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!

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Unfortunately there are no transcripts of any congressional proceedings in our nation's history. Read the wiki on the 'congressional record.' As it says 'From a legal standpoint, most materials in the Congressional Record are classified as secondary authority.'

Also, 'By custom and rules of each house, members also frequently "revise and extend" the remarks they actually made on the floor before the debates are published in the Congressional Record. Therefore, for many years, speeches that were not actually delivered in Congress appeared in the Congressional Record, including in the sections purporting to be verbatim reports of debates. In recent years, however, these revised remarks have been preceded by a "bullet" symbol or, more recently and currently, printed in a typeface discernibly different from that used to report words actually spoken by members.'

Sounds like I should see the movie though. Lincoln never much excited me, but maybe this will do the trick.

i wonder if there was a Victorian-inspired impetus for those of modest origins to speak above their station, at that time.

By Charles Sullivan (not verified) on 21 Jan 2013 #permalink

To some degree, antiquated language automatically sounds extra-articulate to us. For example, the King James Bible used language that was old-fashioned "even" for its time. In any case, most of the credit for the film's great language can be given to its writer, Tony Kushner. Not that Lincoln wasn't a very fine speaker, of course.

I think pro-abortion politicians would benefit from noting Abraham Lincoln’s example following the Sioux uprising in Minnesota during the Civil War. 303 Indians were condemned to hang by a military court for the torture, rape and murder of several hundred whites. Many of the Sioux were convicted with virtually no evidence. The people of Minnesota demanded vengeance and the mass hangings were scheduled.

The idea of mob justice didn’t sit well with Mr. Lincoln. He sent word that he would personally review the more than 300 cases and he wanted the full trial transcripts sent to him. Then, during the height of the Civil War, Lincoln devoted many hours to review of these files in the wee hours of the night. In the end he pardoned 265, allowing convictions to stand on only those who, evidence confirmed, had committed the most atrocious crimes.

The people of Minnesota were furious. The Senators and Governor of Minnesota attacked Lincoln vehemently. Lincoln was warned that unless he hanged more Indians he would lose votes in the next election. To which the tall man replied, “I can not afford to hang men for votes.”.

It saddens me that, even if we had another Lincoln, he couldn’t be elected today because “we, the people” have ceased to value those things of character that made Lincoln the giant he was.

By R.L. Schaefer (not verified) on 22 Jan 2013 #permalink

R.L. Schaefer: I'm having trouble seeing the connection between that and today's abortion debate, in terms of either' side's actions. I have to point something out, though:

It saddens me that, even if we had another Lincoln, he couldn’t be elected today because “we, the people” have ceased to value those things of character that made Lincoln the giant he was.

This argument you make actually contradicts what you just said before it. "They, the people" did in fact want those Sioux lynched. Lincoln's explicit argument was that he valued ethics more than the people (at least those particular Minnesotans) did. Overall, more Americas supported him than not and this fact was necessarily crucial to his political success, but it's still self-contradictory to argue that when Americans stop valuing "character", that's bad since it results in politicians who care more about votes than about character. By definition, any such politicians cannot be affected by political winds to begin with!

Of course, I grant that the situation is a bit more nuanced. We do all have an obligation to create an environment in which people, including those who go on to pursue politics, have ethical attitudes from the get-go -- we can't just act cynical, vote for cynical politicians, and then say "It's not our fault they're cynical, if they were idealistic they'd be idealistic, despite the message of our votes." It would be even nuttier to punish virtue on the grounds that truly virtuous people should do good solely for its own sake and not to get rewards or avoid punishments. So there's something to that.