To Govern Is To Choose: A Review of ‘Lincoln’

I am fully invested in the Abraham Lincoln legend as sold to the world by Americans. I trust the system that scrutinises the past with obsessive scholarship and has settled on the conclusion that the man was perhaps America’s greatest ever President.

And it was all so very unlikely. In 1860 after Lincoln had been nominated as the Presidential nominee at the Republican National Convention in Chicago, the New York Herald wrote:

The conduct of the Republican party in this nomination is a remarkable indication of small intellect, growing smaller. They pass over statesmen and able men, and they take up a fourth rate lecturer who cannot speak good grammar.

It was always unlikely that this seemingly ordinary man who had known so much sadness and disappointment all his life would become the same man of whom it was said ‘he was bigger than his country – bigger than all the presidents together’ (Leo Tolstoy).

There is much to the life of the man so it is understandable that this film chose to focus on just one month of a presidency that lasted 4 years. Life, as they say, is like a suitcase…some people pack more into it than others.

The American civil war had allowed Lincoln to exercise ‘dubious’ powers when he made the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 freeing all slaves in the Confederate states. But then, 2 years later, as the war was inevitably coming to an end, Lincoln began to wonder what might become of the freed slaves once normality returned and the country went back to being governed by the constitution seeing as the constitution regarded ‘other persons’ as only being 3/5ths of a ‘whole person’ among many other ways black people were considered subhuman by the constitution.

Thus began a race against time to amend the constitution to make permanent the freedom of the slaves as granted to them by the Emancipation Proclamation. If the war ended without an amendment, Lincoln feared that there would be no motivation to amend the constitution by a rowdy Congress. Worse, before 1865, the last time the constitution had been amended was in 1804 – 60 years before. Whatever it was going to be, it definitely wasn’t going to be easy.

Everyone else around Lincoln, especially in his cabinet, was simply eager to end the war. Lincoln saw something more important – ending the war was just as important as ensuring that the matter of slavery was ‘settled for all coming time. Not only of the millions now in bondage but for unborn millions to come’. This was the crux of his argument and the story takes us along as he slowly but surely won over people to his side using the moral force of his arguments.

But simply leaving rice in water wont cook it in the same way that rhetoric alone cannot get a constitutional amendment through Congress. So Lincoln and friends began to build an unlikely coalition of disparate characters to do whatever it was going to take to pass the amendment. Bribes were given, threats were made, congressmen were blackmailed. After the amendment had been passed, Thaddeus Stevens , leader of the radical wing of the Republican party in Congress remarked:

The most liberating constitutional amendment in history, passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America

Lincoln’s capacity to remain who he was remains the thing I find most fascinating about him. There are reminders of his ‘ordinariness’ throughout the story – anger, self-doubt, domestic palaver – that make us realise that this was an ordinary man who achieved extraordinary things.

There are endless things a leader can do once he has power in his hands. To govern, as they say, is to choose. All of the choices that confronted Lincoln were terribly hard ones – end the damn war which had claimed so many lives or delay (allowing more people die) while trying to secure an amendment to the constitution.

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn by the sword, as was said 3000 years ago, so still it must be said “the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether”

We now know he chose well. And he was well aware of this; ‘Each of us has made it possible for the other to do terrible things’ he told General Ulysses Grant who was waging war against the Confederates on his behalf. This was no game. And it illustrated the amazing thing about Lincoln – he was true to himself above all else.

To this man, power was only useful as long as it enabled the coming to be of something greater than himself, guaranteed to be judged kindly by posterity.

Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition. Whether it be true or not, I can say for one that I have no other [ambition] so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow-men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem. How far I shall succeed in gratifying this ambition is yet to be developed

There it is again…the self doubt, the single eyed focus on posterity and a legacy. He wrote the above words when he was 23 years old and making his first bid for public office in Illinois. He lived for another 31 years and remained true to himself. Perhaps I will find another hero but for now, I consider this man to be SI unit of what a leader ought to be.

In the one scene where we see him get angry and frustrated at his prevaricating cabinet, he loses his cool after the whole plan is threatening to come undone over 2 votes proving hard to obtain. He thunders at Congressman James Ashley, ‘I am President of the United States, clothed in immense power! You will procure me these votes!’. The one time we see the man exercising the immense powers of the President of the United States, it is to demand a mere couple of votes to get his amendment passed. Everyone else was out-argued or bribed…but the angry powers were only brought to bear on a wavering congressman…for 2 votes. Not to order an opposition politician to be shot or arrested.

Those who have power in Nigeria today will do well to watch this film and perhaps read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s magisterial book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, on which the film is based. Perhaps they might learn the point of having that power in the first place. They might be surprised to discover that it isn’t merely to enrich one’s self  or shut down those who disagree with you but to, every night and day, seek to advance the common good with it.

And when the difficult decisions are to be made, the hard choices have to be faced, a useful rule of thumb is to think of those unborn and how our choices might affect them. Leadership cannot seek to constantly appease and accept the conventional wisdom. It must be able to do the hard things and to first be convinced of itself so that it can then convince others. More than one person told Lincoln that he could either have abolition or end of the war, not both. He called their bluff and got both.

Sometimes I wish I was American….for the sole reason of being able to say Abraham Lincoln was once the President of my country.

Surely you are going to see this film now? Please do. And I hope you find a useful leadership lesson to take away from it.



2 thoughts on “To Govern Is To Choose: A Review of ‘Lincoln’

    1. Following the ‘unfair’ manner in which they were portrayed in Django, the KKK union decided to withdraw their members from the filming of Lincoln.
      So sadly no KKK vampires were killed in this film 🙂

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