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The Greatness of Lincoln's Faith in Freedom

The Greatness of Lincoln's Faith in Freedom

By Mark Salter - November 26, 2012

Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” begins with a view of the 16th president filmed from behind. Abraham Lincoln is seated. His face is seen in partial profile and he looks as noble as his monument while he listens to soldiers recite the Gettysburg Address.

It is too contrived, and I worried as I watched the scene that the movie would just be Hollywood’s latest attempt to adorn with what its subject would have called “flub dubs” the story of a man for whom such adornment is antithetical to his character and the cause he died for.

The concern was unfounded. The film succeeds where others have failed: revealing in the story of Lincoln the politician, in his appearance and personality, the hard-pressed faith in humanity necessary to believe that any nation “conceived in liberty . . . could long endure.”

That is largely, but not solely, a credit to Daniel Day-Lewis’ astonishingly sensitive and sincere interpretation of Lincoln, a portrayal that so closely fits how I imagine Lincoln that its effect was the most complete suspension of my disbelief I’ve ever experienced at the movies.

Faith in humanity’s capacity for self-government is not unlike religious faith. Everyone encounters in their lives abundant reasons to doubt, and persisting in that faith requires more than a sentimental credulity. It depends on fleeting glimpses of the divine spark, often in the most unlikely places.

When Lincoln argued that our Civil War was a test of whether self-government could succeed anywhere on Earth, he wasn’t exaggerating. For most of history, democracy had more doubters than believers. It has many doubters still, and half the world’s population still lives in something less than freedom.

Human nature was long considered too corrupt and venal to be allowed self-determination. Kingdoms and empires were the work of the high-born, the enlightened, God’s anointed.

The fact that kings and emperors and dictators weren’t always high-born, enlightened or anointed by God and that many were destructive tyrants doesn’t contradict the fact that corruption and venality are natural to people in free societies as well. We can find evidence of it almost anywhere we look, frequently in our own behavior.

What did Lincoln prove? That a democracy could succeed -- that it need not descend into chaos despite the flaws of our nature? Yes, he did, but more than that, too. His life story proved the faith that lies behind that proposition. He proved that the lives of human beings are a struggle -- some successful, others not -- to cultivate a second nature, our character. We can become better, and freedom aids us in that struggle by letting us think and be responsible for ourselves.

He was raised in wretched circumstances, a childhood of extreme poverty in the backwoods of a young, unfinished nation. He had a hard and unloving father who pressed him into something close to indentured servitude. He suffered the early deaths of a beloved mother and sister. He had no formal education, and experienced many failures before achieving modest success as a lawyer. He suffered from depression so severe he contemplated suicide. He was unhappily married to an unstable wife with a fierce temper. Two of his sons died in childhood.

Lincoln endured all those hardships and strove to become a man who made a mark in the world that posterity would remember. He became more than that. He became indispensible to the survival of his country, which would become, in no small part because of him, the greatest republic in history.

He grasped the duality of human nature. He was so gentle he couldn’t bear to see an animal mistreated. Yet, he exhorted Ulysses S. Grant to “chew and choke” Lee’s army “with a bulldog grip.” He was good at politics, surpassingly good, as Spielberg’s film makes explicit. He knew politics operated on man’s vices as much as it appealed to our virtues. He would find in the pettiness and sclerosis of 21st century American politics opportunities to prove ourselves again.

Given the insults that were heaped on him, not to mention the catastrophe of our bloodiest war, which he saw through to the end, he would surely consider these more congenial times than his, and more conducive to our society’s moral and material progress.

In a scene near the end of the movie, Lincoln’s valet watches him depart for Ford’s Theatre. He’s in near silhouette as he walks down a White House corridor toward the hazy light pouring in from a window. His long, thin frame topped by the familiar stovepipe hat seems to grow in stature with every step, his stooped posture straightened as if he were actually walking into “the ages” that his secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, proclaimed he belonged to after Lincoln drew his last breath. It was a little Hollywood magic that works because it doesn’t belie Lincoln’s real character.

Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln walks with the inelegant, flat-footed gait of a rustic. No obtrusive score commands our attention. No genuine physical majesty accentuates his nobility. No philosopher king walks down that hall. It is just a poor human being, capable of good and evil, sinner and sinned against, reminding us again that in freedom, the very least of us can become the very best of us. 

Mark Salter is the former chief of staff to Sen. John McCain and was a senior adviser to the McCain for President campaign.

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