LINCOLN: Sacrifice, Family, and Politics

Finding Ourselves at the Movies: Philosophy for a New Generation, Paul W. Kahn

As part of our ongoing feature of Paul W. Kahn’s Finding Ourselves at the Movies, we’re delighted to share a guest post from the author himself on Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film Lincoln. Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Finding Ourselves at the Movies!

Lincoln: Sacrifice, Family, and Politics

Had my writing of Finding Ourselves at the Movies extended over one more year, Steve Spielberg’s Lincoln would no doubt have had a central place in my discussion of the narrative of politics that we find in American films. I would have placed a discussion of the film alongside that of Gran Torino, which places an act of sacrificial love at the foundation of law. Lincoln too is about sacrifice and love at the foundation of the state. To see this, we must look past the film’s immediate focus on low politics. To secure House passage of the bill making way for the 13th Amendment, prohibiting slavery, Lincoln was not above trading patronage positions for votes. We also see that he could be less than honest, as in his representation of southern peace overtures. To be sure the use of political tactics to pursue principled ends raises interesting questions, but the meaning of the film does not lie in this direction.

Lincoln is a great example of the first rule of American film: There is no political movie that is not also a film about family. A disturbance in the political order is a disturbance in the familial order – and vice versa. We cannot say whether Lincoln is a film about family or state. The crossing of the familial and the political is the meaning of the White House – both family residence and office – a theme beautifully illustrated in Lincoln’s late night wanderings.

This theme is powerfully portrayed in the subplot involving the radical Republican, Thaddeus Stevens. Stevens, who had spent 30 years fighting for racial equality, must compromise his rhetoric to obtain passage of the bill. He restrains himself to the disappointment of his radical followers, but he succeeds politically. In the only truly surprising moment in the film, he returns home, bill in hand, to share the event with his black housekeeper, who is also his lover and companion. The political and the familial are inseparable.

Political and familial success should go hand in hand for Lincoln too. Instead, he is assassinated. We do see, after passage of the bill, a moment of domestic happiness, as President and wife dream of future travels. It never happens. There is no family recovery, but only endless pain at the death of husband, father, President.

Lincoln’s death represents the great unsettled moment in American history. Without family reconciliation, there is no political reconciliation. Reconstruction fails; we continue to live with many of the same divisions of race and region at issue in the War. Lincoln’s assassination is the rend in the fabric of American life.

The greatness of the film, and its deepest lesson, is in the portrayal of Lincoln as a figure of love. He is, in Thadeus Stevens’s words, “the purest man in American politics.” From the opening scene in which Lincoln speaks with black and white soldiers, to his constant companionship with his young son, to his conversations with an ex-slave, to his visit to a hospital, he is a figure of overwhelming compassion. He quite literally touches all those with whom he comes in contact. This man of amazing oratory is also a man of extraordinary love.

Lincoln is, of course, the American figure of Christ. He speaks in parables, loves the least among us, embraces the enemy, and takes on to himself the nation’s pain. Like Christ, he suffers the paradox that for his faith endless numbers will kill and be killed. Love makes sacrifice possible. Lincoln knows this as the unbearable pain of the war that he must bear for the sake of the nation. The Civil War marks American politics as tragedy; Lincoln personifies that tragedy of love and sacrifice.

Love is at the center of Lincoln, and it is here that we can truly learn something about ourselves. The film constantly moves between the familial and the political, between inner life and outer practice. The family is the site of an inner pain no less grievous than the pain of the battlefield. Lincoln and Mary bear the unspeakable pain of the loss of a child, just like every other family touched by this war. The message is unmistakable: there is no line to be drawn between the family and the polity for both are expressions of love. Every soldier who dies for his country is a loss to a family. We must love the state, if we are to bear the sacrifice our loved ones. The success of the film suggests that this is a story that Americans want to hear: Ours is a project that is worthy of sacrifice because it is a project of love. Lincoln is the face of that love.

We will miss this point if we think the 13th Amendment is about a theory of equality or that liberal politics is about keeping the government out of our private lives. Before we can have a government, we must have a state; before we can apply a theory, we must have a community. To have either, we must be bound to each other. Americans believe – or want to believe – that the ties that bind us are elements of our very being. Lincoln speaks to a common faith that these are ties of love, and that for this love we will give everything.

Can we translate love into a political program? Because the American love of nation is a sacrificial love, war has occupied much of our history. The narrative of sacrifice often comes easier than a political program of charity. Yet, the final words of the film – Lincoln’s words – are precisely on point: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on . . . to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” Lincoln’s words call us still to heal the nation’s divisions. He left us no instruction book, and the film offers none. Lincoln shows us the stakes, but the burden of politics is our own.

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