Members of the new 113th Congress should be required to attend screenings of two historical blockbuster movies released this holiday season – “Lincoln” and “Django Unchained.” Both offer valuable lessons in the importance of compromise and the perils of extremism.
The setting for each film is the twilight of American slavery. “Django Unchained” takes place just before the outbreak of the Civil War and “Lincoln” just as the war is drawing to a close.
Based on historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s superb 2005 book, “Team of Rivals,” “Lincoln” deals with the crucial role of the 16th president (sensitively portrayed by Daniel Day- Lewis) in gaining congressional passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in January 1865. (State legislative ratification took place late in1865 after Lincoln’s assassination).
The amendment permanently abolished slavery, eliminating a political, social and economic cancer that had metastasized into bloody sectional warfare. Lincoln’s more famous Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order he signed in January 1863, was only justified as a wartime emergency measure. Absent a constitutional amendment, he feared, it would become invalid after hostilities ceased.
Though he detested slavery, Lincoln was not initially an advocate for its outright abolition. By 1864, however, he was pressing for quick passage of the Thirteenth Amendment before war’s end, hoping to finally excise an institution that had caused great death and suffering and threatened to do so again if allowed to persist.
“Lincoln” dramatizes the intense pressures exerted on the president by competing factions in Congress and his adroit negotiating skills in winning them over. On one side, Northern and border-state Democrats urge him to end the war immediately by allowing the Confederate states to retain slavery provided they make peace and rejoin the Union. On the other, Republican Abolitionists demand not only an immediate end to slavery but severe punishment against the Confederacy for its treasonous rebellion.
In scene after scene, Lincoln coaxes, cajoles and even bribes House members (with offers of appointment to federal office) in order to corral the requisite two-thirds majority to approve the amendment.
At one point, he uses folksy charm to sway the rigid, irascible Abolitionist congressman, Thaddeus Stevens, who advocates the (then) radical position that slaves should not only be freed but treated as social equals of whites.
Lincoln urges Stevens to mute his equality rhetoric during floor debates on the amendment to avoid alienating wavering Democratic congressmen. Even one who sets his course by compass, he argues, will encounter mountains, forests and rivers that obstruct the route, making it impossible to reach his destination via a straight line. In other words, the ultimate goal can be attained only by negotiating the twists and turns of compromise.
In the end, nearly choking on his bile, Stevens plays the floor debate Lincoln’s way and the Thirteenth Amendment narrowly passes the House.
“Django Unchained” is a fictional portrayal of revenge wreaked by a runaway slave turned bounty hunter, Django (played by Jamie Foxx), on Mississippi plantation whites who have separated him from his wife and tortured and humiliated her. Django manages to free his spouse from bondage, but that’s just incidental to a violent plot that generates so much blood spatter audiences would be well advised to bring a change of clothes to the theater.
Although the movie (in the style of Clint Eastwood’s “spaghetti Westerns”) caricatures, rather than portrays, the dramatis personae — the sadistic, dissolute plantation owner, his resentful but submissive black slaves, and their brutal, depraved white overseers — it does highlight the rigid Southern racist ideology that made slavery such an intractable issue.
In one memorable scene, the young plantation owner (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) brandishes the skull of a dead house slave to lecture his dinner guests on how the skull’s phrenological protuberances account for the natural submissiveness of blacks to their masters.
Southern whites’ belief in the innate inferiority of blacks (along with their economic addiction to a large, cheap pool of captive agricultural laborers and dread of potential reprisals by freed slaves) made the preservation of slavery a non-negotiable mantra for politicians representing the region in Congress. By the 1850s, they had become equally insistent on the right to expand slavery into the territories.
In 1861, following Lincoln’s election as president and despite his promise not to interfere with slavery where it already existed, most Southern states seceded from the Union, formed the Confederacy and bombarded federally held Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, precipitating the Civil War.
Four years and over 250,000 Confederate battlefield deaths later, the South lay in ruins, its infrastructure and economy in shambles, its slaves all emancipated.
No issue has ever divided this country like slavery. And no issue in political life today has sufficient moral gravity to claim the right to do so again.
Whether the controversies on Capitol Hill this year are over the budget deficit, national debt, tax reform, entitlement programs, guns or immigration, there will be no absolute right and wrong solutions. Only compromise solutions can address the nation’s problems, albeit imperfectly, without running the risk of ripping it asunder.
For members of Congress, “Lincoln” should be a case study on how to, and “Django Unchained” a case study on how not to, conduct the people’s business.