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 (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.Continue reading “Pragmatism vs. Ideology in Lincoln (2012)”