“Lincoln” and the Law

Reviewers of Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” have rightfully praised the film for its faithfulness to history and for the fine acting of Daniel Day Lewis, Sally Field, and Tommy Lee Jones, among others. As a “lifer” in legal academics, I was intrigued by the film’s engagement with law, lawmaking, and law-related ideology.

The most important “law” in the film is the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, and the film accurately suggests that the Amendment’s ratification in 1865 was more important in formally ending slavery than was the more famous Emancipation Proclamation. The latter, issued by President Lincoln in 1863, served only to free slaves in the ten Confederate states warring against the Union. Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation chiefly as a war measure and hoped it would prompt slaves to take up arms against slave owners.  

Even more interesting was the film’s portrayal of lawmaking. Getting the United States House of Representatives to approve the 13th Amendment by the requisite two-thirds vote was a messy affair, marked by abundant legislative horse trading and even by what amounted to threats and ultimatums. One is reminded of the line sometimes attributed to Otto von Bismarck, Prime Minister of Prussia: “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect as we learn how they were made.”

And then, too, the film is synchronized with the law-related assumptions of the dominant American ideology. Law, that ideology invites us to believe, is a prudent, neutral entity that is used objectively and fairly to solve problems and resolve disputes. In the societal context, law is a tool for positive, reformist change. In “Lincoln,” the 13th Amendment and its champions are lionized, but overlooked is the way law supported, enhanced, and extended the institution of American slavery for over 200 years prior to its abolition. If we recall that slavery was “lawful,” the ideological glorification of law takes a hit.


This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Mark Reimers

    I saw “Lincoln” last Saturday and it is one of the best movies of the season. It’s the first time that Lincoln has ever come across as something other than a caricature in a movie.

    Like most folks, I was really unaware of both the legal issues surrounding the 13th amendment and the political maneuvering required to get it passed. Again, great movie.

  2. Gabriela Leija

    I also saw this movie and loved it. I certainly agree with Mr. Otto von Bismarck, Prime Minister of Prussia, that “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect as we learn how they were made.”

    I believed the process to be a more heroic, blunt assertion of the disgusting reality of slavery and its existence in our society- something like what Mr. Stevens had in mind!

    It was discouraging to see that to have stated that reality and what it meant to abolish slavery, had to be censured into a “politically correct” statement so as to not prevent the amendment from passing.

    Overall, a great thought-provoking movie.

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