FILM: Lincoln’s Moment

Leading by Example: Lincoln’s Rhetorical Strategies ■ by Tom Prasch

After recounting of an ominous dream to his wife in Steven Spielberg’s magisterial unbiopic Lincoln, the President reaches for a handy quotation: “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” His wife Mary, while complaining “I’m your soothsayer, that’s all I am anymore,” nevertheless dutifully tries to interpret the dream’s portent: perhaps the campaign against Wilmington, or no, it’s the struggle for the amendment.  But her interpretive work would have been speedier had she heeded the quotation. The lines Lincoln quotes are from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a conversation between the Danish prince and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and the theme is ambition. As Guildenstern notes in the lines that immediately follow, “dreams indeed are ambition,” and at this point in the film’s condensed chronology Lincoln’s own ambition is being made abundantly clear: to secure the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery.

But beyond the explication of the dreamwork, the quotation also highlights Lincoln’s central, time-honored rhetorical strategy, which becomes a centerpiece of Tony Kushner’s screenplay for Lincoln: when commenting or seeking to sway, Lincoln’s constant recourse is to exempla, stories or quotations that illustrate his point. He opens with a joke (even if his dark-edged humor sometimes falls flat, like the apocalyptic pigeon tale he tells to a couple of clearly baffled constituents). He offers up stories about past heroes, like the jocular tale he tells of revolutionary-era hero Ethan Allen, with its crude punchline: “nothing’ll make an Englishman shit quicker than the sight of George Washington.” He shares a personal anecdote, tending to favor humorous tales from his law career, but recalling his own epiphany on slavery to convince one wavering congressman. He reaches for an analogy, as when he draws on Euclid’s First Theorem (using an older translation, he calls it a “common notion”) to convince a telegraph operator about the principles of equality, or when he compares his cabinet to whalers with their “harpoon in the monster’s back.” (Senator Wade complains after Lincoln’s exit: “The man’s never been near a whale ship in his life!”)


And he quotes (or nearly quotes) from sages past. When Lincoln intones, as the naval bombardment of Wilmington commences, “Old Neptune, shake thy hoary locks,” it recalls the deluge scene in Ovid’s Metamorphosis (in Dryden’s translation); in the same scene, his “Thunder forth, God of War” echoes Milton, unless it’s Horace; shadows of the Bible, in the poetry of the King James version, are everywhere, most directly in the Second Inaugural Address that closes the film. And then there’s Shakespeare: Hamlet for that dream scene; Macbeth as he argues with Seward about the timing of the push for the amendment (Banquo’s address to the witches: “If you can look into the seeds of time/ And say which grain will grow and which will not,/ Speak then to me”); and when he meets with Bilbo and his crew late at night, he quotes from Falstaff (“We have heard the chimes of midnight, Master Swallow”), appropriately enough for that boozy crew.

Lincoln never footnotes his references; the quotations presume a common (now largely lost) cultural legacy, and a common strategy of lessons through exempla. He is not, after all, the only one given to quotation in the film. The soldiers he encounters in the film’s second scene conclude their exchange with him by reciting his own Gettysburg Address (and it is indicative that the uppity black in the scene—the same one who complains that black troops do not get equal pay and cannot attain officer’s stripes—knows it all the way to the “of the people, by the people” closing). Senator Sumner drags out a fragment of Washington Allston’s period poem “On the State of an Angel” (1842) when he praises Mary Lincoln’s “celestial face.” But in Lincoln’s case, the constant recourse to quotation and example illuminate both his own tactics and those of the filmmakers.

Constructing History

Lincoln is not, despite its title, a biopic. The stories Lincoln tells may illuminate his past (we can tell he was a lawyer; he confesses his self-education and its gaps when talking Euclid; the tale about his epiphany on slavery also notes his difficult relations with his father), but that’s not the point here. This is Lincoln without logsplitting (even if, when the fire gets low, he puts a fresh log on himself), Lincoln without log-cabin backstory, Lincoln without that “Honest Abe” epithet mentioned even once.  Brief scenes do convey the personal beneath the political—Lincoln’s struggles with his moody wife, his own grief over their dead son—but they constitute mere asides. Daniel Day Lewis wonderfully conveys the burdened character of the President (Grant notes at the surrender: “By outward appearance, you’re ten years older than you were a year ago”), but the burdens, like the rest of the backstory, are incidental to the business at hand.

Other figures are even less fully filled in; we never even hear the stirring story that gives Thaddeus Stevens his limp and his cane. Nor is this a broad portrait of America in the last year of the Civil War. A bloody opening scene captures the dire, personal dynamics of hand-to-hand combat, and a visit to a military hospital (with a trench filled with amputated body parts), a brief view of the bombardment of Wilmington, and a post-battle landscape of the dead near the film’s end re-anchors the “war is hell” point, but battles occur mostly offstage here. Only the magic-lantern slides young Tad Lincoln obsesses over (drawn from Alexander Gardner’s portfolio) suggest the actual horrors of slavery in the United States. But these allusions to the wider picture all figure as mere asides.  Rather, Lincoln focuses in on a single year—and really a single month—of a politician’s life, and it centrally depicts the complex struggle to pass that amendment.

In this sense, the only odd thing about the range of Shakespearean quotes is the relative absence here: except for jolly Falstaff, no echoes of the history plays through which Shakespeare constructed an argument about ideal kingship (as well as largely less than ideal kings). In those plays (and perhaps especially in the Second Tetralogy that takes us from Richard II’s failures to Henry V’s triumphs), Shakespeare excerpted and twisted his history to meet his ends, compressing chronologies, dropping out inconvenient facts, reworking historical events and figures in the interest of an argument. Nothing in Tony Kushner’s screenplay comes close to Shakespeare’s willingness to bend historical fact; indeed, the film showcases a care with its construction of a historical past unusual for Hollywood, and, aside from quibbles (how many stars are there on that flag?), historians critical of the film have complained less about distortions of record than about less focused and more debatable issues of interpretation (how important was this amendment?).

