Lincoln and the War of Ideas

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, showing in the Museum Park Theater on Saturday (rescheduled for Friday, 9/30), focuses on one month of the president’s term. This is January 1865, and the main drama is discussion of an amendment to the Constitution abolishing slavery. Lincoln does the best job of any movie on the Civil War in looking at the complexities and ideas of the conflict. Rather than a movie of battles, Lincoln is a political drama about Congress. The film accomplishes something spectacular: it transforms what could be tedious into a thriller.

The movie shows a divided North—represented by the socially radical Thaddeus Stevens, the centrist Abraham Lincoln, and the socially conservative Democrats—with very different ideas of how the war should end and what should happen to the institution of slavery. In this volatile mix Lincoln develops its own theory for why the president chose January 1865 for the amendment rather than later in the year. In a small scene where two Missouri citizens petition Lincoln, he asks if they would support abolition once the war was over. The citizens say no, they want to hurt the rebels, but freeing slaves might overthrow the social order. This may be the best scene in the film; it is a new and different thesis for Lincoln’s decisions. Spielberg argues that the president recognized that only through the war could he end slavery. If the war ended, many politicians might lose the impetus to destroy the “peculiar institution.”

Is the movie accurate? I had the opportunity to watch it with two Lincoln scholars (James McPherson and William Harris) who both agreed that the details are spot on. Despite a few dramatic additions—I won’t write them here because they are spoilers—the movie gets the dress, style, speech, scenery, and most important, the ideas right. The two issues of war and abolition are inextricably linked.

How does a political thriller fit in with the North Carolina Museum of Art? Somewhat difficult to figure at first. Then I realized the answer was staring me in the face in our American Gallery. Next to a huge painting of the founding fathers are three sculptures of the “Congressional triumvirate” of Henry Clay, John Calhoun, and Daniel Webster. These three men dominated the American politics of their time, were fantastic orators, and represented their own distinct sections of the country. All three were very influential to the young Abraham Lincoln.

Thomas Ball, Daniel Webster (1782–1852), modeled 1852, cast later, bronze, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Robert Lee Humber

A Massachusetts senator and representative, Webster was a prominent supporter of the Union ideal. Though Webster constantly praised New England’s greatness at the expense of the South, his love of the Union was overriding. One of his most famous speeches was in response to an attempt by South Carolina to nullify a federal law. Webster equated nullification with disunion and argued, “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable.” Lincoln often relied on Webster’s arguments and speeches in justifying his own cause for war—a war to preserve the Union.

 

Hiram Powers, John C. Calhoun (1782–1850), originally modeled 1835, carved 1859, marble, Presented to the State of North Carolina by Wharton Jackson Green, 1861; transferred to the North Carolina Museum of Art, 1956

Calhoun, a representative from South Carolina, represented Webster’s political opposite, insisting that the rights of states had priority over the larger collective. Calhoun argued against Webster during the nullification crisis but backed down when President Andrew Jackson threatened force against South Carolina. Though Calhoun died long before the Civil War, Southern states used his arguments in favor of their secession.

Calhoun’s Roman-style bust was placed in North Carolina’s Capitol Building after its completion. In April 1865, when Raleigh surrendered to the army of General Sherman, retreating Confederate soldiers dumped an inkwell atop Calhoun’s sculpted head.

Thomas Ball, Henry Clay (1777–1852), modeled 1858, cast later, bronze, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Robert Lee Humber

 

Lincoln was inspired by Henry Clay and shaped his early political career around the congressman from Kentucky, one of the most influential politicians of his generation. A young, hard drinking Clay helped draft the Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812; as a polished orator he crafted the Missouri Compromise of 1820; in Congress he pushed through numerous bills for internal infrastructure and wrote the Compromise of 1850 as his swan song.

Though a slave owner, Clay argued for Union over secession and denounced the Mexican War as immoral expansion to please the “slaveocracy.” Clay’s pro-Union rhetoric influenced Lincoln, in his first congressional term, to focus on limiting the expansion of slavery. The Civil War further transformed Lincoln’s views from anti-expansion to abolition.

The Thomas Ball statues ignored the midcentury vogue of dressing politicians in Roman togas, instead showing the men as they were—commonly dressed, giving speeches, and resting on the columns of liberty. Ball wanted to show these leading politicians as mortal men with beliefs rooted in the present, not the past.

Nathan Johnson, security guard at the NCMA, is pursuing a master’s degree in history at N.C. State University.

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