I finally got around to seeing Lincoln yesterday. Great movie! Daniel Day-Lewis is as good as you’ve heard. James Spader probably deserved a supporting actor nomination for playing the leader of a group of three people dispatched by Lincoln to encourage, cajole, and openly bribe wavering Democratic representatives. (The Republicans were the good guys in those days, at least on this issue.)
This is not a biopic about Lincoln, but instead focuses exclusively on the months leading up to the passage of the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution. It is natural, when watching such a film, to wonder how much of it is true and how much of it is just dramatic invention. There is one aspect of the film in particular that I am wondering about. We get extensive scenes of the debate within the House of Representatives, you see. (The Senate had already passed the amendment prior to the start of the film.) What struck me was that, as depicted in the film, everyone spoke so beautifully!
For example, in one critical scene we see Tommy Lee Jones as Pennsylvania representative Thaddeus Stevens standing at the podium. This is a dramatic moment. Stevens was well known in his time for radically egalitarian views, arguing for the full equality of blacks and whites. This was a major sticking point at the time. Some wavering Democrats were prepared to accept equality before the law, but were scared of a slippery slope then leading to full human equality. If Stevens had openly expressed that view in the House debate, enough votes would have been frightened off to prevent passage of the amendment. Prior to the big scene, Lincoln sits Stevens down and patiently explains, in a manner that I’m sure was not at all inspired by anything that is happening today, that sometimes you have to compromise a principle to make any progress at all.
So the big scene arrives and the question is whether Stevens will be practical, or whether he will maintain his purity at the risk of scuttling the vote. He is challenged by New York representative Fernando Wood as to his view regarding the equality of the races. Wood is confident that someone as principled as Stevens will stick to his guns. But no! Stevens insists that he only believes in equality before the law, and not in any other area. Wood badgers him about this, eventually prompting Stevens to unleash some amazingly eloquent zingers. Stevens points out he couldn’t possibly believe in the full equality of human beings with people like Wood around to show what true inferiority looks like, but even someone as low as Wood nonetheless deserves equal protection under the law.
I so hope that was taken from actual transcripts.
But such was the case for all of the exchanges among the representatives. One person after another spoke in beautiful, polished prose, always with the perfect bon mot right at his fingertips. To compare their towering speech with the semi-literate rantings we get nowadays, especially from the members of Lincoln’s part, is to be reminded of just how far we’ve fallen.
On a related note, I just browsed through the Wikipedia article on Fernando Wood, and it ends with this:
On January 15, 1868, Wood was censured for the use of unparliamentary language. During debate on the floor the House of Representatives, Wood called a piece of legislation “A monstrosity, a measure the most infamous of the many infamous acts of this infamous Congress.” An uproar immediately followed this utterance, and Wood was not permitted to continue. This was followed by a motion by Henry L. Dawes to censure Wood, which passed by a vote of 114-39.
Notwithstanding his censure, Wood still managed to defeat Dr. Francis Thomas, the Republican candidate, by a narrow margin in the election of that year.
Times sure have changed!