President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) is one of my favorite Americans. His unique leadership in abolishing slavery and holding the Union together during the Civil War mark him, in my view, as the greatest American. Visiting such historical sites as the Lincoln Memorial and Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. have been deeply moving experiences for both my family and me.
I am a passionate lover of American history. (I double-majored in history and philosophy as an undergraduate.) Needless to say, when I heard several years ago that Steven Spielberg was making a film about the life of Lincoln, I was eager to see the movie. What historians will make of Lincoln, I don’t know—but, in my view, the film is an admirable one. And what I liked about it was the portrayal of President Lincoln from a perspective unique from other films I’ve seen. Most movies about Lincoln generally focus upon his leadership during the Civil War or examine his tragic and shocking assassination.
Spielberg’s Lincoln presents America’s sixteenth president as both a real man and as a skilled political leader.
The Real Man
Influenced by Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Spielberg shows Lincoln (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) as a country gentleman with a penchant for telling humorous stories. Lincoln is also portrayed as having a genuine interest in average American citizens and their problems—especially those most affected by the great and terrible Civil War.
One poignant part of the film is Spielberg’s depiction of Lincoln as a passionate, but at times inadequate, family man. Throughout a difficult marriage—during which he and his wife suffer the death of a child—he remains deeply committed to meeting his family’s needs. His overwhelming political and military duties as commander-in-chief during the war never deters him from his commitments as a husband and father.
The Skilled Leader
The movie powerfully depicts America’s representative democracy as a messy, sometimes ineffective, form of government. Even with the political parties stuck in a rigid gridlock over the amendment to abolish slavery, Lincoln proves himself able to reach a principled consensus, together with his political opponents, concerning the great moral and political issues of the day.
Since President Lincoln successfully and skillfully led our country through its greatest period of national division and trial, I remain optimistic that our country today can solve the deep and perplexing challenges it faces.
After watching this inspiring film I left the theater grateful to be an American and eager to discharge my responsibilities not only as a citizen, but as a husband and a father.
For a comparison between the legacies of Lincoln and Darwin, see my article “The Scientist or the Politician”.