Pragmatism vs. Ideology in Lincoln (2012)

An intellectual debate between opposing philosophical approaches plays out in Steven Spielberg’s presidential biopic.

Director Steven Spielberg’s biopic of President Abraham Lincoln’s efforts to pass the Thirteenth Amendment during the closing months of the American Civil War was a critical success, with strong performances by Daniel Day Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones. Tommy Lee Jones’ portrayal of resolute and idealistic Thaddeus Stevens was the perfect foil to Lincoln’s more pragmatic and folksy personality.

Thaddeus Stevens

Thaddeus Stevens (1792-1868) was a U.S. Representative from Pennsylvania, who served from 1849 to 1853, and again from 1859 to his death in 1868. Stevens was a staunch abolitionist and leader of the Radical faction of the Republican Party, who sought total legal and social equality for African Americans, including redistribution of Southern lands to freed slaves.

President Lincoln and Congressman Stevens had the same goal. Both wanted the Thirteenth Amendment passed, which would forever outlaw slavery in the United States. That required a two-thirds majority vote, and Lincoln wanted the amendment passed in the House of Representatives before the Confederacy surrendered, which was not a matter of if but when. In order to get the necessary votes, Lincoln needed bipartisan support from conservative Democrats as well as Republicans. Stevens, however, refused to compromise and moderate his tone.

In one scene of dialog from Lincoln, Lincoln and Stevens meet in a smoke-filled kitchen to hash out their differences. Lincoln needs to get Stevens on his side, but Stevens seems uninterested in compromise. This conversation is a perfect contrast between ideology and pragmatism. Pragmatists are willing to meet their opponents halfway, while ideologues will only accept a total and complete triumph of their ideas.

“I admire your zeal, Mr. Stevens, and I have tried to profit from the example of it,” Lincoln begins. “But if I’d listened to you, I’d have declared every slave free the minute the first shell struck Fort Sumter. Then the border states would’ve gone over to the Confederacy, the war would’ve been lost and the Union along with it, and instead of abolishing slavery, as we hope to do in two weeks, we’d be watching helpless as infants as it spread from the American South into South America.”

Here, Lincoln is pointing out that Stevens’ “my way or the highway” approach would have been disastrous if pursued at the onset of the war. What Stevens saw as an ideological crusade to end slavery, Lincoln saw as a delicate issue that, if not handled with care, could have inflamed public opinion in slave holding border states like Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri. Lincoln needed those states to remain in the Union.

Stevens replies: “Oh, how you have longed to say that to me. You claim you trust them, but you know what the people are. You know that the inner compass that should direct the soul toward justice has ossified in white men and women, North and South, unto utter uselessness through tolerating the evil of slavery…”

An ideology constitutes a rigid set of political or social doctrines and ideas that frame a ‘black and white’ worldview. It reduces the complexity of human life and society to ultimates, and anyone who doesn’t agree with the ideologue’s point of view is either ignorant, simpleminded, or dangerous.

“A compass, I learned when I was surveying, it’ll… it’ll point you true north from where you’re standing, but it’s got no advice about the swamps, deserts and chasms that you’ll encounter along the way,” Lincoln counters. “If in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp… what’s the use of knowing true north?”

Here, Lincoln lays out the case for pragmatism. Yes, it’s good to have ideals, and those ideals will point you toward your goal, but you have to be willing to successfully navigate obstacles in your way, which means not going in a straight line. Pragmatism means accepting a situation as it is and making the best of it. It requires looking at our own behaviors and ideas and asking ourselves whether or not they work and whether they getting us where we want to go. In the words of Teddy Roosevelt, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

Lincoln tries to explain his approach by saying, “When the people disagree, bringing them together requires going slow until they’re ready to…”

But Stevens cuts him off. “Shit on the people and what they want and what they’re ready for. I don’t give a goddamn about the people and what they want. This is the face of someone who has fought long and hard for the good of the people without caring much for any of ’em. And now I look a lot worse without my wig.”

Eventually, Stevens reluctantly comes around to Lincoln’s point of view and moderates his tone on the House floor, saying he only supports legal equality for blacks and whites. He decides that passage of the Thirteenth Amendment is more important than winning an argument over social equality with his detractors. Historically, the Thirteenth Amendment passed the House of Representatives on January 31, 1865 with a vote of 119 to 56. It was a triumph of pragmatism over ideology, with a moderated message and a little arm twisting winning the day.

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