, Salem, MA


February 23, 2013

Column: Compromise and the purest man in America

“The greatest measure of the century, passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”

That’s how Congressman Thaddeus Stevens described the 13th Amendment at the end of Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated film “Lincoln.”

The movie presents the weeks leading up to the vote in the House of Representatives to abolish slavery. President Lincoln has won re-election. The Civil War has raged with devastation for four years. Peace and messy reconstruction loom as a way of life disintegrates for three groups of people: the enslaved, the slave owners and their neighbors.

The politics necessary to achieve the move from a country that sanctioned people owning other people, to one that does not, was wrought with compromise, including bribery and rhetorical contortion. At the center of the politics is a person whose familiar stature and words bear the weight of history and hero worship.

Lincoln is known to us for his accomplishments, his tragedies and his look. His leadership changed the course of human events; he and his wife lost two young sons to sickness; he was tall, bearded and wore a distinctive hat. And, of course, he was shot to death attending a play. Spielberg’s picture gives us all of these, embodying a superficially familiar figure in Daniel Day-Lewis’ meticulous action. His Lincoln becomes human, albeit still enigmatic, through his voice, frame and particularly his hands, so that when Day-Lewis speaks and moves, we feel Lincoln’s passion and frailty.

We hear the voice before we see the body of the speaker: “What’s your name, soldier?” It’s a little raspy, maybe higher-pitched than we’d expect. Lincoln sits on a small platform as soldiers gather before him, and he jokes. It’s awkward and endearing, for the other characters on screen, and for us. This is a man too big, too important, to fit with casual jokes and stories. Soldiers, and we, have memorized a speech he gave and they recite it back to him: Four score and seven years ago ...

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