Brian's Burn Notice; Lincoln: a president and a film to unite all Americans

by Brian Burns
Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln opened in November to rave reviews from critics of all political stripes.  The film details the struggle of Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) to pass the 13th amendment and, in doing so, completely abolish slavery.
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Lincoln was adapted from historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. The book and film present a major difference between the politics of today and that of the Civil War era, specifically the reversal of roles of Republicans and Democrats.  Early Republicans were more socially progressive, while Democrats were the conservative party of the day.  Despite the rift in their ideals, the two parties were able to compromise.
“Republicans of the time were more focused on social issues, on inequality.  For example, they also passed the voting acts,” said social studies teacher Ryan McKenna.
The film portrays Lincoln and his fellow Republicans as having to go to extreme measures to obtain the necessary votes from opposing Democrats to pass the 13th amendment.  In some scenes, Lincoln himself is not above bribing members of the House of Representatives, a fact that may have surprised viewers.
“It’s exactly the same as now.  [Politicians] try to buy votes and try to curry favor to get votes.  It’s just as tense now, but on different subjects,” said McKenna.
Unlike many of today’s politicians, President Lincoln was willing to meet with the opposing party.
“Lincoln was a political mastermind,” said social studies teacher David Multer. “When Lincoln wants to get something done, he sits down with the opposite party.  He schmoozes.  He coerces.  He socializes with others.”
This willingness to reach across the aisle even extended to Lincoln’s cabinet.
Lincoln’s inner circle was shot through with competition and those who thought they could be better leaders than Lincoln.  It is this very contention that gave the book Team of Rivals its name. For example, Lincoln’s first Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, was appointed merely to pay off Lincoln’s political debts for election with the support of Pennsylvania.
Lincoln concerns the president’s determination to pass the 13th amendment, a historic change to the Constitution that was controversial at the time for eliminating slavery in the U.S.
“Some may see the 13th amendment as superfluous, especially with the Emancipation Proclamation.  However, the Emancipation Proclamation was a wartime act predicated on the idea that slaves were contraband,” said Multer. “Lincoln was a lawyer.  He realized that when the war was over, all bets were off.  The only thing that would nullify the ruling of Dred Scott v. Sandford was a constitutional amendment.”
Even with the political debate at its center, Lincoln portrays the legend as he truly was: human.  He argues with his son Robert Todd Lincoln (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) over his decision to go to war and with his wife Mary Todd over White House parties.
Tony Kushner’s screenplay also depicts Lincoln as wise-cracking, a personality far removed from the stoic persona of the man seated on the Lincoln Memorial.
“I could write shorter sermons but when I get started I’m too lazy to stop,” the president says at one point, commenting on his own tendency to make long and grandiose speeches.
The film’s success in both red and blue states, with a weekend box office haul of $21 million in its first week of wide release, suggests that Lincoln is a president all Americans can agree on.  In this time of divided politics, those on the left and right of the political spectrum may be able to find common ground in the ideas of the sixteenth president.
“Lincoln made the U.S. what it is today.  He was able to rejoin the union but he let the nation have diverse opinions,” said senior Adam Bransky.
Lincoln was a man who respected differences of opinion, a virtue that modern-day political figures have forgotten.
The current system of politics requires change, and Lincoln, the man and the movie, is a reminder of that.
As the president suggests to a man from the Confederacy during the peace talks that led to the  end of the Civil War, “Shall we stop this bleeding?”
It’s time today’s politicians heeded Lincoln’s call.