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Lincoln and Ethics

Jonathan B. Wight

Lincoln (the movie directed by Steven Spielberg) opened last week. It was largely shot in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia. The movie was ironic on many levels. The scenes depicting the debate over freeing the slaves in U.S. House of Representatives in 1865 were actually shot inside the Virginia General Assembly. Those are the exact seats where the Confederate Congress met to resist such a move.

While the Emancipation Proclamation had already freed slaves in rebellious areas, slaves were still in bondage in others areas; moreover, the Proclamation was a war powers act that likely would have no legal standing once peace was declared.

If nothing were done, many freed slaves would be forced back to the plantations after the war. That is why Lincoln fought to pass the 13th Amendment before Lee surrendered. In the movie he even stonewalled a peace delegation from the Confederacy to keep the war going so peace would come with better terms for slaves. What is surprising is how much resistance the 13th Amendment aroused, even among Northerners.

David Brooks has a good discussion of the ethical ironies. Lincoln, the man of high principle, fighting for the natural rights of all men, used bribery, lies, deceit, and trampling the constitution to cajole unwilling congressmen to sign the Thirteen Amendment.

The movie makes two contributions. First, it is wonderfully acted, scripted, and directed, building to an exciting climax even though we all know the outcome. Daniel Day Lewis and Sally Fields are likely Oscar contenders for their roles.

Second, to Brooks this movie illustrates the "nobility" of politics if used by a person of character: "The hero has a high moral vision, but he also has the courage to take morally hazardous action in order to make that vision a reality." Other examples of moral irony come to mind: Lyndon Johnson twisting arms to achieve the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Lincoln is a fine docu-drama that will educate and entertain while stimulating ethical issues for the classroom.

[Minor note: I was an extra in Gore Vidal's movie Lincoln shot in Richmond with Sam Waterston and Mary Tyler Moore in 1987. We were up for several 4:30 am casting calls and shooting all day until midnight to produce some whirling Viennese waltzes for Lincoln's second inaugural ballroom scene. While I still have the desirable scraggly beard and hair for this era, I didn't have the time to be an extra this go round.]


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