In ‘Lincoln,’ The House’s Sinners Beat The Saint In The White House

“How the people love my husband. They flock to see him by the thousands,” Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) tells Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) midway through Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln after Stevens, who investigated her spending on the White House as Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, arrives there for a reception. “They will never love you as they love my husband. How hard for you to know that. But how important to remember it.” Her opinion of the relative position of the two men guides the film, a tremendous depiction of what it takes to pass epochal legislation marred by lapses into sentiment and Spielbergian self-indulgence.

Lincoln is at its most clear-eyed, and its most-effective, when the movie tackles the question of how to muster votes, and bipartisan votes at that, for the end of slavery, a section of the film dominated by Stevens and Secretary of State William Seward (David Straitharn). The two men begin the movie in very different positions, Stevens as a life-long advocate for the end of slavery and racial equality, Seward unconvinced of the Amendment’s viability or necessity. “Since when has our party unanimously supported anything?” he asks his president, particularly given the prospect of the South suing for peace. “Why tarnish that luster with a battle in the House?” But Lincoln makes himself clear: he will have the Amendment in January of 1865, even if it means buying off lame duck Democrats who need employment when they leave their offices in March. “If procuring votes with jobs is what you intend, I’ll procure from Albany the skulking men who are suited to this shady work,” Seward tells Lincoln, resigned to his task.

Those skulking men are W.N. Bilbo (James Spader) and Robert Latham (John Hawkes), and with their arrival on screen, both Seward and Lincoln are invigorated. After assessing their prospects, Bilbo explains that he and Latham will ignore Democrats of the “Kind that hates Niggers, hates God for making Niggers. We’ve abandoned these 39 to the Devil who possesses them,” and focus instead on rather more craven men like Clay Hutchins (Walton Goggins, capping off a tremendous year). Seward takes it on himself to figure out what each man is worth. “A first-term Congressman who couldn’t earn reelection,” he says of one rather greedy Democrat. “I deemed it unseemly and bargained him down to Postmaster.” Hutchins, standing in for that persuadable Democratic minority, explains the dilemma he faces: the 13th Amendment is being presented as the only way to end the Civil War by weakening the Confederacy, but Lincoln’s case for it is being weakened by rumors of a peace delegation from the South, seeking an accord–but only if they can preserve slavery. “If my neighbors hear I voted yes to Nigger freedom and no to peace, they’ll kill me,” Hutchins says. His view is shared by more sophisticated men like Preston Brooks (Hal Holbrook), who is desperate to avert the arrival of another fighting season. “I went to Richmond to talk to traitors,” he tells Lincoln after his meeting with the Confederates. “To smile at and talk to traitors. Because in two months, it will be spring.”

While Lincoln delays the commissioners and the actual offer of a peace deal to keep the necessity of the 13th Amendment alive in Washington, aided at the last minute on the day of the vote by Bilbo and Latham transversing Washington at a dead sprint, in the House it is up to Stevens to strike the delicate balance to hold his fragile party together. A man of firey temperment–Stevens at one point addresses Democratic leader Fernando Wood as “you perfectly named obstructive object”–Stevens is forced to make a moral compromise, telling the House that, contrary to his lifelong advocacy, “I don’t hold with equality in all things, just equality before the law, nothing more.” It’s a painful moment, that rhetorical scaling back, and a recognition of the rhetorical compromise needed to move legal equality forward, leaving the work of cultural change separate. “Who would have guessed that old nightmare could show such control?” Mrs. Lincoln, watching with her maid Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben) from the House Gallery. “He might make a politician some day.” After Stevens speech, one of his Radical Republican allies tells Stevens that he betrayed their cause. “You’ve lead the battle for race equality for 30 years…You refused to say that all humans are human.” “I want the Amendment to pass so the Constitution’s first and only mention of slavery is its abolition,” Stevens responds to them. “So no, it seems there’s nothing I won’t say.”

But the movie does not pretend that legislation, much less this legislation, is the end of the battle, and one of Lincoln‘s most delicately-handled elements–and one of its most resonant–is its exploration of the different ways racism manifests itself. There is ignorance, as possessed by the Missouri toll collector who comes to Washington to petition Lincoln, and when asked by Secretary of State Seward (David Straitharn) why he opposes the 13th Amendment if not necessary to answer the war, tells him only “Niggers.” There is grievance, as expressed by Missouri Rep. William Hutton (David Warshofsky), who lost his son in the war, and blames his death on the push to end slavery. “I can’t make sense of what he died for,” he tells the president when Lincoln comes to ask for his vote in favor of the amendment. “I hate them all, Mr. Lincoln. I hate all black people. I do.” There is simple unfamiliarity, as expressed by Lincoln himself, when he tells Mrs. Keckley: “I don’t know you, Mrs. Keckley. Any of you…I expect I’ll get used to you.” And then there are those who have based their identity in the fact of their superiority to African-Americans. “This is to the death. They’re busy buying votes while we hope to be saved by the national mood,” one Democrat declares in the House. “This bill is meant to set the black race on high, to Niggerate America.” Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens puts it even more simply in peace talks, when confronted with the prospect of the end of slavery: “We won’t know ourselves anymore.” The legal buttresses of that inequality may have been dismantled since the events of Lincoln, but all of these kinds of racism persist. It is impossible to hear Thaddeus Stevens warn Lincoln that “You claim that you trust them, that you know who the people are…White people cannot bear to share this country’s abundance with Negroes,” without thinking of the appellation of President Obama as a food stamp president, of Bill O’Reilly’s supreme bitterness over the prospect that Obama voters “want stuff.”

