Friday, December 7, 2012

More Abe

I had more thoughts last night on the politics of Lincoln.

1. My parents would have loved this film.  Their volumes of Carl Sandburg’s biography were prized possessions.  I am reliving a generational conflict.

2. Contrary to this film, the thirteenth amendment was not very consequential.  It was a nice piece of paper, but the fourteenth, for good and ill, was the one that counted.

3. In January 1865 the confederacy was prostrate; it would be just a few months before its surrender.  The main item on the agenda in Washington was what to do with it.  Much of the South was already under military occupation.  With the end of hostilities, what would be the mission of these occupying troops?  Was the purpose of the war simply to preserve the union, in which case the occupiers could pack their bags and go home?  Or was it to dismantle the political and economic order whose interests had proved to be incompatible with democratic government as understood by the rest of the country?  Lincoln hedged and straddled.

4. Much fun is made in the film of patronage as an instrument of political manipulation.  In fact, over time the Republican Party devolved into a clientelistic regime with little justification beyond the reproduction of its privileges.  This is why the Grant administration is regarded as a nadir of nineteenth century politics.  The lesson the film wants us to learn is that dirty ends have to be employed for noble means, but in reality the means became the end.

4. Even if you grant the legitimacy of the political fairy tale at the heart of the movie, what is its meaning for today?  Lincoln is portrayed as a practical idealist who bent every scruple, even dissembling on a peace overture from the confederacy, in order to remain true to his one inviolate principle, the abolition of slavery.  Fine.  Is Obama supposed to be our modern Lincoln?  We know his compromises; what is his guiding purpose?  To replace warfare with peaceful international adjudication?  To subdue the political and economic power of finance?  To rally the world to overcome the threat of catastrophic climate change?

The means has become the end today too.

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