Politically incorrect film reviews – A Lincoln convertible (Robert Henderson)

by Robert Henderson


Politically incorrect film reviews – A Lincoln convertible

Robert Henderson

Main cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, James Spader, David

Strathairn, Peter McRobbie, Lee Pace (There is a very extensive cast, but Day-Lewis is so dominant in terms of screen time that the main cast could have been him alone)

Director Stephen Spielberg

Running time: 150 minutes

What is the most damning word that can be applied to a film? I suspect it is dull. That is the word for Lincoln. Too many characters, too much poorly orchestrated verbal scrummaging in Congress, an avalanche of posturing earnestness and a good deal of ham acting – yes, that’s you James Spader I am particularly wincing at for your Republican fixer William N. Bilbo and you Tommy Lee Jones for your painfully ridiculous abolitionist Thaddeus Stephens, a man unable to open his mouth without engaging in abuse. The only performance of any note is that of Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln.

If there was ever an actor capable of single-handedly rescuing an indifferent film it is Day-Lewis. He did it magnificently in Gangs of New York with his riveting performance as Bill the Butcher. The man does his level best here and in truth is a pretty convincing Lincoln, but the film is so generally flaccid, overly wordy and positively cartoonish in its representation of the debate over the Amendment to abolish slavery that he cannot obscure its seriously disabling weaknesses. Day-Lewis is also handicapped by the character of Lincoln which is devious while he maintains a façade of reasonableness. It is too quiet, too restrained a personality to rescue a poor film by obliterating the mediocrity around him, especially one of this length.

To those considerable weaknesses can be added the film’s gross dishonesty in representing Lincoln’s position on slavery and blacks generally. This misrepresentation is made simple by restricting the action in the film to a few months at the very fag end of the American Civil War during which the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution abolishing slavery was brought to the House of Representatives, debated and eventually passed. The short time span allowed Lincoln’s earlier equivocal and changing positions on the relative importance of abolishing slavery and respecting state rights and for modern liberals his distinctly embarrassing views on blacks to be almost entirely hidden from view.

What did Lincoln’s think of slavery? He was very much the Lincoln convertible, with different messages, often subtly different, for various audiences and political circumstances. But there is a clear line to be followed in his thought. There is no reason to believe that he did not find the institution obnoxious in the abstract and the actual mistreatment of slaves distressing. But the fact that Lincoln was distressed when for example, he saw blacks being transported chained – a story repeated in the film – did not mean he thought of blacks as the equals of whites or wanted them to have full legal equality with whites. Here he is putting his views unambiguously in 1858:

I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the White and Black races – that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes – nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to inter-marry with White people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the White and Black races which will ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality, and in as much as they cannot so live, while they do remain together, there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the White race.” (ABRAHAM LINCOLN, in his debate with Senator Douglas at Quincy, IL, on Oct. 13, 1858 and quoted in Abraham Lincoln – Complete Works, published by The Century Co., 1894, Vol. I, page 273).

Lincoln’s belief that white and black could not live in equality led him to be an advocate of colonisation, which in this context meant the transfer of blacks in the USA to other parts of the world , especially Liberia in West Africa. He had doubts of the practicality for in the Douglas debates we find him saying “My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia,—to their own native land. But a moment’s reflection would convince me that whatever of high hope (as I think there is) there may be in this, in the long run, its sudden execution is impossible. If they were all landed there in a day, they would all perish in the next ten days; and there are not surplus shipping and surplus money enough in the world to carry them there in many times ten days.

But if that is not the answer Lincoln has no ready solution for he goes on to say:

What then? Free them all, and keep them among us as underlings? Is it quite certain that this betters their condition? I think I would not hold one in slavery, at any rate; yet the point is not clear enough to me to denounce people upon. What next? Free them, and make them politically and socially our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not. Whether this feeling accords with justice and sound judgment, is not the sole question, if, indeed, it is any part of it. A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, cannot be safely disregarded. We cannot, then, make them equals. It does seem to me that systems of gradual emancipation might be adopted; but for their tardiness in this, I will not undertake to judge our brethren of the South.” ( http://www.bartleby.com/251/12.html).

Despite his concerns at the practicality of colonisation, Lincoln was still promoting the idea during his presidency. He mentioned it in his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in 1862 and created a special office to oversee the process of colonisation under the control of the Rev. James Mitchell of Indiana and established a Bureau of Emigration.

Lincoln’s feelings towards slaves are suggestive of those of the man who sees animals being cruelly treated and wishes for the mistreatment to stop. Those feelings do not signify that the animals would be welcome round and about the homes of the pitying onlooker merely that the onlooker wished the mistreatment to stop.

