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Lincoln, a nonfiction tale for our times

If you're expecting a definitive biography of Abe Lincoln, the movie is not it.

But that's not a big deal.

The focus of the film was not so much about Lincoln's life (or about his secret past of slaying vampires) but the lesser-known months-long struggle in passing through the House of Representatives, the 13th Amendment, which officially abolished slavery.

We are brought into January 1865 to Washington DC in the decision-making chambers, from Lincoln's office to the House of Representatives.

Lincoln presents us with the problem of how the Republican party of a few yesterdays ago would cull 20 votes to ultimately secure a 2/3s majority vote for passage of the 13th Amendment.

Union-based Republicans in the North, under Lincoln's leadership, were faced with the task of securing bi-partisan support from Confederacy-based Democrats, largely clustered in the South. Lincoln demanded this be done by January 31st before the newly-elected Congress was to convene in March.

On this journey back to 1865 in Washington DC, we see the wheeling and dealing involved in the representative democracy long before the corporate contributor or Super-PAC became a major factor. We see the heavy influence of the lobbyist, though it appears that in actuality their contributions may have been overstated in the movie.

We see the strength of those who advocated on behalf of the maintenance if not legalization of slavery. We are brought to a time when it was unthinkable to even publicly entertain the idea of allowing blacks or women the right to vote. Congress in session had the feeling of an all-boys club; men bantered back and forth calling each other every insulting name you could think existed in 1860s Union and Confederate American English.

Tommy Lee Jones' character, Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Philadelphia, a radical Republican, suffered the brunt of attacks from pro-slavery Democratic leaders. Among his offenses, he was accused of supporting the radical idea that all men were equal.

In a key moment, however, when Stevens was asked to speak in favor of the bill, he had to bite his tongue about what the 13th amendment would actually mean. Was it a declaration of equality for blacks and all men, or simply a bill to end slavery and the Civil war and nothing more?

This proved to be a key turning point in the movie, as it is implied that momentum to pass the amendment grew from his assertion that it was simply a bill.

The stark division drawn between the Republicans and Democrats in the movie bears a resemblance to the stark division en route to the passage of Obamacare in 2010. However, in the case of Obamacare, bi-partisanship was rejected and Democrats had to pass it entirely on Democratic votes.

The lessons to be culled from the movie are this: it was and still is pretty difficult to pass bills through Congress, and what counts as radical thinking yesterday is today's conservative thinking.

Today, the thought of slavery is unspeakable in public discourse. But there were times when it was a radical idea to think slavery was wrong, when it was a part of life for a chunk of America. No matter how righteous and/or self-evident some actions look like through the hindsight of history, it won't appear so when placed in historical context.


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