Can politicians learn from Lincoln?

A common theme of Sunday Morning political talk shows over the last few months was what what politicians could learn from Lincoln, the film and the man. This can be expected to continue during the awards season, and for a little while afterwards, if the film does well enough at the Oscars. Which appears to be rather likely.

However, it does seem quite easy to take the wrong lessons from the movie.


For one thing, imagine if politicians started taking rhetorical cues from Tommy Lee Jones’s Thaddeus Stevens. To quote the film’s Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee…

How can I hold that all men are created equal, when here before me stands, stinking, the moral carcass of the gentleman from Ohio, proof that some men are inferior, endowed by their maker with dim wits, impermeable to reason, with cold pallid slime in their veins instead of hot red blood. You are more reptile than man, George…

That was from a fantastic scene in which his character had to deny his belief that all men were created equal, while advocating for the thirteenth amendment. His solution was to evade the question of whether black people were equal to whites, and highlight a flaw in the question, since every member of Congress thinks himself above at least a few of their fellow legislators. This type of rhetoric wouldn’t exactly result in greater civility or bipartisanship.

While the strategies that Lincoln and Stevens use to push the thirteenth amendment through congress can be appreciated, it’s worth noting that tactics are largely apolitical. What works to further a great cause can also be used to diminish it. No one thinks they’re on the losing side of history, but one can look at Lincoln to learn how to prevent the other side from bringing about great change. If President Lincoln bought votes by promising patronage posts, it may be effective to support only candidates who are less likely to be bought, who will not change their vote in exchange for political favors.

The politicians on the other side will likely believe that they’re doing the right thing, even if the situation isn’t as significant or clear-cut as it was in 1865. That belief that they’re doing what’s best in the country is shared by both sides on a controversial issue, be it stimulus spending VS significant budget cuts, defense spending VS defense cuts, school vouchers VS greater power to public schools, stricter gun laws VS stronger rights for gun owners, or support for unions VS support for businesses. Supporters on both sides will look at Daniel Day-Lewis’s Abraham Lincoln, and Tommy Lee Jones’s Thaddeus Stevens, hoping that their guys should take the lessons to heart.


About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. You can email me at
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