But still: Kushner’s tactics are strikingly Shakespearean in at least one respect: in the use of careful selection to construct from the material of history a clear argument. Taking from Lincoln’s career the single year (his last, the war’s last), just as Shakespeare ignored a couple decades of Richard II’s rule to focus on his deposition, and further detailing a day-by-day account of the few weeks between his second inauguration and the passage of the amendment, allows Kushner to make an argument about the mechanics of power brought to serve a greater end.

That end is the abolition of slavery. And no, the Emancipation Proclamation did not finish that work. Kushner’s Lincoln carefully lays out the issue in a meeting with his cabinet; it’s a long speech, but one worth lingering over, for the care with which the key issues are elucidated. After a story, of course, Lincoln plunges in: “I decided that the Constitution gives me war power, but no one knows just exactly what those powers are…. I decided I needed them to exist to uphold my oath to protect the Constitution, which I decided meant that I could take the rebels’ slaves from ‘em as property confiscated in war. That might recommend to suspicion that I agree with the rebs that their slaves are property in the first place. Of course I don’t … [but] if calling a man property, or war contraband, does the trick, why I caught at the opportunity. Now here’s where it gets truly slippery. I use the law allowing for the seizure of property in a war knowing it applies only to the property of governments and citizens of belligerent nations. But the South ain’t a nation, that’s why I can’t negotiate with ‘em. … And slipperier still: I maintain it ain’t our actual Southern states in rebellion, but only the rebels in those states, the laws of which states remain in force. The laws of which states remain in force. That means, that since it’s states’ laws that determine whether Negroes can be sold as slaves, as property—the Federal government doesn’t have a say in that, least not yet…. I felt the war demanded it; my oath demanded it; I felt right with myself; and I hoped it was legal to do it, I’m hoping still. Two years ago I proclaimed these people emancipated—then, thenceforward and forever free.” But let’s say the courts decide I had no authority to do it. They might well do it. Say there’s no amendment abolishing slavery. Say it’s after the war, and I can no longer use my war powers to just ignore the courts’ decisions, like I sometimes felt I had to do. Might those people I freed be ordered back into slavery? That’s why I’d like to get the Thirteenth Amendment through the House.”  In other words, the executive power seized in wartime to proclaim emancipation could not be sustained when the war (as it soon would) ended. Thus the push for passage.

And two other notes, implicit in Lincoln’s argument, should be clear as well. Abolishing slavery through constitutional amendment would place abolition above judicial review; it could not be overturned, Marbury v. Madison style. And passing the amendment by the mandated two-thirds vote could only be accomplished if the war was ongoing: if the House held no Southerners.

Making Sausage: The Political Process

If you want to enjoy your sausage, the old saying goes, don’t look too carefully at how it got made.  Politics, when it comes right down to it, looks a lot like sausage-making. As Thaddeus Stevens, Lincoln’s reluctant ally, puts it, after the amendment abolishing slavery has finally passed: “The greatest measure of the Nineteenth Century. Passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.” Complicated stuff .

Lincoln’s instructions to his cabinet make the political problem clear. He needs two thirds of the House to approve his amendment, which requires keeping all his own party in line (both the conservative and radical wings of the Republicans, each with their own rather different agendas) and pulling in a handful (or, well, a few handfuls) of additional Democratic votes (looking especially to those Democrats who, in the congressional lame-duck session, had already lost re-election votes).  To appease the conservative wing of his own party, he has to seem to be making efforts to end the war, but he also has to ensure that those efforts do not bear fruit too soon. He has to have the support of the radical wing, but he simultaneously has to depend on them to “temper,” as he puts it to Stevens, their own message. The centerpiece of that project is Stevens’s floor-debate insistence that the amendment is only about “equality before the law,” not equality of condition (that is, not racial equality). Meanwhile, through a combination of patronage quasi-bribery (with recourse to the skulky Bilbo to do the convincing) and personal appeals (lots more stories told), he has to bring around (or to abstention) enough Democrats to secure the needed numbers. And he has to keep the peace delegation at bay in the meantime, and almost (but not quite) lie about doing that, to keep the timetable.

The great body of the film—broadly everything between the two opening scenes of battle and interaction with soldiers on the one hand and the quickly limned post-vote surrender, assassination, and Inaugural Address gracenote—center on the struggle to get the votes. Against the major task at hand, everything else is mere aside. And the film’s climax comes with the vote, not with Appotomax or Ford’s Theatre after that. This is a film, less about Lincoln, than about Lincoln’s crowning political achievement, and the complex coordination of multiple strategies it took to accomplish that.

Lincoln’s Moment

Spielberg, it has been reported, deliberately held back the release of Lincoln until after the election because he did not want the film to become “political fodder” during the campaigning season. Was it concern over all that talk about enfranchising blacks, or perhaps worry over what people might make of the very different Democrats (and even more different Republicans) of the 1860s? Spielberg didn’t say. The film was released, instead, in the election’s immediate wake: as petitions urging secession circulated, and as the fiscal cliff loomed.

For this moment, the film constitutes a different sort of political fodder. It offers up a closely conceived argument over the combination of strategies—from the compromising to the coercive—that the mechanics of capitol politics sometimes require to accomplish change. The question it leaves us with is whether we have a Lincoln, or even a Thaddeus Stevens, with us today.

The Ryder, January 2013