Then there is the question of priorities. When he became president Lincoln had no hesitation in making clear his first concern was the preservation the Union. He did this in his first inaugural presidential address on March 4, 1861 when he offered no objection to the pending Corwin Amendment which ran “No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.” ( Volume 12 of the Statutes at Large at page 251).

This would have effectively made the abolition of slavery by Congress impossible by reserving the power to be a free or slave state to the individual states Lincoln said this at his inauguration:

“I understand a proposed amendment to the Constitution . . . has passed Congress, to the effect that the Federal Government shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service. I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.” ()

Well into the war Lincoln was unequivocal about the priority of the ends for which the war was fought, the primary end being the preservation of the Union:

I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views. I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free…” Lincoln, Abraham. “Letter to Horace Greeley, August 22, 1862”. In Miller, Marion Mills. Life and Works of Abraham Lincoln. Current Literature. Retrieved 2011-01-24.

The film’s presentation of the pro and anti-abolition arguments will ring a bell with anyone who is familiar with the BBC’s idea of balance. The pro-slavers are allowed to say something but they are always outnumbered and are never allowed the last word. Moreover, the fact that Day-Lewis’ Lincoln takes up so much of the screen time allotted to argument that any other voice is lost in the general babble of an overloaded cast. Interestingly, the pro-slavers in the film engaged in argument while

the abolitionists readily turned to crude abuse. This is very reminiscent of the way modern liberals behave in real life (see http://livinginamadhouse.wordpress.com/2010/10/17/the-liberal-bigot/). There is also the gaping hole of a virtually absent Confederate voice, not so much to give the pro-slavery arguments but those of the state rights versus federal powers conflict.

Perhaps the most telling facet of the film is the depiction of the double dealing of Lincoln and his fellow Republicans. Opponents of the amendment are shamelessly bribed with offers of government jobs with the full approval of Lincoln who also engages in a piece of gross dishonesty by delaying the arrival of a peace delegation from the Confederacy to ensure the Amendment passes. This also requires him to give a lawyer’s evasion to the question of whether such a peace delegation exists by answering that he knows of no such delegation in Washington rather than saying he knew of no peace delegation. All of this skulduggery is portrayed as a legitimate means to an end, which of course, is the besetting sin of liberals today who eagerly embrace any enormity provided it is intended to move some part of the world towards their nirvana of unalloyed political correctness. The

problem with such dishonesty and is that even if it gains the immediate object –which often it does not – it invariably has a corrosive effect on political trust . Even today there are still the lingering resentments in the states of the Confederacy over their treatment after the war during the reconstruction era.

In the end the question has to be asked, was the abolition of slavery as it was done worth 600,000 dead and many more injured, often hideously? What was the greater good, no civil war and the retention of slavery for a time or the immediate abolition of slavery bought at the costs of huge numbers of killed and maimed ? It might seem a simple calculus to us today because slavery to us is self-evidently beyond the Pale, but in mid 19th century America things looked very different, just as they have looked very different to every society which has had a form of legal servitude, which includes most societies in most times and places with servitude ranging from full blown chattel slavery through serfdom to indentured labour. It is also worth bearing in mind that the free poor in the vast majority of societies throughout history have in practice been in a de facto servile position because of their material circumstances and the general imbalance of power between employer and employed. Indeed, the iconic English abolitionist William Wilberforce was much taunted with the fact that while he made a great uproar about slaves he bore with equanimity the abject poverty of many of his countrymen.

The abolition of US slavery was reckless in its execution because it was made without compensation (with the exception of Washington DC) to slave owners and was not staggered over several years. The British abolition of slavery in British colonies used both devices (the British taxpayer expended the then colossal sum of £20 million in compensation which represented two fifths of the annual British budget) and, though far from an easy transition, it did remove both the problem of the ruination of a very large part of the colonial economy (the slave related part) and provide the wherewithal for the now ex-slave owners to continue their various economic enterprises by paying wages and to make the necessary practical adjustments . It also brought time for the transition from slave to wage-earner to be psychologically absorbed. Slavery is the ultimate form of institutionalisation . A man or woman born to slavery and knowing

nothing but servitude may find themselves disorientated when suddenly freed even if they have long dreamt of freedom, just as long-term prisoners or mental patients often do when released. That had benefits for both slave owners and slaves because it was preferable to the sudden disorganised shock of immediate and uncompensated

Had Congress arranged to compensate the slave owners at an honest price and staggered the ending of slavery there is good reason to believe the Civil War could have been avoided and slavery ended within a relatively short period of time. As it was the abolition as it stood made a mess of slave owning states economies, left the freed slaves in a precarious position to be subject to Jim Crow laws and segregation for nearly a century and often the recipients of the practice of convict leasing whereby convicts were effectively sold to private contractors for a set period of time.

