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Robert Bennett: A 'Lincoln' review for history buffs

Published: Monday, Jan. 14 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

“Lincoln,” the movie that covers the final months of Abraham Lincoln’s life, is worth a review for those who like American history.

Artistic license is always taken in movies about historical events, and “Lincoln” is no exception. The drama of the debate on the floor of the House of Representatives is heightened in the film in order to make the outcome more suspenseful, but the portrayal of Rep. Thaddeus Stevens is very close to the mark. He was indeed a witty, sarcastic, powerful congressman, known as the “dictator” of the House, who was widely believed to have had a love affair with his African-American housekeeper, just as shown.

On the historical issues of the time — one of which, a state’s right of secession, is creeping back into currrent political dialog — the script got things exactly right.

Members of Lincoln’s Cabinet speak of the Southern States as political entities in rebellion against the United States. No, Lincoln replies, very forcefully, the Southern states are not in rebellion but have been taken over by individuals who are. Towards the end of the picture he takes the same position while addressing the Southern Commissioners who claim to represent a sovereign nation.

The point is more than a lawyer’s quibble. The Constitution does not provide a method by which a state, having joined the Union, can leave it. Once in, a state can vote with other states to amend the Constitution but cannot repudiate it. This mattered a great deal to those opponents of Southern secession who were living in Southern states. There were a lot of them, called Unionists, and they believed that their American citizenship could not be taken away by state legislatures. Lincoln made one of them his Vice President.

Because of the timing of its production, the authors of the movie had to have put Lincoln’s position on secession into the script before secession petitions started being circulated and signed after the 2012 election by those who were disappointed by its outcome. Fortuitously, the film reminds us now that the Civil War settled the question once and for all.

I liked the film’s portrayal of Lincoln as a leader. Elsewhere, he has sometimes been depicted as a dogged frontier lawyer who failed again and again but finally won the big prize simply by keeping at it, a simple man who rose to greatness through sheer persistence.

Not so. He had persistence aplenty, but he was neither a loser nor a naif. A successful, wealthy lawyer, he was a leading figure in the Whig Party in Illinois before becoming a spokesman of national stature in a newly created Republican Party that badly needed one. His manners were too backwoodsy for Easterners, but the movie correctly portrays him as a man of broad practical experience, deep conviction and great political skill, one who learned from his mistakes instead of repeating them. He knew his craft well.

Some say the movie tarishes Lincoln’s reputation by showing him grubbing for votes. I say it burnishes it by showing how deeply he was determined to end slavery, how clearly he understood the importance of timely action and how effectively he organized and pushed to achieve that goal. This man didn’t just talk about lofty goals; he delivered on them.

Finally, I was pleased that speech chosen to end the movie was not the Gettysburg Address, wonderful as it is, but the Second Inaugural, an inspired statement about America’s purpose and destiny that deserves more attention than it gets.

Skeptical about the value of most “historical” movies, I recommend “Lincoln” as one that has something useful to say.

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