Lessons from 'Lincoln'

Preston Manning on the new Spielberg film, 'Lincoln'—and what Obama could learn from it


Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s new film, tells the story of a dramatic period in the life of Abraham Lincoln near the end of the American Civil War. It is the period between Lincoln’s re-election to a second term as president of the United States on Nov. 8, 1864, and the passage, several months later, of the constitutional amendment that permanently abolished slavery throughout the U.S.

President Barack Obama has been re-elected to his second term at a time when America is again seriously divided racially and politically—racked by what CNN commentator John King described on election night as “an ideological civil war.” This conflict currently prevents a divided U.S. government from averting the fiscal crisis that threatens to plunge the American economy into recession.

So what were the principles and tactics employed by Lincoln to bring together a Congress divided over abolition? And how might they apply to bringing together a U.S. government divided over the fiscal issue and hasten the end of America’s ideological civil war?

Bring rivals onside: In her book Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin describes how Lincoln included four of his most bitter political opponents in his war cabinet, rather than ignoring them or banishing them to the political wilderness. These included secretary of state William Seward, attorney general Edward Bates and secretary of the treasury Salmon Chase—three of Lincoln’s competitors for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860.

One wonders if the U.S. government would now be drawing back from the “fiscal cliff” if on election night Obama’s acceptance speech had included something more Lincolnian, something more like this: “Significant differences exist between myself and Mitt Romney, which have been bitterly debated during this campaign. But I am resolved that there should be a coming together of our two great parties on the serious fiscal issues that divide us and the country. In particular, there needs to be a coming together of myself and Congress to resolve the impasse over the changes in spending and taxation required to avert a financial crisis. To that end, I am inviting governor Romney to join with a prominent Democrat [Bill Clinton?] to head a reconciliation task force to find common ground for action by myself and the Congress on the fiscal issue before Jan. 1st, 2013.”

Add humour: Lincoln was famous for his storytelling abilities; most of his stories had a folksy, humorous dimension that made people laugh at themselves and the circumstances being described. Lincoln used this ability, not only in his public addresses, but with cabinet colleagues. He used humorous stories to diffuse tense impasses in Cabinet or to make a telling point in an inoffensive way.

Lincoln’s humour was disarming—so was his lack of pretentiousness. Known for his height, he would frequently break the ice with visitors to his office by challenging them to measure to see who was the tallest. And his slightly rumpled appearance, contrasted in the movie with the more polished and uptight appearance of his cabinet colleagues, also tended to set people at ease.

By way of contrast, few candidates or elected officials today are genuine and humorous storytellers. The sarcasm, ridicule and vicious witticisms that characterize so much of today’s political humour tend to heighten tensions between competing candidates and parties rather than diffuse them. And the carefully crafted and coiffed public images of today’s candidates smack more of artificiality and pretense than of the down-to-earth genuineness required to inspire public confidence.

Build and shrewdly manage a temporary coalition: The 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude throughout the U.S. To secure its passage, Lincoln had to secure the support of a reluctant House of Representatives. (The Senate had already passed the measure.)

When elected chambers are asked to approve measures fraught with moral implications, invariably, three groups of people must be dealt with: those who will support the measure on principle, those who are opposed no matter what, and those in the “mushy middle,” who are conflicted or undecided.

In Lincoln, the main focus is how Lincoln—through Seward and three unscrupulous lobbyists hired by him—manages to persuade 20 congressmen in the mushy middle to either abstain from the vote or reluctantly side with abolitionists. Some are bribed with offers of public office upon their departure from Congress. Others are bullied and threatened. The tactics are unprincipled and effective because the targets are unprincipled.

But crucial to the amendment’s passage is the conduct of one of the most principled members of the House, Thaddeus Stevens, a Pennsylvania Republican. If Stevens, in his zeal for abolition, pushes too hard, or tries to extend the principle of equality for all under the law to a declaration of the equality of blacks and whites in all respects, he will drive those in the mushy middle into the opposite camp. How Stevens is encouraged and restrained, without being alienated or hopelessly compromised, is one of the highlights of the movie.

If the ideological civil war in the United States is to cease, or to be ameliorated, or at least to be suspended until the fiscal crisis is dealt with, a temporary coalition of Democrats and Republicans needs to be built and managed to that end.

Know when to stop fighting: One of the closing scenes of Spielberg’s Lincoln is the dignified reception of the defeated Confederate general, Robert E. Lee, by the victorious Union general, Ulysses S. Grant, at Appomattox, Va.—an event which marked the official end of the U.S. Civil War. Lee’s cameo appearance reminds us that in graciously accepting defeat, he played a major role in setting a bitterly divided country on the road to reunification.

During the last few weeks of the war—when it was evident to Lee that the war was lost—Confederate president Jefferson Davis urged it be continued through guerrilla tactics. Had this occurred, vicious, localized guerrilla conflict might have continued to poison the relationship between the North and South for decades. To Lee’s credit, he categorically rejected it. The time had come for peace and reconciliation.

Cessation of the ideological civil war in the U.S. could be hastened if Obama initiated a reconciliation process in the spirit of Lincoln. But it could also be hastened if the Republicans, who lost the election, could, in the spirit of Lee, acknowledge that the war is over (at least for now), and resist the temptation to prolong the conflict indefinitely via the employment of guerrilla tactics in Congress.

Pursue reconciliation at its most profound level: The final scene of Lincoln shows the president on the steps of the Capitol Building on March 4, 1865, delivering his second inaugural address. The speech is considered by many, myself included, to be Lincoln’s finest. One of its deepest insights is Lincoln’s belief that reconciliation, at its most profound level, is as much spiritual as it is political. It is, by far, the most religious of all presidential inaugural addresses.

To the ideologues currently embroiled in the current conflict, a spiritual conception of reconciliation suggests this: if you must change your position in order to resolve the crisis that is tearing your country apart, regard these changes not as compromises, but as self-sacrificial acts that are part of the price of reconciliation.

And to the religious groups, especially Christian groups, heavily engaged as combatants in America’s ideological civil war: if the most central doctrine of your faith is not your position on abortion or same-sex marriage, but the reconciliation of human beings to God and to each other, should you not then be serving first and foremost as self-sacrificial mediators of the conflict?

Lincoln didn’t just talk the talk of self-sacrifice in the cause of reconciliation. One month after the delivery of his second inaugural address, and only a few days after the end of the Civil War, his own life was sacrificed for the cause to which he had selflessly dedicated himself.

Preston Manning is the president and CEO of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy