Date: Fri 22 Feb 2013

Supreme Command


Last weekend, I watched Steven Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’. Set in January 1865, it covers the last four months of the Civil War and of Lincoln’s life. The central drama is not the war, but Lincoln’s efforts to get the 13th Amendment to the American Constitution passed by the House of Representatives before the war ended. It had been passed by the Senate the previous April. The Amendment consisted of two single-sentence sections which abolished slavery in the United States.

The film is neither loud nor spectacular. There are few special effects and as far as I could see no CGI. The bulk of the scenes are set indoors, the most frequent locations being the White House, Lincoln’s telegraph room and the House of Representatives. Visually it has a dark, period beauty, dominated by greys, browns and blues. It is not a large scale war epic but a small scale human drama about issues larger than the war.
Along with Washington and Roosevelt, Lincoln has consistently been rated among the three greatest figures to have held the office of President of the United States. The literature about him is enormous. Historians have been poring over the film discovering inaccuracies, but the general consensus is that it is a fair take on what actually happened. The acting performances, particularly that of Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln, have been rightly acclaimed. Spielberg is a master of his craft. Boldly, he uses the images and sounds of the big screen to penetrate the audience’s senses and engage their minds. At times, he touches their souls.

For all the mass of information we have about him, we will never know what Lincoln was really like. Contemporaries had different views. There is no ultimate ‘truth’ about any human being. This was one portrayal. It is generally held to be convincing. I found it compelling.

The ultimate loneliness of the man at the top is a theme touched on soon after the film’s opening scene and it is shown throughout by the locations. The climax of the film - the vote - takes place in the House of Representatives in the Capitol. Lincoln sits across the way in the White House. He never enters the chamber. At the climax of his drama he is absent. His personal role in the passing of the Amendment was critical. It is rare for individuals to determine great events. In this case, though, as in the case of Churchill in 1940, if you remove that individual, it is hard to see how history could have taken the course it did.

Lincoln and Churchill both held an office which made them the supreme commander of their nations in time of war. They sat at the desk on which the buck stopped. They were very different people at very different times, but certain qualities they exhibited were similar. Spielberg’s Lincoln exemplifies them.

The first quality is clarity of thought. That clarity was the result of two things: the espousal of a rigorous set of principles and the intellectual power to translate those principles into a remorseless logic which drove his actions.

Though he was trained as a lawyer, Lincoln appears to be a simple man, full of homespun wisdom. Inside the simple man is a formidable analytical intellect, which he first displays when explaining to his squabbling cabinet why the proclamation emancipating slaves which he made in 1863 is not good enough, and he needs an Amendment to the constitution, now, before the war ends. It is a long, discursive argument delivered without hesitation and with complete conviction. The lack of hesitation shows the intellect: all is thought through and the logic is unerring. The conviction comes from the grounding of that logic in some simple principles.

Lincoln had not entered the war to abolish slavery, but to maintain the Union and prevent the expansion of slavery into new states. Lincoln knew exactly what that meant and grasped its implications with a precision which eluded others. When, after his victory at Gettysburg, General Meade spoke of ‘driving the invaders from our soil’, Lincoln was furious. ‘Will the generals never get it out of their heads?’ he wrote: ‘The whole country is our soil’. General Grant got it into his, for in the film he advises a Confederate delegation sent to negotiate a peace settlement not to speak to Lincoln of ‘two warring nations’: there is and always was one nation. The people of the south are all U.S. citizens. The United States is putting down an internal rebellion.

The progress of the war led to an expansion of the principles at stake. By late summer of 1862, Lincoln had accepted that slavery had to be abolished and from then on he was unyielding. Once that had changed he never looked back or compromised. Abolition became a war aim and was maintained until it was achieved. Others bought into parts of the package but for Lincoln the package was indivisible. Nobody else ‘got it’ as he did. It was simple: ‘We must cure ourselves of slavery. This amendment is that cure.’ He articulated his purpose in the ‘Dedicatory Remarks’ he made at the new cemetery at Gettysburg in 1863. The speech lasted three minutes and is now known to all as the Gettysburg Address. Some of those 272 words are quoted back to him by some private soldiers in the opening minutes of the film. They seem to have grasped what it was all about better than some of the politicians.

The second quality is pragmatism. Lincoln was neither a dogmatist nor a fanatic. He combined his determination to act on principle with an unrelenting grip on reality, including the realities of human nature. Precisely because of his iron grip on the principles at stake he was prepared to do almost anything to achieve the outcomes which counted.

A lot of the film is devoted to the ethically dubious methods used to get the number of votes he needed in the House. He employs a couple of agents to use the lure of appointments which stop just short of bribes to buy the votes of undecided congressmen. When the vote is about to be taken, it is announced that a Confederate delegation is in Washington to negotiate peace terms. A motion is tabled to suspend the vote. Messengers hurry over to the White House asking Lincoln to confirm or deny the rumour. Lawyer as he was, he calmly and cunningly asks for confirmation of the wording of the request and writes a note stating that there is no Confederate delegation ‘in the city’. This personal assurance is accepted and the vote is taken. The delegation was outside Washington.

The pragmatism goes deeper. Lincoln is absolutely clear about what needs to be done now, and does not worry about things that cannot now be resolved, or plan beyond the circumstances he can foresee. What would the abolition of slavery lead to? Uncontrolled economic migration? Votes for blacks? Black senators? Could it even lead to votes for women? (There is uproar at this – what an absurd idea!) Lincoln does not care. When cajoling a wavering potential supporter troubled by the potential consequences who says that they are not ready for abolition, Lincoln’s response is simple. Soon, he says, the war will end. Are we ready for peace? We have no plans for what to do then, no idea where the future will lead. But we must end the war. He got that man’s vote.

