Like 1776, But Without the Singing

J.L. Wall

J.L. Wall is a native Kentuckian in self-imposed exile to the Midwest, where he teaches writing to college students and over-analyzes Leonard Cohen lyrics.

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60 Responses

  1. Ethan Gach says:

    Great take J.L.

    I was originally against seeing the movie, because I thought it would be War Horse 2.0. In some (many?) ways it seems that’s true.

    But the political conversation surrounding the movie (and the in-fighting among leftists which it has inspired) has encouraged me to rethink my earlier decision.

    Plus I love Daniel Day.

    Question: which Miller play?Report

  2. James Hanley says:

    Great review, J.L. The cult of the presidency signals the impending end of the American republic. The only quibbles I might make are that your review seems to suggest that Spielberg is conscious of plumping for the imperial presidency, whereas I think it’s far more likely that he has just absorbed it so deeply that any other approach is literally not comprehensible to him. And the cult did not diminish during the Bush presidency; liberals were told in no uncertain terms–by conservatives who adored Bush’s power grabs–that it was unpatriotic to criticize the president, and liberals fear and hatred of Bush was based on an unconditional acceptance of the general concept of such a strong presidency–the FDR model, after all, and their loathing was not about the claims of power so much as that the power they want for the presidency was, in their mind, defiled, diverted from its pure purpose into something wicked.Report

  3. Ryan Noonan says:

    Embedding a critique of the imperial presidency in a review of a movie about Lincoln is a nice reminder that there’s nothing particularly new or novel about imperial presidents.

    I’m pretty excited to see this movie (hoping tonight or tomorrow). Lincoln was one of the greatest forces for good in the history of the United States. And Daniel Day Lewis is the greatest actor of his generation. Should be a good time.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Ryan Noonan says:

      Actually, the imperial presidency is a new thing. It was intellectually justified by Woodrow Wilson, and truly arose only after WWII when we became a national security state. The reconstructionist critique of Lincoln as an imperial president is mis-placed. A Lincoln or a Roosevelt are better understood as the temporary Dictators of Rome. Unfortunately, their perceived success* in the role helped create the ideal of that kind of political dominance as an ideal, rather than just a temporary necessity.

      *More real in the case of Lincoln, less real in the case of FDR.Report

      • There’s plenty of imperialism to be had in the presidencies of Jackson, Lincoln, TR, and FDR. Granted, things are slightly different now that the president can direct the DOJ to ignore your neighbor lynching you instead of being totally powerless to stop your neighbor from lynching you, but the broad contours are similar enough.Report

        • Chris in reply to Ryan Noonan says:

          I was going to say that I think Jackson is a better example of an imperial president than Lincoln. Lincoln was a war president, and war leaders always end up with more power than they should probably have, but I doubt he’d have been as powerful as he was in peace time. In fact, I suspect that if the country hadn’t broken up, he’d have been only slightly more effective than his immediate predecessors, who were some of the weakest presidents.Report

          • BlaiseP in reply to Chris says:

            The United States was already broken up. Henry Clay arbitrated the separation with the Missouri Compromise, parcelling out custody of the various states. With the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, the Kansas-Nebraska Act war was the serving of the divorce papers. War was already blazing away in Kansas and the Republican Party took full advantage of it.

            The big what-if surrounding “Had Lincoln lived..” was the composition of Congress after the Civil War. It seems clear enough Andrew Johnson was following through on Lincoln’s wishes with his milder version of Reconstruction. But as with the Republican’s role in the war’s commencement, the Republicans would have surely rejected the sentiments of the Second Inaugural with all the bitterness with which they rejected the newly-elected congressmen in the era of Johnson.Report

        • James Hanley in reply to Ryan Noonan says:

          I’d sincerely disagree. Jackson is most known for ignoring the Supreme Court, but not in favor of a very active national government in general, beyond taking more territory in which to create states that would mostly be left to manage their own affairs.

          TR, however, is in the early stages of the modern presidency. Some, perhaps most, presidential scholars, peg him as the first modern presidents (others, using a somewhat more subtle approach, pin it to his immediate predecessor, McKinley–either way, that’s the time it’s pinned to). It wasn’t yet truly imperialist, in the sense of trying to shake off all checks and balances. Whereas the former dominant view of the presidency was that it should only do what was clearly constitutionally authorized, TR believed the president could do anything that wasn’t clearly constitutionally forbidden, and should, so long as he was acting as the steward of the people. Wilson’s addition to this approach was to see the president as the only representative of the American public. Congress, being merely representatives of different fractions of the public, should therefore bow to the presidential will.

