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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Lincoln the Movie - An American Story We Continue to Experience

Americans must always remember the legacy of President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), because, as the cliche warns, those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.  Viewing Steven Spielberg's movie "Lincoln" is a brilliant history lesson and worth viewing multiple times.

Abraham Lincoln was an unlikely leader who forced the vision he believed in - to remove slavery from American society.  Although Lincoln accomplished his goal with the difficult passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, his accomplishment came with tremendous strife, political turmoil and, eventually, mortal sacrifice.  Untold in the story of Lincoln is a motivational historic character named Thaddeus Stevens, (played by Tommy Lee Jones in the movie "Lincoln") a Congressman from Pennsylvania's 9th District, who likely had an intimate common law relationship with a bi-racial woman named Lydia Hamilton Smith.

Americans were struggling with a political war within the Civil War during the years 1860-65, when the Union Army fought to preserve the nation against the secessionist Confederate States. This was a painfully divisive time in our country's history, when tens of thousands of people died to defend two polarizing points of view about our nation's future. Were we to be a divided nation or a United States?

In the movie Lincoln, this parallel political strife was realistically described, portraying the divisive time when the US Congress was gridlocked about passing of the nation's  Thirteenth Amendment, against the backdrop of the brutal bloodshed  of the American Civil War.  Daniel Day Lewis brilliantly played the character of President Abraham Lincoln.  Sally Field played the President's emotionally labile wife Mary Todd Lincoln

Day-Lewis portrayed the political and vision driven Lincoln, a president determined to remove slavery from American society, regardless of the lethal consequences he witnessed among Union and Confederate armies and, eventually, leading to his murder.

It was a stunning portrayal of Lincoln's political war within a Civil War. Nevertheless, during Lincoln's second inauguration address, he reached out to heal the nation, in spite of the sacrifices shared by both sides during the war. This is what he said:

Fellow Countrymen: (March 4, 1865)

"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 bin, 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."

It's possible that nothing would have saved Lincoln from his destiny.  He was a victim of his times while framed by the historical events he faced. Yet, his vision and leadership never faltered because he passionately believed slavery to be morally wrong, regardless of the consequences that abolishing it caused.

Nevertheless, as movie viewers re-live the difficult political decisions debated during the Civil War, we're both embarrassed by Congressional inability to embrace a pro-equality amendment in 1865, while, at the same time, reminded how our political processes haven't progressed beyond gridlock, in spite of the issues.  A French cliche to describes this dilemma as "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose" (the more things change, the more they stay the same).

Teaching American history with the movie "Lincoln" will likely become standard curricula. Yet, the real test will be evident if our nation learns something from watching Daniel Day Lewis's and Spielberg's realistic portrayal of our nation's tainted past.  

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