The third quality is passion. The passion drove an unquenchable resolve to see things through, and could manifest itself in displays of emotion.

For the most part, Lincoln rides the storm-tossed waters of his time with apparent equanimity. He rarely raises his voice. Confronted by his enemies, he is calm and collected. Visiting a late undecided voter who says he hates blacks, Lincoln quietly lays out his case, focussing on the sacrifice made by the man’s brother who died for the Union, and says, in effect: ‘Your call’. (He lost that one.) But occasionally, only with those closest to him, his cabinet and his family, he displays anger. Frustrated by his wife’s inability to see herself as anything but a grieving mother, he shouts at her that she must let her son join up. He does this just after he had actually slapped his son’s face because of his determination to join the Army despite both his parents’ imploring him not to. Even as he slapped him, Lincoln changed his mind. His son’s own passion and integrity convinced him that he too should have the freedom to choose, whatever the consequences.

And at one point, Lincoln loses his temper with his cabinet as they prevaricate. He jumps up and slams his fist on the table. ‘I need this’, he cries. They still hadn’t ‘got it’. He summons up the magnitude of the cause: they have in their hands the fates not only of millions now in bondage, but of unborn millions to come. ‘We are stepped out upon the world stage now. The fate of human dignity is in our hands. Blood’s been spilled to afford us this moment. Now, now, now!’ What now stands between them and history is two votes. They ask how they can get them. For the first and only time, he reminds them of his authority as President. He is, he says, ‘clothed in immense power’. Power is a set of clothes. It is not part of him. It is something he has been lent and will one day take off. He needs it now. They are to stop chattering and get those two votes. They have enough hours left to do so. They depart in silence and set to work. His outburst worked. He uses his emotions, like his power, to galvanise people and get things done. They are instruments.

The fourth quality is a humility grounded in basic humanity. He understands and recognises the failings of others and himself. He is humble in knowing that though he holds a great office, he shares his humanity with all. He has no need to boost his ego by taking seriously the trappings of power, seeking adulation or even being self-important. He is a pure vessel, a servant of his cause. His greatness comes from his cause and his subservience to it.

The humanity shows itself in his reasons for pardoning condemned soldiers. They are based on his experience of everyday life and human weakness. A 16-year-old ran away after laming his horse, which was cruel as well as cowardly. ‘You grant too many pardons,’ he is told. ‘If we executed every 16-year-old for cruelty, there would be no 16-year-olds left,’ he observes. Nor will he execute him for being afraid. After the surrender of the Confederacy, he tells Grant there are to be no witch hunts or hangings. He wants peace and reconciliation. The next step is to re-build the nation.

But the main vehicle through which his humanity is expressed is his manner of communication. He was a master of prose. He was not an orator, but he was a great speaker. We see him give a speech at the raising of a flag. He takes his notes from inside his hat, utters a couple of sentences and then smiles at the audience and says: ‘That’s my speech.’ They laugh.

Lincoln knew that speeches have their limits. When he really wanted to get through to people, he abandoned formality and scripts. Instead, he told stories.

The stories come unexpectedly. Their point is not always immediately obvious, but they are always told for a reason. They usually make a point about his values and are usually humourous. Laughter is a great leveller. Early on, he tells one from the time when he was a young lawyer, when he was defending an elderly woman who had killed her husband in self-defence. Lincoln asked to see her in his room and left the window open. She was never seen again. Lincoln and his listeners all chuckle. Why tell that tale? It was at a point when Lincoln wanted to remind people that justice is not always the same as legality, that law is just an instrument, that following the letter of it is sometimes pointless. What good would it do anyone to convict a 77-year-old woman? Lincoln never spells out the lessons of the stories. But he is about to bend the rules for the sake of getting the votes he needs.

The stories do not only have an intellectual point. They have an emotional one and change the atmosphere. At one point of great tension in the telegraph room Lincoln starts on another one. One of his colleagues storms out crying: ‘I can’t bear another one of his stories!’ Lincoln sits smiling on the edge of a table and carries on. It is an earthy joke at the expense of the British. The resulting laughter breaks the tension. The joke centres on George Washington. That reminds them that they are all Americans continuing the work of their first great President. It helps everyone to work together more effectively.

The most unexpected one is told late at night in the telegraph office when Lincoln dictates a crucial message to Grant about where to send the Confederate peace negotiators. The message tells Grant to escort them to Washington. ‘Shall I transmit, sir?’ asks the young signaller. In response, Lincoln askes his audience of two if they were born in the right time. Bemused, they try to answer. One admits to being an engineer. Then you will know Euclid, Lincoln replies. When he was young, he read Euclid’s axioms and common notions. The first common notion is that if two things are equal to the same thing, they are equal to each other. This is self-evident. Equality as self-evident. That is what the Declaration of Independence says as well. Lincoln is telling the story to himself as well as to them. It encapsulates the issues at stake. Then he asks the signaller to change the last line of the message. Grant is to send the envoys up the river, but to halt them outside Washington. They are not to enter the capital. That is the message they send. Later, that change enables Lincoln to write the note which gets the motion to vote on the Amendment back on the table.

‘Lincoln’ is a remarkable film about a remarkable man. Most of us are unremarkable. A few of us are nevertheless called upon to don the robes of power for a while. We should not forget that they are just clothes, given to us by others for a purpose. Those clothed in power need to articulate the purpose they serve. If they make their power serve them and use it for self-enrichment or self-aggrandisement, they will be unable to use it effectively and will cripple their ability to influence others. If they are unclear about their principles and lack the intellectual power to master its logic, they will be unable to convince others. If they speak as great men, they will become hollow men. If they speak as ordinary men, telling funny little stories, they may become great leaders, for then people will follow them. In this way, ordinary men can achieve remarkable things.

We need more of Lincoln’s sort.