          Those were mere precursors to the imperial presidency, which manifested itself as a belief that there were no true bounds on the president. Nixon is normally seen as the starting point, but I think LBJ has a fair claim, and maybe even as far back as Truman’s Korean adventure. Reagan’s nearly consequence free Iran-Contra affair and Clinton’s totally consequence free flouting of civil liberties* and his Yugoslav adventure showed that the imperial presidency was secure, despite the setback of the Nixon resignation. 9/11 brought about the excuse to make it full-fledged, to declare that only the president had authority to determine the limits of presidential authority, and that in times of national security crises (and remember, we’ve been in a state of permanent national security crisis since the start of the Cold War) there were no effective limits to presidential power. Obama has done precisely nothing to reverse that, and has happily adopted the claims to unchecked power.

          Jackson never dreamed of anything like this, nor even did TR.

          *For example, unilaterally declaring that anyone who’d signed a contract to live in public housing had thereby waived their fourth amendment rights against search and seizure without a warrant. More generally, see The Rule of Law in the Wake of Clinton.Report

          • BlaiseP in reply to James Hanley says:

            Andrew Jackson’s imperium was the greatest disaster which ever befell the Native Americans. He really was a monster of the most populist sort. He was far and away America’s worst president.

            In Oklahoma, the Osage and Cherokee generally avoid touching a 20 dollar bill, calling it Black Heart’s Money.Report

          • ” It wasn’t yet truly imperialist, in the sense of trying to shake off all checks and balances.”

            I would add to this definition of “imperial presidency” and say that not only does shake off, or tend to shake off, most checks and balances against the executive. But also I’d say that the “imperial” part of “imperial presidency” suggests a reproduction of the president’s power so that his successors enjoy just as much as he did, but even more. (I hope that’s clear. What I mean is, I agree with you.)Report

  4. BlaiseP says:

    I saw the trailer and decided to leave it alone. There don’t seem to be many good films out these days.

    More has been written about Lincoln than anyone but Jesus Christ, I figure. How much more is there to say? He was a dark horse candidate, picked by a handful of power brokers intent upon breaking up the Whig Party.

    The Whigs put a great deal of stock in the power of Congress and far less in the presidency. They were the technocrats of their day, protectionists too. But they had a strong populist streak and looked to Thomas Jefferson as the model for what a good president should be. Slavery divided the Whigs and Lincoln became their first real Republican horse in the race for president.

    If Lincoln became a strong president, the opposite of his Whiggish ideals, suspending habeas corpus and almost arresting Justice Taney, the entire nation changed with him. We look too much to Lincoln. As with the Roman Republic in its decline, starting with Gaius Gracchus’ fights with the tribunes and the commencement of the Social Wars, the American Republic had been in serious trouble long before the Civil War. Lincoln was only an expression of the nation’s inability to cope. The dismal track record of Lincoln’s generals, the vicious infighting even within his own cabinet, the sheer grinding brutality of Lincoln’s road to victory over the rebellious South — Lincoln may have been a consummate politician but so was Gaius Gracchus. And like Gaius Gracchus, man of the people, reformer, power grabber, orator extraordinaire, Lincoln came to a predictably bad end. He was too good to live.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to BlaiseP says:

      To add to this, Lincoln was an accidental president. Had the Democrats not split their vote between a southern candidate and a northern candidate, he’d never have been president. He lost one run for office, managed to serve as a member of Congress for only a single term, and only won the presidency through luck. Consummate politician? Doubtful. The right man for the moment? Quite reasonably so, if you believe it was necessary for the south to remain in the union. As the old saying goes, some have greatness thrust upon them. Give Lincoln credit for not botching the greatest threat the union has ever faced, but recognize that absent that threat, he’s probably less than a historical footnote.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to James Hanley says:

        Lincoln didn’t win on luck alone. He had strong backers. Upstream, I put in a few words about the Kansas-Nebraska Act and its role in the creation of the Republican Party. The force was strong with that one, Lincoln: he was riding a tide of public outrage over the creation of any more slave states. The Lincoln-Douglas debates make this very clear.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to James Hanley says:

        To add to this, Lincoln was an accidental president. Had the Democrats not split their vote between a southern candidate and a northern candidate, he’d never have been president

        I’m not so sure of that. Combine Bell, Douglas, and Breckinridge into one candidate, and Lincoln still wins the electoral vote handily. The only state he won that wasn’t by absolute majority was Oregon.Report

        • James Hanley in reply to Mike Schilling says:

          True, Lincoln would have won the EC anyway. I overstated the case. Less strongly, he only got 40% of the popular vote. The concentration of Democrats in the South meant they won overwhelmingly there without their high numbers adding to the Democrats EC totals.Report

  5. Shazbot5 says:

    Man, would you guys freak out in a parliamentary system.

    A president has power? Pffft. Presidents are weak political actors. (The Lincoln movie seemed to show this, BTW.)

    Now a Prime Minister has some power. The only real check on her powers are the courts and the threat of becoming unpopular.

    Those poor Canadians and Brits live in tyranny.

    Oh wait, no. They have effective, sane governments (moderately conservative or moderately liberal, depending on the times.)

    Americans do make saints out of succesful presidents (And Reagan), but Americans make saints out of anyone who has any degree of success in any endeavour: David Petraeus, Clint Eastwood, Lance Armstrong, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, Brett Favre, Tiger Woods. (They are then schocked to discover the saint is a human. Shocked I say!)

    Heck, Sully Sullenburger became a saint for landing a fishing airplane: a bit of luck and skill doing his job.

    The country has some kind of pathological, perverse need for heroes.Report

    • Kim in reply to Shazbot5 says:

      And in Japan, the people who truly risked their lives to save everyone are not. Rather than valorize them for doing their job, the nation merely says, “we wish they would hurry up a bit…”Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Shazbot5 says:

      “You didn’t land that!”Report

    • BlaiseP in reply to Shazbot5 says:

      I would hardly call Gordon Brown an exemplar of sanity. If Americans have a perverse wish for heroes, they also stupidly admire other nations, little realising how poorly they’re governed. A parliament is a stupid arrangement for a nation, allowing a handful of zealots to pervert policy to their own ends far out of proportion to their numbers: cases in point: Israel, India, the UK, Germany, pretty much every parliamentary democracy is similarly hobbled by ignorant back-bench ranters and Single Issue Charlies.

      But it’s generally true, what you say. The notion of the “press” has been replaced by the camera, the three second silent shot with anchor voiceover. The press creates these Heroes, only to put them in the skeet trap like so many clay pigeons, so they can shoot at them for target practice.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Shazbot5 says:

      I’d argue that a prime minister is largely captive to their Cabinet. Instead of the intra-party battles being fought out in the open, as they are in the U.S., they’re normally fought out behind the scenes, and then the PM is the public face of whatever the outcome is. All the party MPs bow in acquiescence to what the PM says, but in fact they’re acquiescing to what the Cabinet has ordained. An extraordinary PM can dominate his/her cabinet, but extraordinary PMs aren’t the norm.Report

      • Zach in reply to James Hanley says:

        “I’d argue that a prime minister is largely captive to their Cabinet.”

        I don’t think that’s entirely true in the Canadian case. It certainly doesn’t play out in the post-war period, with the exceptions of Diefenbaker and (for portions of his tenure) Mulroney.

        The others either shared or delegated policy-making to the civil service (King, St. Laurent, Pearson), were ‘blips’ preoccupied with managing ongoing crises or political transitions (Clark, Turner, Martin), or effectively dominated the Cabinet through a powerful PMO (Trudeau, Chretien, Harper).Report

    • Shazbot5 in reply to Shazbot5 says:

      ” A parliament is a stupid arrangement for a nation, allowing a handful of zealots to pervert policy to their own ends.”

      Sorry Blaise, you’re right. It is Canada and the U.K. who have a problem with a handful of zealots perveting policy to their own ends, not the U.S.


      Ohhhh, my.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Shazbot5 says:

        Canada? They’re possibly the worst. If ever there was a cadre of malcontented zealots, it would have to be BQ. As for the perversion of policy, SponsorGate shows how the Chrétien government responded to BQ, by bribing everyone under the sun.Report

        • KatherineMW in reply to BlaiseP says:

          Canada? They’re possibly the worst. If ever there was a cadre of malcontented zealots, it would have to be BQ.

