Silent Scream. See that unborn child try to fend off the lethal probe. See as she struggles for her life. If the ant knows he is wronged, what would Lincoln say of that ultrasound homicide? Would he deny that reality?
Film critic Rex Reed panned Daniel Day-Lewiss portrayal of Lincoln. He says its as wooden as George Washingtons teeth. Rex Reed knows no more of Lincoln than Ralph Reed does. And besides, Washingtons teeth were hippopotamus ivory. Rex Reed must have missed the scene where President Lincoln pardons a 16-year old soldier boy. The boy has been condemned to be shot for cowardice. He pauses, reflectively, and you know what Abraham is thinking: My son Willie would be 16 now, or nearly so. It moved me to tears. Youd have to have a wooden heart not to appreciate what Lincoln is feeling.
Daniel Day-Lewis, from Wales, has captured our Lincoln better than any other before him. This is doubtless fitting. It was a British biographer of Lincoln, after all, Lord Charnwood, who gave us this priceless insight a hundred years ago: The Union soldiers stopped calling the president Old Abe and Uncle Abe in the bloody autumn of 1862. That was after hed issued his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Then, they began calling him Father Abraham. Now, with this triumphant film, we have a Father Abraham for all Americans to share. The Union forever, hurrah, boys, hurrah.