If the abolition of slavery been peacefully accomplished it would also have had the great benefit of leaving state rights and powers unsavaged by the gross violations of the Constitution which Lincoln perpetrated during the war with his proclamations made as commander-in-chief which included the suspension of Habeas Corpus and his ignoring of rulings by the Supreme Court. (http://www.civilwarhome.com/pulito.htm). Interestingly, the question of legality of his proclamations was addressed at some length by Lincoln in the film, although primarily in the context of the legality of his Emancipation Proclamation.

It should be very difficult for any person without a political axe to grind to come away from the film without seeing Lincoln as a slippery hypocrite with no regard for the truth. Needless to say in these PC times you would not guess it from the reviews. The critics have generally grovelled before the film’s prime politically correct subject matter. The review by Rupert Christianson of the Daily Telegraph (a Tory newspaper) gives a taste of the tone in the British media: “I cannot vouch for the movie’s historical accuracy – so much about Lincoln remains contested – but, without resorting to pomposity or sentimentality, Spielberg has built the story into a stirring drama of dilemma worthy of Racine or Schiller… The word that came to my mind as I left the cinema is an unfashionable one: noble. This is a noble film, about noble people. Quentin Tarantino doesn’t do noble.” ( http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/baftas/9857721/Baftas-2013-Spielbergs-Noble-Achievement.html).

Should you go and see this film? Well, if you do, visit it in a spirit of inquiry into exactly how blatant in their bias the politically correct can be when producing what can only be described as unashamed propaganda. Talking of modern liberals, the film has provided me with some amusement. Discussing it with the politically correct in Britain it is remarkable how many believe Lincoln to have been a Democrat and the opponents of slavery in the film to have all been Republicans. It is a treat to watch their credulous little faces drop when I tell them the truth.


  1. No thanks. I won’t watch it. You have only confirmed what I suspected when I first heard about it. No doubt Hollywood will get around to boring the pants off us with a film about Obama too, equally politically correct and deviously dishonest.

    Left alone, slave owners would have eventually freed their slaves for purely economic reasons since slaves were expensive to keep and waged labour was much more flexible. Unemployment was then not the concern of the plantation owners.

    Slavery ended that way in Brazil only thirty-odd years after the end of the Civil War, and peacefully too,

  2. It does indeed be appear to be re-materialising in the UK, £52.00 per week
    working full time at poundland on WE seems to bear this out.

  3. I have not seen this film and I do not intend to. The advertisements for it warned me off.

    “We must have equality – equality is fairness, fairness is justice” “Lincoln” says in the radio adverts.

    Mr Lincoln had many faults(which is why Salmon P. Chase would have been the better choice at the 1860 Convention) – but was not some sort of “Social Justice” worshipping John Rawls type.

    A false “Lincoln” is being crearted and the population being invited to worship this false figure. For what purpose?

    As for historical period……..

    Then, as now, Republicans were denounced as the “puppets of big business” and “religious fanatics”.

    Some of the speeches of Confederate apologists at the time (and KKK supporters for many decades later – against “big business Republicans”, attacking “the rich”, claiming that the “true slavery” is “wage slavery” – and on and on) could be read out today by “mainstream” media people and Populist politicians (indeed they basically are). However, the charge of also being “nigger lovers” would have to be deleted from modern speeches.

  4. To each his own, I saw Lincoln several times and loved it. Frankly Spader was my favorite because his character was the one to add levity to the film…and he was hysterical.

  5. The Marble Lincoln of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington,D.C. is taken down by the Lincoln in the film, who is shown to be a devious politician more intent on consolidating his own political power. Still overall, I enjoyed the film.

