Everyone in the political world saw Stephen Spielberg’s “Lincoln” this weekend, and leading commentators are telling us that one of its primary lessons is that today’s legislators need to re-learn the need for “compromise.” David Brooks set the tone for this interpretation, and others, such as Al Hunt and yesterday’s Meet the Press panelists, have pushed similar conclusions.
This is bad history. It’s folly to apply the Civil War to the present to begin with, but if we must do this, one of the key lessons of “Lincoln,” and his life and times, is that he knew when not to compromise. History was shaped largely by Lincoln’s intransigence at the right moments.
It’s true that Lincoln was not an abolitionist. He believed working within the political system was more productive than insisting on grand goals he deemed beyond reach at the time. But that’s only part of the story. What’s more notable from the events depicted in the movie is Lincoln’s refusal to budge on core principles — when it counted most.
“Lincoln” depicts the machinations that went into passage of the 13th Amendment, and much has rightly been made of the ugly horse-trading that made it possible. But this shouldn’t be confused with a willingness to drop core ideals to enable legislative change. In fact, the opposite happened. Lincoln was being pressured during the 1864 campaign to abandon the push for the constitutional amendment to abolish slavery, in order to make peace possible. He refused.
“Democrats were saying, `Your insistence on abolition is prolonging the war,’” Civil War historian Eric Foner tells me. “That was the Democratic campaign against Lincoln: If you drop emancipation we can have peace. But Lincoln rejected the Democratic position that he had to make a choice between abolition and peace.”
Lincoln saw sticking to his principles as paramount, according to Foner’s book, “The Fiery Trial.” Lincoln said that if he returned black soldiers to slavery, “I should be damned in time and eternity.”
Something similar happened after Lincoln’s victory in the 1860 election. He campaigned on a refusal to expand slavery. After the secession crisis that resulted from his election, there was pressure on him to agree to compromise proposals relating to slavery expansion put forward in Congress. But as Foner details, Lincoln told fellow Republicans they must not compromise on their core opposition to expansion — and pointedly noted they’d won an election about it.
“We have just carried an election on principles fairly stated to the people,” Lincoln told a would-be compromiser at the time, adding that compromising would constitute “surrender to those we have beaten.”
“Lincoln knew the difference between compromising on peripheral issues and compromising on matters of principle,” Foner told me. “In both 1860 and 1864, Lincoln was elected on strong principles, which he refused to compromise. If Obama is going to look to `Lincoln’ for a lesson, it is, `Don’t compromise after winning an election.’
If we really must draw a moral from “Lincoln” for the present political moment, perhaps that’s the more timely and relevant one.