Movie highlights controversial means Lincoln utilized in office

Movie highlights controversial means Lincoln utilized in office

In the midst of award season in Hollywood, one of the titles that has frequently come up is Lincoln. Daniel Day Lewis just won a Golden Globe for his performance in the film. Aside from being a quality movie, the film Lincoln brings up an interesting moral dilemma and illuminates the reality of political life in the United States.

The film focuses on the end of the Civil War when Lincoln is trying to get the 13th Amendment passed. He knows that this will be impossible to do when the Confederate states rejoin the Union, so he tries to push the Amendment through Congress beforehand. The Confederacy has begun to engage in peace talks with the Union, but the war is not over, nor has the amendment been able to pass through the northern democrats in Congress. The film shows how Lincoln must choose between allowing the war to continue while he pushes the amendment through Congress, or ending the war and allowing the returning southern congressmen to strike down the amendment. As we know, Lincoln chooses to conceal the fact that the south wants to end the war from Congress and allows the war to continue while he pushes the amendment through. It seems as if most people leave the movie theater thinking, “what a guy!” I walked out of theater feeling deeply disturbed.

Obviously the 13th Amendment was a crucial piece of legislation, arguably one of the most important in our nation’s history. However, I was disturbed by the means with which its ratification was accomplished. I have no issue with a president engaging closely with Congress; in fact I think that a good president does lobby his Congress to do what he believes is right. However, it ought to bother us that our presidents would engage in back door deals and bribery to win over congressmen. I find it astounding that a president revered as highly as Lincoln engaged in such deals. Moreover, it astonished me that this did not seem to bother anyone leaving the theater. Yes, the 13th Amendment is important, but so are honesty, the Constitution and respect for the democratic process. Have we simply accepted these sorts of deals as a political reality? Is it the only way things can be accomplished in Washington?

According to the most recent Real Clear Politics data, the Congressional Job Approval is 17.3 percent, while 76.8 percent disapprove. With what has been coming out of Washington lately, this is no surprise. I suggest that this is because we accept dirty politics and poor legislation as an insurmountable reality or, as in Lincoln, how things get accomplished in Washington. Why do we accept this? In 2013 there seem to be no secrets. Every vote is public and all occurrences in Congress are available on CSPAN, except for those back room deals. But still we can often figure out what those are when irrelevant pork is stuffed into a bill for something like the “Louisiana Purchase” of ObamaCare  (the Obama administration promised $200 million in extra funding to Louisiana’s Medicare program in exchange for their Senator’s support of the legislation, but due to a drafting error, that became $4.3 billion). In Lincoln’s day the people did not have all of the resources that we have to keep an eye on our representatives. With the ease and availability of more information we ought to be able to keep politicians accountable, but we don’t. I suspect it’s because we aren’t looking, which means it’s just as much our fault as it is the fault of our lawmakers.

In regards to the idea of Lincoln bribing Congress, it is upsetting and shows a disregard and lack of faith in the democratic process. As citizens of the United States, we are bound by our constitution, our politicians arguably more so. If we find the democratic process of our bicameral legislature too great an obstacle to accomplish what we as a nation want, then we ought to ratify a new constitution. France, for instance, is on its fifth constitution since it became a Republic. I like our constitution, but it is no more than a piece of paper if we do not follow it, or worse, view it as an obstacle to be overcome by unsavory means. There must be some reverence for the rule of law or we are a nation in disarray.

While we would agree that the 13th Amendment was essential, are the means Lincoln used to get the legislation through acceptable? I do not believe that they are. It is fruitless to hypothesize about what could have been done differently to pass the amendment and end the war, but it is crucial that we recognize the reality of this part of our history and challenge ourselves to question whether that conduct is acceptable to us now.