28 November 2012: Lincoln looks at difficult U.S. history

Lincoln looks at difficult U.S. history

Seward felt an involuntary shudder in his limbs.  He was also ravished by the irony of the moment.  For nearly three years, a thousand voices, including his own, had called for a Cromwell, a dictator, a despot; and in all the time, no one had suspected that there had been, from the beginning, a single-minded dictator in the white House, a Lord Protector of the Union by whose will alone the war had been prosecuted. 

For the first time, Seward understood the nature of Lincoln’s political genius.  He had been able to make himself absolute dictator without ever letting anyone suspect that he was anything more than a joking, timid backwoods lawyer, given to fits of humility in the presence of all the strutting military. (Lincoln: A Novel by Gore Vidal)

William Seward was Secretary of State in Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet.  No one knew Lincoln better having worked beside him from the very beginning of the Civil War.

Political genius: Lincoln saved the Union through blood and force of will and correspondingly preserved, protected and defended the Constitution by shredding it in large part.

For example, the writ of habeas corpus, the single personal liberty inscribed not in the Bill of Rights but in the main body of the Constitution (Article I, Section 9), holds that a citizen cannot be imprisoned without just cause, that is without being charged with a crime.  Constitutionally, it’s within the powers of Congress, so cannot be capriciously ignored by the Executive.

Despite that, Lincoln clapped those he considered subverting the cause into jail and held them indefinitely without leveling charges, thus denying them access to the judicial system.

Lincoln’s initial purpose was not complex: It was to preserve the Union.  He was no abolitionist and found himself in constant conflict with the Radical Republicans whose sole goal was the immediate end of slavery.  In fact, his post-Civil War cockamamie scheme was to relocate all blacks, even freed ones, to Central America given his belief that the two races were incapable of living harmoniously in an integrated fashion.

His Emancipation Proclamation, the 150th anniversary of which will be celebrated on January 1, 2013, was a military stratagem, allowable due to the armed rebellion.  Only slaves in states in rebellion—Lincoln refused to even uter the term Confederacy, let alone recognize its legitimacy as a separate nation—were freed.  Those in the Border States remained in bondage until he was able to get the Thirteenth Amendment passed.

That is the period upon which Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln focuses.

The film is pure, unadulterated drama.  The character portrayals—Lincoln by Daniel Day-Lewis, Mary Todd Lincoln by Sally Fields, and Thaddeus Stevens by Tommy Lee Jones—are more than engaging.

Recently I downloaded Gore Vidal’s novel Lincoln, so read his account before seeing the movie.  I had thought I had a fairly comprehensive knowledge of not only of the man himself but also about the political intrigue surrounding him.  I was wrong on both cases.

Unlike Doris Kearns Goodwin’s best-seller Team of Rivals, Vidal’s work is historical fiction.  As such, we expect the author to faithfully stick to the actual history but also allow him literary license to humanize the characters.  As a master of the language, Vidal does that powerfully.

All of the characters, including assassin John Wilkes Booth, are brought to life.  Vidal adds drama by developing lesser-known players such as David Herrold, a young man complicit in the assassination plot and subsequently hanged.

Through Lincoln’s young secretary Johnny Hay’s voice, Vidal summarizes the magnitude of what Lincoln accomplished, which was far greater than George Washington’s challenge in getting the nation on solid footing.

“You see,” says Hay, “the Southern states had every Constitutional right to go out of the Union.  But Lincoln, said, no.  Lincoln said this Union can never be broken.

“Now that was terrible responsibility for one man to take.  But he took it, knowing he would be obliged to fight the greatest war in human history, which he did, and which he won.  So he not only put the Union back together again, but he made an entirely new country and all of it in his image.”

With neo-secessionists again raising angry voices, Lincoln’s story—our story—is most timely.  I encourage you before taking in the movie to do some homework by reading Vidal’s or Goodwin’s account of the man who far more than preserved our Union.

Then one could truly appreciate Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s intonation after Lincoln died: “Now he belongs to the ages.”

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