We all have an impression in our minds of Abraham Lincoln. It is safe to say that it is a universally positive impression, based both on fact and myth, with the many gaps of actual knowledge ad libbed by our brains. We know that Lincoln was tall, melancholy, eloquent, smart. We know that he rose to the challenge of his job like few have. We know that he had a heavy heart, and that he tried to do what was right and just.
In Steven Spielberg’s new movie, Lincoln, some of the gaps in our Lincoln portrait are filled in for us, aided greatly by a very convincing performance from Daniel Day-Lewis in a most difficult role. His Lincoln does the man and history justice and preserves his hallowed stature, but he is not perfect. He swears. He tells bawdy jokes. He does things that are not always ethical. But his end results always honor his means, and the fact that he is human and has human frailties makes his superhuman accomplishments all the more incredible.
In the film’s moving opening scene, our fantasy of what we would say to Lincoln were he sitting in front of us is fulfilled as he sits among everyday soldiers who clamor to speak to their commander-in-chief. One reveals the esteem in which he holds Lincoln when he recites, from memory, his exact words at Gettysburg, even when the great man’s modesty prevents him from the same feat. In another poignant scene, Lincoln explains the ancient and simple mathematical principle of equality to two young telegraph operators. One of them is so awed by Lincoln’s clear reasoning on a contentious issue like slavery that he stands as Lincoln leaves the room.
It is simple gestures like this that emphasize Lincoln’s greatness and cause us to shed a tear for his gentle yet strong leadership, the likes of which we rarely see these days. Lincoln was a down-to-earth, fair, modest man who put himself in others’ shoes – even those of his enemies – and was generally held in great respect by those who personally encountered him, even if they disagreed with him. But, alas, there were also those who hated what he did to end slavery since it eroded their advantage, and this led to his tragic assassination shortly after his triumphant securing of the Thirteenth Amendment. The film follows the struggle for passage of that amendment, treating the assassination only in passing. Rather than linger in mourning, Lincoln’s memory is honored with his own words from his historic Second Inaugural Address, considered one of the best speeches ever written. The long and bloody Civil War had just ended, and it was time for healing. Lincoln was adamant that the South not be punished. “It is of no benefit to me,” he said, “to triumph over anyone.” Such was his philosophy, a corollary of the Golden Rule. Here was his message to reunite the country, six weeks before his death:
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”