The movie, perhaps as befitting the time it explores, is more tentative on the question of what it takes to cut through those many manifestations of fear and hatred, and how to ensure economic equality. The opening scene of Lincoln shows the president speaking with two black soldiers, Corporal Ira Clark (David Oyelowo) and Private Harold Green (Colman Domingo). “Maybe you’ll hire me,” Clark, who has challenged the president on the pay differential for black and white soldiers, tells Lincoln. “But you should know that I get sick at the smell of bootblack, and I cannot cut hair.” “Nobody can cut it so it makes much difference,” Lincoln jokes with him, deflecting the question, as he will do in other settings. The question of what freedom will win black Americans is a persistent one. “I was born a free man,” Lincoln’s valet, Mr. Slade (Stephen Henderson), tells Tad Lincoln (Gulliver McGrath) No one beat me except that I beat them right back.” But that freedom still means he is blacking shoes and picking out suits, the jobs Clark wants to rise above.

These are policy concerns as well as personal ones. Democrat George Pendleton (Peter McRobbie) tells Stevens “We must consider what would happen to colored folk if four million of them were in an instant set free.” Stevens is dismissive with him, saying, “They’ll be free, George. That’s what’ll happen to them.” With Lincoln, he is blunter in his intentions for remaking the South. “We’ll build a land down there of free men and free women and free children and freedom,” Stevens insists when the two men are alone. “Shit on people and what they want and what they’re ready for.” In those words are the seeds of what Reconstruction could have been and how it failed to change cultural beliefs that persist to this day, and that continue to poison our political conversations. Though Lincoln declines to agree with Stevens in the moment, Stevens does show a nodding appreciation for the President’s hard-headed commitment to passing the 13th Amendment. “The greatest measure in the 19th century, passed by corrupted, aided and abetted by the purest man in America,” he tells his housekeeper, Lydia Smith (S. Epatha Merkerson), showing her the final bill.

If only that spirit had animated the whole movie. Given how strong and wonderfully earthy the sections of Lincoln dedicated to legislation are, it’s a disappointment how pale and sentimental the movie becomes the father it moves from the floor of the House of Representatives. Daniel Day-Lewis has captured the whispering quality of the president’s actual speech, but the movie renders the rest of him ethereal as well. The movie is enamored of his folksiness, sometimes to good effect, as when gets a laugh out of younger men in the War Department so their superiors will have an easier time motivating them. But often, those interactions with the common people he commands serve to reaffirm Lincoln’s saintliness. “But we’re fitted to the times we’re born into?” he asks a young telegraph operator, Samuel Beckwith (Adam Driver) on one late night. “I don’t know about myself,” Beckwith tells him. “You, maybe.” The movie might have been stronger if it included more of the apocalyptic sense that screenwriter Tony Kusher is so good at conveying, and that done right, can powerfully transport viewers to another time, as in an early sequence in the film where Lincoln describes a dream of himself at night, standing on the prow of a ship “moved by imperceptible power at terrific speed,” and tries to work out what it means. But even there, the movie slips towards placing Lincoln in the pantheon, as when Lincoln tells his wife he’d like to travel to “Jerusalem, where David and Solomon walked. I dream of walking in that ancient city.”

And while Lincoln tells Grant towards the end of the movie “We’ve made it possible for each other to do terrible things,” Lincoln is relatively reluctant to grapple with the terrible half of the great and terrible equation of its subject’s presidency. “If we hang a 16-year-old boy for cruelty, there’s be no 16-year-old boys left,” Lincoln tells two young soldiers he visits in the night. “I don’t care to hang a boy for being frightened. What good would it do him?” That’s a lovely sentiment, but it’s not exactly a discussion of how military executions for desertion were actually handled, or of Lincoln’s approach to events like the New York Draft Riots. In a discussion of Lincoln’s War Powers, his perspective is allowed to prevail. “I decided that the Constitution gave me war powers…I needed them to exist to uphold my duty to protect the Constitution,” Lincoln tells his Cabinet. “I felt the war demanded it. I felt my oath demanded it. I felt right with myself. I hope the law agreed.” There’s nothing wrong with concluding that Lincoln’s approaches to everything from military discipline to the Constitution were correct. But for a movie that gives so much time to opponents of the 13th Amendment, and a hearing to both cowards and racists, there’s surprisingly little debate about Lincoln’s larger handling of the war. If the movie is going to address these subjects, it’s poorer for lacking that.

Some of the flaws are simply Spielberg indulging his sentimental streak. When Lincoln and his wife argue about her grief over the death of their son Willie, they do so against the backdrop of a raging thunderstorm. “And I refuse to take the high road? If I can’t take up the rough old cross, will you threaten me again with the madhouse?” Mary asks, Field’s histrionics heightened by the storm. “Don’t threaten me again. Just do it. Lock me away in the madhouse.” And rather than engaging with what that threat must have meant to hear, the movie immediately pivots to Lincoln’s goodness and emotional openness. “I wanted to crawl under the earth into his coffin,” Lincoln tells her. “I still do. Don’t tell me about grief.” He clears toy soldiers off a paper battlefield and curls up on the rug with Tad, next to the fire. Later, the president literally appears in a flickering candle flame, which fades him delivering the final lines of his second inaugural address, pleading with his listeners “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” Enough. We grasp the greatness of the man without turning his body into an eternal flame.

Lincoln might have been a near-perfect film if it had canonized its subject a little less and loved him as a whole person a little more. As the movie progressed, I missed the perspective of Ira Clark, who tells the president in the opening sequence of the movie, “In fifty years, maybe a Negro Colonel. In 100 years, the vote.” We’ve moved faster than Clark dreamed, but slower than the promise of Lincoln as a saint suggests.