Come down off the cross. We can use the wood.
— Tom Waits
“There are moments,” wrote the critic Edmund Wilson in Patriotic Gore, his 1962 book of studies in the literature of the American Civil War, “when one is tempted to feel that the cruelest thing that has happened to Lincoln since he was shot by Booth has been to fall into the hands of Carl Sandburg.” Wilson’s complaint was that Sandburg’s gushing biography of the “backwoods Saint” had “vulgarized Lincoln” and opened the floodgates to a torrent of mush about the log-cabin birth, the rail-splitting, the “folksy and jocular countryman swapping stories at the village store,” and, most misleading of all, the father-figure who, “with a tear in his eye, presided over the tragedy of the Civil War.”
One of the kindest things that has happened to the 16th president since that night in Ford’s Theatre has been to fall into the hands of Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner. Lincoln “uses the wood,” so to speak, to give us back the man. Whatever its merits as a piece of filmmaking, it is a rare study in the peculiar nobility of the craft of the democratic politician.
The “sentimental rubbish” written about the president, complained Wilson, wasn’t just wrong; it veiled from us what was truly epic about Lincoln’s life: his ability to unite high ideals and dirty hands to achieve noble ends. It is that combination—so messy, so prone to be misunderstood as mere hypocrisy or lack of principle, so difficult to hold in balance, yet so essential to the functioning of democracy—that Spielberg (and the astonishing Daniel Day-Lewis) have put on the screen.
Lincoln always hankered after high ideals. In 1838, aged 29, in a speech to the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois, he issued a thinly veiled promise to seek a life of glory. He confessed by projection that he “thirsts and burns for distinction.” By 1858 he found his cause, and with it his voice. In the last of his debates with Stephen A. Douglas, he proclaimed—“with a frankness and a vehemence which, in the previous ones he had hardly released,” Wilson tells us—that slavery was wrong.
That is the real issue. … It is the eternal struggle between these two principles—right and wrong—throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity, and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, “You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.” No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.
Edmund Wilson points out that Lincoln was only able to achieve that high ideal because he was also a master of the craft of democratic politics. He was “intent, self-controlled, strong in intellect, tenacious of purpose.” He knew when to “hunt as one of a pack,” how to “decide and discriminate in practical affairs” and was able to “discipline and calculate in action.” The ideal was ever-present but could only be achieved because Lincoln’s was a mind capable of “tautness and a hard distinction.” His prose was lucid, precise, and terse, while his speech innovated a “less pretentious style … direct and cogent … designed to try to hit nails on the head.” He could speak a wartime “language of responsibility” in an “accent of decisiveness.” As commander-in-chief he was “implacable.”
Yes, he could exploit the drawling tones of the West when telling funny stories (for me, some of the film’s most affecting moments), but he also authorized the execution of 267 men for desertion. And when it was absolutely necessary he suspended the writ of habeas corpus, introduced conscription, limited the freedom of the press, and, as the film shows, was willing to simply lie if that was what it took to defeat what he saw as tyranny. More: he faced up to the inescapable danger posed to a democracy when it uses tyrannical means to defeat the tyrannical principle. He embraced the tragic lot of the democratic politician engaged in a life-or-death struggle with evil, while trying to limit the emergency measures and mitigate their ill consequences. It is this Lincoln, Edmund Wilson’s Lincoln, that has been brought back to life for a new generation. And we are all in Spielberg’s debt.
Photo Credit: Samir Luther