  6. But for the fact that things went horribly wrong for General Lee at Gettysburg, Lincoln would (and should) have been hanged as a war criminal. History, of course, is written by the victors.
    A few brief points;
    1) Slavery is just how things were back then. As an institution it was on the way out everywhere, but America is the only country which (ostensibly) saw the need to fight a war to bring about its demise. In my view the cure was far worse than the disease – such a tragic loss of the nation’s prime young men. Lincoln started the war and he could have halted it at any time. The issue of Slavery was only introduced half way through the war to give a figleaf of respectability to Lincoln’s crimes.
    2) Lincoln’s name was not on the ballot paper in any of the Southern States bar one (where he got 2% of the vote). The South naturally resented his being imposed on them by the North (parallels with Gordon Brown perhaps.)
    3) Lincoln is credited with ‘saving the Union’. In fact he destroyed it. The ‘United States’ was a voluntary association of former colonies. Lincoln made it voluntary at the point of a gun.
    4) Echoing this point, Thomas Jefferson once remarked that ‘governments derive their just powers from the consent of the govened’. Once again, Lincoln obtained this consent at gunpoint.
    5) Talking of Jefferson, I am outraged that Lincoln should be allowed to get away with hi-jacking the words Jefferson used in the Declaration of Independence for his Gettysburg Address. When Jefferson said ‘all men are created equal’, he meant kings (who ruled by divine right) and ordinary folk. When Lincoln told his audience that ‘this nation was dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal’ he was referring to black and white. This is not merely untrue as a statement of fact, it is a travesty of the true meaning of Jefferson’s words.
    6) Karl Fenn, yes, you can all someone a Nigger here (I am writing this in Florida). It is called the First Amendment. You might risk a punch on the nose, mind you, depending on the context. I was discussing politics with an elderly friend of mine the other day and he said “Now them Niggers have got what they want I hope they’re happy”. Personally I think Obama has divided this country to the extent that he might not survive his second term. I reckon he is probably the second worst President after Lincoln. I am not advocating violence of course (even I don’t hate him that much!), merely making an observation.

  7. Thanks Hugo, the same thing is going on in england, the countries heading
    for real trouble, not only do we have race segregation, we have three social
    classes of whites, plus an underclass, many of them hate each other as well,
    I think there will be trouble in the summer, the cold is keeping them at
    home in the warm.

  8. The Joy’s of lower middle england have changed beyond belief, what was once a comfortable existance, has become a living “Hell” cuts everywhere, low pay, rediculous laws, wave after wave, the out of control prison buget, how did such things ever come to pass!

  9. Anyway, Hugo it the same with that Tony Blair, the people hate him, I think
    if he walked down a street in London they would probably Kill him.

  10. Anyway, hugo, if we used that sort of terminology here, in certain parts of London you would get a knife in the gut’s, unlike Oliver, there are certain places, that even I would no longer venture, country has become a trouble place, one has to watch one’s tongue in this changing Island, time for bed I think!

  11. The responses after Hugo Millers 14th Feb diatribe are beyond belief, and he has only himself to blame.

    The idea that slavery was on the way out is fantastic. On the contrary, the war’s partial reason was because the Dixie states were calling on the north to return its slaves! And after hostility ceased, the South immediately resisted reconstruction, to the point when Georgia had to be placed under martial law. Despite the Radical Republicans (glory to them!) by the time of Grant’s presidency, the force for good was thoroughly undermined. True, Lincoln’s strategies could be described as at least Machiavellian, but by the war’s end, he could greet Frederick Douglass as a friend. In time, too, Douglass came to hold him in awe.

    Johnson is the real villain, clearly a real racist, who, through his corruption and hatred, weakened Grant’s term in office, to the point that the 1875 Civil Rights Act was doomed. This was hardly Grant’s fault. (Grant, it seems to me, had ‘cleaner hands’ than Lincoln).

    As for Lincoln as ‘war criminal’, compared to the dissembling, ferocity and double dealing of the South he was in the infants’ class. The Confederates would, for example, massacre Southern Unionists whenever they felt the need.

    The whole slavery movement depended on two premisses. Firstly, it had to prove that ‘Negroes’ are not ‘men’. Impossible as this is, since by definition all human beings are moral agents, it was simply accepted in the South as a ‘universal truth’, given by God. (Or as I would say, by Satan). Don’t ask me how anyone can believe this. But I notice all the closet condemnations which follow Miller concede this point, by implying ‘Negroes’ have poor moral standards.

    Secondly, and more interestingly, they had to show why people with black skin should enslaved. Jefferson’s answer – they are children in need of protection, similar to ‘progressive’ argument about the role of the state – was rejected. So blacks got it in the neck from two directions. In the first place, they weren’t ‘human’, or at least fully adult. And in the second, despite Jefferson’s obviously correct conclusions from a false premiss, you could do what you like with them!

    The film’s dialogue, from what I have heard in the trailers, reduces Lincoln to a social worker. As for the other performances being more phonily melodramatic than Day-Lewis’s – well, just: Goodness!

    No matter how proudly ‘we’ use the ‘n’ word, it is not simply ‘politically incorrect’. It is an invitation to murder (for example in ‘rap’ music), and I would never permit black students to use it in my classroom.

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