          You’ll be glad to know we’re rid of them, then. You can thank Canada’s socialists for that.

          But the BQ were never in government.Report

          • BlaiseP in reply to KatherineMW says:

            Well, yes, but that goes to my point about back bench ranters and One Issue Charlies. Jean Chrétien, étron de crocotte and all those wretched Liberal Party types involved in SponsorGate were indeed perverted and started handing out money to all and sundry because BQ were gaining ground.

            BQ might not have been in government but they had plenty to say to Harper back in the day.

            What with BQ on the outs and the Conservatives in, we who watch the shenanigans of Canadian politics are wondering how NDP will fare. Would you really call NDP socialists?Report

        • North in reply to BlaiseP says:

          Err BlaiseP ol’ buddy, the Bloc has never formed part of an official federal government in Canada. The closest they got was official opposition (which was too good for them the crooked bastards).Report

    • North in reply to Shazbot5 says:

      Actually Shaz I’d submit that Prime Ministers are weaker than Presidents in a very important way that you, being American, could be expected to overlook: the presence of the Monarchy. Prime Ministers are viewed generally and widely in their countries as utterly grubby boss politicians and little more. The symbolic pomp, dignity and grandeur of the nation/body politic (along with a significant roster of real legal power and duties like the loyalty of the military among many others) are instead reserved for the Monarch where (in modern times under an extremely reliable Monarch) it is contained dormant and harmless.

      This almost entirely neutralizes the tendency that people have to deify the executive from the Parliamentary system. You should hear the names that people (even people in government) in the commonwealth hurtle at their Prime Ministers with little serious push back of “you can’t say that about the Prime Minister!!!” coming in return. This in turn helps control the danger of the overinflated ego’s of the actors in question from rampaging about quite so much.

      Also of course there aren’t any set terms for Prime Ministers. A Prime Minister Bush (the lesser) would have been hurtled out on his ear in 2006 at the very latest (most likely sooner). Prime Ministers always are conscious (some critics kvetch over conscious) that if they fish up too much and lose a vote in parliament it’s election time again. It keeps them cautious.

      So yes in terms of day to day power Prime Ministers have more oomph than the President (officially) does but in absolute, symbolic and practical terms the President is significantly more powerful (perhaps dangerously so) than a Prime Minister.Report

      • Kim in reply to North says:

        And this works in India? or Israel? Sorry, but I don’t buy it.Report

        • North in reply to Kim says:

          Obviously I was referring to the Westminster parliaments specifically.
          That said, even the Israeli’s have a symbolic President which serves some of the same function as a Monarch. They have some structural quirks to the Knesset that make their system quite… interesting.Report

  6. Shazbot5 says:

    I thought the film was excellent.

    It showed Lincoln as having an admirable plan to pass the 13th amendment, but being unable and frustrated in his attempts to pass it, despite his popularity as a wartime president. (The scene whe he is playing with his kid, while Congress is voting on passing the law makes him look weak, IMO. He also looked weak and indecisive in not knowing how to deal with the delegation from the Confederacy that wanted a negotiated peace.) It showed that he understood the tension between idealism and getting something practical done, and he was perhaps a bit cynical, unlike Stevens. It showed that he wasn’t above petty politics and bribes and needed them to win narrow victories despite popularity. It showed him as being a windbag, telling stories even at inappropriate times. And it showed some of his flaws with his personal relationships. It shwped him failing to get some Democrats on his side through his political and personal persuasion.

    But it showed that he was strategic, philosophical in conversation, more idealistic on race than some of his time but not others.

    Maybe not a perfect movie, but an excellent one.Report

    • I’m inclined to agree. As far as a story, the movie was, in my view, quite good and entertaining, although not the best movie in the world ever.

      I do think, though, that there’s merit in the argument of those who see a celebration of the cult of the presidency in the movie. When one things about the history and the implications for today, then one is justified in raising those concerns.

      Still, as I said, I thought it was a good story.Report

  7. Michael Drew says:

    I overlooked your Fiery Trial review last year apparently. Glad for the link.Report

  8. Tim Kowal says:

    Well, I finished reading Kearns Goodwin’s book last week in anticipation of seeing the movie. I can already tell I will be disappointed since, given the timeline, the movie opens well after Lincoln’s tirade over Mary’s “flub dubs for that damned old house!”

