What is it about Abraham Lincoln that has captured the hearts and minds of the American public since his assassination nearly 150 years ago? After all, one could argue -- rather persuasively -- that our 16th president was the least qualified candidate ever elected to high national office; in fact, his public service record included just four terms in the Illinois state legislative, one unremarkable term in the House of Representatives, and two unsuccessful bids for the US Senate. In addition, he had virtually no executive experience and, as his contemporaries invariably pointed out, Lincoln seemed wholly unfit to lead the nation during the chaotic and consequential times in which he lived.
And yet what’s so striking about Steven Spielberg’s outstanding film “Lincoln” is the eponymous hero’s latent political acumen. Since his death in 1865, Abraham Lincoln has been immortalized as the “Great Emancipator” and “The Rail-Splitter” -- two larger-than-life epithets that continue to inspire our collective imaginations. But, as Spielberg sharply demonstrates (through the talented Irish-born actor Daniel Day-Lewis) Lincoln was, after all, a human being -- a man who struggled, fought and ultimately died for the one indispensable cause that meant everything to him: the right for a free people to govern themselves.
Historians such as Eric Foner and the late David Herbert Donald have written important and absorbing works about Lincoln’s life and legacy. His empathy, keen wit, good-humored temperament, and passion for storytelling are only a few of the amiable characteristics evinced in the film. But perhaps Lincoln’s greatest quality -- as painstakingly revealed in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s absorbing book “Team of Rivals,” on which the aforementioned movie is partly based -- was his ability to recognize and seize opportune political moments.
Far from being the country bumpkin and second-rate lawyer often depicted in the contemporary newspaper articles of his day -- Lincoln was in fact a shrewd and cunning politician. And this trait is manifested brilliantly in the film when he decides -- against the wishes of some of his most ardent supporters -- to pursue a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery.
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