In Lincoln, the Steven Spielberg movie opening this month, President Abraham Lincoln has a talk with U.S. Representative Thaddeus Stevens that should be studied in civics classes today. The scene goes down easy, thanks to the moviemakers’ art, but the point Lincoln makes is tough.
Stevens, as Tommy Lee Jones plays him, is the meanest man in Congress, but also that body’s fiercest opponent of slavery. Because Lincoln’s primary purpose has been to hold the Union together, and he has been approaching abolition in a roundabout, politic way, Stevens by 1865 has come to regard him as “the capitulating compromiser, the dawdler.”
The congressman wore with aplomb, and wears in the movie, a ridiculous black hairpiece—it’s round, so he doesn’t have to worry about which part goes in front. A contemporary said of Stevens and Lincoln that “no two men, perhaps, so entirely different in character, ever threw off more spontaneous jokes.”
Stevens’ wit, however, was biting. “He could convulse the House,” wrote biographer Fawn M. Brodie, “by saying, ‘I yield to the gentleman for a few feeble remarks.’” Many of his declarations were too funky for the Congressional Globe (predecessor of the Congressional Record), which did, however, preserve this one: “There was a gentleman from the far West sitting next to me, but he went away and the seat seems just as clean as it was before.”
Lincoln’s wit was indirect, friendly—Doris Kearns Goodwin quotes him as describing laughter as “the joyous, universal evergreen of life” in her book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, on which the movie is partly based. But it was also purposeful. Stevens was a man of unmitigated principle. Lincoln got some great things done. What Lincoln, played most convincingly by Daniel Day-Lewis, says to Stevens in the movie, in effect, is this: A compass will point you true north. But it won’t show you the swamps between you and there. If you don’t avoid the swamps, what’s the use of knowing true north?
That’s a key moment in the movie. It is also something that I wish more people would take to heart—people I talk with about politics, especially people I agree with. Today, as in 1865, people tend to be sure they are right, and maybe they are—Stevens was, courageously. What people don’t always want to take on board is that people who disagree with them may be just as resolutely sure they are right. That’s one reason the road to progress, or regression, in a democracy is seldom straight, entirely open or, strictly speaking, democratic. If Lincoln’s truth is marching on, it should inspire people to acknowledge that doing right is a tricky proposition. “I did not want to make a movie about a monument,” Spielberg told me. “I wanted the audience to get into the working process of the president.”
Lincoln came out against slavery in a speech in 1854, but in that same speech he declared that denouncing slaveholders wouldn’t convert them. He compared them to drunkards, writes Goodwin:
Though the cause be “naked truth itself, transformed to the heaviest lance, harder than steel” [Lincoln said], the sanctimonious reformer could no more pierce the heart of the drinker or the slaveowner than “penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw. Such is man, and so must he be understood by those who would lead him.” In order to “win a man to your cause,” Lincoln explained, you must first reach his heart, “the great high road to his reason.”
As it happened, the fight for and against slave-owning would take the lowest of roads: four years of insanely wasteful war, which killed (by the most recent reliable estimate) some 750,000 people, almost 2.5 percent of the U.S. population at the time, or the equivalent of 7.5 million people today. But winning the war wasn’t enough to end slavery. Lincoln, the movie, shows how Lincoln went about avoiding swamps and reaching people’s hearts, or anyway their interests, so all the bloodshed would not be in vain.