    That said, I’m conservative, so hagiography’s kind of up my alley. 🙂Report

    • I’m generally against hagiography. And even though I understand and see the merit of those who infer a cult of the presidency from the movie, I do have a soft spot in my heart for Lincoln.Report

      • Kearns Goodwin’s book presented Lincoln as worthy of veneration. I haven’t read on Lincoln widely enough to know if it was more favorable to Lincoln than warranted. I’d be interested in citations to serious (e.g., deducing that Lincoln was gay because he shared a bed with Joshua Speed is not serious, in my book) critical works on Lincoln. But I did just finish reading a 900+ page book so I’m a bit Lincolned out at the moment.Report

        • Even though I’m a US historian, I’m woefully ignorant of the Lincoln historiography (I’m a little better on Reconstruction historiography). I can give a lecture on what he did and didn’t do, and I’ve read (and enjoyed) a pretty large number of his speeches, but I just don’t know what others have written of him.

          Do you think Kearns Goodwin would be worth my while to read? I tend to get frustrated with her frequent PBS commentaries on different subjects, as well as the plagiarism scandal, which while probably not the worst sort of plagiarism, does bespeak to me a certain sloppiness in writing and research. Still, I’ve never actually read anything by her.Report

          • Seemed like pretty solid research to me — much of the book is direct quotes from letters and speeches. There’s a narrative (“team of rivals”) but it’s mostly just a chronological account with special focus on who was interfacing with Lincoln, how he dealt with them magnanimously while also trying to win elections and a war. There’s some editorializing, but it seemed fairly minimal and well supported by the research.

            In short, a solid piece of pop history. But I also didn’t do much shopping around on other Lincoln bios. It was a bit of an impulse purchase, though it sustained my interest through 900 pages. I also hear good reviews of Foner so I’d probably consider his book as well.Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to Tim Kowal says:

      Design a president who’s going to be considered a hero:

      He should come from nothing, and earn his measure of success by diligence and perseverance. Even if he becomes wealthy, he must never lose the common touch. He should have a sterling reputation for personal honesty, and an open, generous, warm-hearted and humorous nature.,. He becomes president during a time of great nation peril, and guides the country through it. Afterward, he becomes a martyr, killed by an absolute villain.Report

  9. shk says:

    “Lincoln favors The Thirteenth Amendment (never mentioned without its adjectival number) simply and precisely because he is Lincoln. It is a matter of his nature; there can be no more complexity than that. ”
    You’ve lost me. The film explains clearly and repeatedly that he favored the amendment as necessary to prevent the restoration of slavery at the War’s end. Are you saying that it doesn’t explain why he thought the restoration of slavery would be a bad thing? After fighting and winning the Civil War?
    And the cult of the presidency? As if Lincoln worship is a new thing? Cults that last a century+ are called religions. Every country needs heroes, I think he is a fine one to choose for that role, and if you disagree, it isn’t Spielberg’s fault.
    Spielberg always throws in gratuitous treacle; it’s a self-destructive reflecx that he really should talk to a therapist about. But it was a good (not great) movie and not worthy of your scorn.Report

    • Pierre Corneille in reply to shk says:

      +1 on your last two sentences, and most of the rest of your comment.

      I’ll say that one thing the movie doesn’t really make clear is that slavery in several states and parts of states was still legal even under the Emancipation Proclamation. That would be a helpful fact for the audience to understand the opposition to the 13th amendment.

      Very good point about the 13th being necessary to guarantee the emancipation Proclamation. That was one of the best scenes in the movie, where Day-Lewis goes over step-by-step the legal difficulties of the proclamation.

      Also–and perhaps you might agree although you didn’t comment on this–whatever evolution Lincoln underwent on what to do about slavery, it was probably evolved mostly all the way through by the time this movie portrays him, early 1865.

      As I said in a comment above, for whatever perverse lessons one draws (perhaps legitimately) about the movie’s cult of the presidency, the movie itself is a pretty good story.Report

    • Jeff No-Last-Name in reply to shk says:

      “Spielberg always throws in gratuitous treacle”

      There-in lies my complete disinterest in seeing a Spielberg film. I got enough of that crap from ET.Report

      • The worse thing about it, in my opinion, is that when I’m watching a Spielberg movie, I don’t notice the treacle, but it infects the whole movie so that when I leave it, I remember being “treacled” even though I couldn’t cite where exactly in the movie that came from.Report