What a coincidence. It is intriguing to watch Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln biopic about Abraham Lincoln at a time when the current president is receiving secession petitions via the Internet.
I wonder, how far would the 13th Amendment have gotten in today’s age of Twitter and cable TV news-talk shows? Would black folks still be in slavery? Would John Wilkes Booth have skipped Ford’s Theater if he had his own talk show?
The odd parallels between the two eras illustrate Karl Marx’s point about how history repeats itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
The movie recounts in a bracing and yet thoroughly entertaining fashion how the newly re-elected President Lincoln hunted for votes, one lame-duck congressman at a time. His goal: to end slavery with the 13th Amendment even as the last battles of the Civil War raged on. His means: beg, borrow or buy as many votes as he needs for passage.
To avoid getting his own hands dirty, Lincoln employs a crew of political hacks whom we follow through the often-amusing chores of trading patronage jobs and other “gifts,” to use a famous Mitt Romney word for political offerings.
Since crucial support for the anti-slavery amendment will evaporate if the South surrenders first, we see in scenes of Hitchcock-like suspense Lincoln and his allies pushing for a vote while he secretly stalls the approach of Confederate representatives from Richmond who are seeking to talk peace.
In today’s world, one text message from a Virginia rebel could have blown the whole deal.
One can easily imagine how, in today’s fevered political media environment ol’ Honest Abe would be ripped by conservative commentators for his “Illinois-style politics.”
Yet politics in Illinois, like elsewhere, have more than one style, as illustrated by a story from Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book on which Spielberg based the movie. One of Lincoln’s most loyal supporters was Joseph Medill, co-owner and managing editor of the Chicago Tribune, where I now work.
Medill asked the president why he appointed former opponents like Secretary of State William Henry Seward, who figures prominently in the movie, to top cabinet positions. Lincoln responded that, since the cabinet “needed the strongest men of the party” and “these were the very strongest men.” He added, “I had no right to deprive the country of their services.”
Lincoln’s ability to surround himself with “strong men” yet emerge, as Goodwin notes, “as the strongest of them all” contrasts sharply with today’s deep Washington divide in which such prosaic issues as raising marginal tax rates are fought as epic battles between good and evil.
Such is the heated atmosphere that gives birth to today’s secession fever. It started in Texas, which was the first to reach the 25,000 signatures required for the White House to give a response. The Lone Star State has since gathered more than 100,000.
One of the more eloquent (and printable in family newspaper) expressions of support for secession can be found on Rep. Ron Paul’s website. “Secession is a deeply American principle,” says the outgoing libertarian Republican Texan. “There is nothing treasonous or unpatriotic about wanting a federal government that is more responsive to the people it represents.”
No, but we already have a mechanism for making government accountable. It’s called an election. Paul had ample opportunities to present his grievances, and I support some of his views, such as his opposition to federal intrusion in states that have decriminalized marijuana.
Nevertheless, even his own party rejected the popular congressman and his agenda after he enjoyed a brief spell as its frontrunner in some polls.
Besides, even most Texans oppose secession, judging by a 2009 Rasmussen Reports poll that found only 18 percent would vote to secede. More recently, the secession petitions have been joined by anti-secession petitions of various sorts. Perhaps the secessionists should consider self-deportation.
The big lesson of Lincoln is that democratic governance of a large, diverse republic requires compromises. You can’t always get what you want, but we can work together across partisan lines to get what we need.
And if at first you don’t secede, wait until the next election.
CLARENCE PAGE’s column is distributed by Tribune Media Services Inc.