, Salem, MA

November 22, 2012

Watson: Lincoln and the elixir of politics

Brian T. Watson
The Salem News

---- — If we’ve all been a little beat up by the recent election campaign season, and possibly even wondering about the integrity, dignity and worthiness of this business we call “politics,” then the current movie “Lincoln” is just the elixir we need.

For the movie in no uncertain terms is a paean to politics — to the work and deals and compromises and practitioners of the profession. Politics is often referred to as “the art of the possible,” and “Lincoln” reminds us that politics is a craft — difficult, exasperating, powerful, indispensable and often noble.

Over the course of history, empires and governments and ideologies have come and gone; churches and dogmas have waxed and waned; inventions and technologies and markets have played their roles; wars and disasters and injustices have occurred; and, through it all, it has been politics — the interplay and organization of people, institutions, societies, ideas and action — that has endured and offered ways for men to plot paths through the present and future.

The very practice of politics, then, especially in a democracy, is an act of realism that implies a belief that society’s problems can be addressed effectively and best with reason, discourse, negotiation, the participation of citizens or their representatives, and, finally, action.

Abraham Lincoln, our 16th president, serving from 1861 until his assassination in 1865, had a profound grasp of the value of and need for politics. Taking office at a time when the nation was severely divided over the issue of slavery, and when civil war appeared a real possibility, he understood that no unilateral federal action nor any simple coercion was going to resolve the country’s divisions.

The irony — to a believer in politics, like Lincoln — was that he had just been elected by a nation that had signaled with its vote its strong opposition to slavery. Lincoln had run as the Republican Party nominee and had defeated two Democrats sharing the ballot. The Democrats had split over slavery — and so had run a pro-slavery candidate, John Breckinridge, and an anti-slavery candidate, Stephen Douglas. Together, Lincoln and Douglas received almost four times the number of votes as Breckinridge.

But the pro-slavery South wasn’t tempered by the election. Before Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1861, seven Southern states had already seceded and formally created the Confederacy. The Civil War began on April 12 when Confederate forces attacked the Union-held Fort Sumter.

Although Lincoln was opposed to slavery — believing it evil, contrary to man’s instinct for justice and in violation of the Declaration of Independence — his primary responsibility was to preserve the United States. He had to defend his ethics against the fiery abolitionists who were willing to jettison the South in order to disassociate themselves from slavery. He also believed that only by keeping the Union whole could politics — not war — properly, legally and permanently resolve the slavery question.

Toward that end, in 1865, Lincoln persuaded his Republican Party in Congress to debate and consider passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. He believed that the measure, which abolished slavery, was necessary to establish the legal imperative that the restored Union would have to find ways to implement — slowly — after the war.

The amendment was audacious for its time, and it barely passed Congress. Lincoln had to convince bigots of its merit and had to calm skittish abolitionists who felt it didn’t go far enough.

This is where his shrewdness and humanity blended effectively. He had always understood that people need leading, but that human nature sometimes resists following. Within each of us, he knew, is the capacity for good and ill; and change in a democratic society often asks individuals to reconcile self-interest against broader measures of fairness.

He knew that politics — with its visions and proposals — could easily outpace the people. But Lincoln’s patience, the even speed at which he worked, his ever-constant reference to the nation’s founding principles and his canny timing caused citizens and pols alike to support the anti-slavery and Union-saving measures he proposed.

Lastly, sure that the moment required it, he was unafraid to use all means to ensure passage of the 13th Amendment. Essentially bribing 10 or 15 congressmen — who happily became ambassadors, ministers, judges and other dignitaries after the vote — he secured victory by just a two-vote margin.

So Lincoln was no saint, and he required no saints to save the Union. But what the country required in 1865 was what it required in 1776, and what it requires now — a respect for politics and a respect for how politics, competently executed by citizens and their representatives, can move men along in the direction of their best aspirations.

The movie “Lincoln” gives us a demonstration of “the art of the possible” at a time when we need it. Every American — regardless of political orientation — will walk out of the theater a little prouder at the magnificent hypothesis that this country has been for 236 years, and counting.


Brian T. Watson is a regular Salem News columnist. Contact him at