The Lincoln Movie: A Libertarian Review

As I walked away from the movie, an older man behind me whispered to his friend: “that movie should have come out ten years ago.  What a needed story for our time.”  Needed? I’m not so sure.  But the timing was impeccable.  With the recent talk of frustrated citizens storming the White House petition website demanding the allowance of secession, perhaps this movie, which portrayed the closest the United States has ever come to a break up, was reinforcement of “unity above principle.”  A disturbing political tendency that haunts our current political climate.  “Uniting” together as one nation in “times of trouble” has been the public goal of leaders, not only in the American narrative, but throughout countries worldwide, including and especially those countries considered to be overseen by tyrannical or dictatorial leaderships.

The Lincoln movie was everything I expected it to be and more.  Lousy historical scholarship, a sense of positive bubbling emotion for one of our country’s worst presidents, and a praiseworthy cast.  Tommy Lee Jones was outstanding as a supporting actor and, in my opinion, stole the show.  Sally Fields too did well in portraying the wife of President Lincoln, a role that demanded her to be a frustrated and constantly ill woman, full of contradicting and bi polar emotions.  Of course Daniel Day-Lewis was a spectacular choice for the seemingly depressed, yet always thoughtful President who faced a unique crisis in American history.  One might have been left, at the end of the two and a half hour movie, feeling rather frustrated with the South and their ever-so-racist ways.  But glad with all the hard work that Lincoln did in his second term on behalf of the slavery issue.

Unfortunately however, history tells a different tale about the Lincoln we have learned to cherish in our propaganda ridden secular schools.  Lincoln, according to Thomas Dilorenzo, was a master politician. Murray Rothbard described a politician as a liar, conniver, and manipulator.

In 1832, Lincoln begins his career as a politician with a bang, saying things like:

“I presume you all know who I am. I am humble Abraham Lincoln. I have been solicited by many friends to become a candidate for the legislature. My politics are short and sweet, like the old woman’s dance. I am in favor of a national bank…in favor of the internal improvements system and a high protective tariff.”

Central banking, corporate welfare, high taxation; portrayed as an “old woman’s dance.”  The perfect and masterful politician indeed.

What of his views on slavery?  In Lincoln the Racist, Dilorenzo, shows that Lincoln was “a man of his time,” that is, he consistently stated his belief that blacks are “inferior,” not to be seen as “socially and politically equal,” unqualified to “intermarry with white people” or “hold office,” and perhaps saddest of all, that “America was made for the White people and not for the Negroes.”  A very different portrait than the Lincoln of Hollywood who went out of his way to talk to the black soldiers and the black maid that worked in the White House.  Lincoln at one point in the movie said, “Slavery bothered me as long as I could remember.”  Yet historically, we have only indication of the opposite sentiment.

For more on the real Lincoln, see DiLorenzo hereherehere, and here.  See Chris Rossini here.  For the real causes of the Civil War, see herehere, and here.

One of the most important aspects of the theatrical emotion that was stirred by the modern capabilities of contemporary cinema was the yearning that the audience had to see Lincoln succeed.  This dangerous ability that movies have on the citizen’s understanding of history has been utilized time and again.  At one time fiction novels such as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle persuaded the people.  Now it is movies.  Take a child without an opinion into the movie Lincoln, and out he will come with a new childhood hero and favorite president.

The entire movie was one big thrust for a new era of Lincoln worshippers.  For those of us who have already discovered and developed our opinions on the big-government, big spending, high taxing, anti-Constitution President Lincoln, there were a wonderful number of opportunities to practice the skillful act of eye-rolling.  For instance, Hollywood Lincoln’s drive and passion for peace is laughable.  On the contrary, whereas the South desired peaceful secession, Lincoln gave them an ultimatum: rejoin the Union or suffer Union attacks.  Lincoln’s dream of a consolidated Federal Government (which he was successful in achieving) was the primary reason the south wanted out, and the primary reason Lincoln needed a war to keep them in.  Slavery was never the focus.

At one point in the movie, Lincoln expresses the reason behind his emancipation proclamation as a military-time order.  He says that he was not sure if such a power was constitutional, but since he needed the power, he took it.  Such is the nature of the Lincoln presidency as a whole.  From banishing a congressman who disagreed with him (and exiling him to Canada) to closing down newspapers (destroying the freedom of the press) to suspending the writ of habeas corpus (by setting up military tribunals) to enacting a “boots on the ground” campaign in the peaceful South, it seems that in many ways, when Lincoln needed a power that was not granted to him by the Constitution, he grabbed at it.  Rule of law?  Not in Lincoln’s world.

For a split second in one scene, there was a portrait of President Andrew Jackson on the wall.  This man, a stalwart of the Old Jeffersonian Democrats, was everything Lincoln was not.  Anti-central bank, anti tariffs, and pro State’s rights.  I find it amusing that, not only was Jackson hanging there in Lincoln’s office, but just less than a half hour later, two people collide and a number of “Greenbacks” (Lincoln’s paper money) fall to the ground.  Jackson would have been fuming.  He had killed the bank.  Lincoln gave it a new life.

The southern “traitors” and “rebels” were portrayed as bitter racists.  Perhaps they were.  Not all of them mind you, but racism in the south, just like in the north, was a sad reality of the day.  But while this was so, it is harmful to today’s liberty movement that when the case for “natural law” was declared in the House of Representatives during the movie, it was used as a defense against the freedom of the black man.  Connecting racism with natural law theory is a distortion of not only the admirable theory, but also of history.  One can only think of the abolitionist natural law theorist Lysander Spooner who, while bitterly against the concept of slavery, was also consistently an opponent of the Presidency of Abe Lincoln and Lincoln’s war.

The movie was largely centered around the passage of the thirteenth amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States.  This is important to note because Lincoln’s famous Emancipation Proclamation actually freed nobody as it only applied to those specific areas that had declared secession.  The “proclamation” was actually so specific that it exempted those southern places that were under union control.  In other words, the Emancipation Proclamation effectively did nothing.  Except perhaps later gave ammo to historians a hundred years later in their fictional tales of Lincoln as liberator.  Even so, with the movie giving legitimacy to the unfounded notion that Lincoln was a warrior on behalf of the 13th amendment, history again was distorted.  Lincoln had opposed passage of the 13th amendment for long into his career, until northern abolitionists were able to twist the political arm of Lincoln so that he would support their efforts.  Lincoln was not a 13th amendment supporter.

In a correspondence with General Lee of the South, Lord Acton, the famous Catholic philosopher (“power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”) noted this:

“Without presuming to decide the purely legal question, on which it seems evident to me from Madison’s and Hamilton’s papers that the Fathers of the Constitution were not agreed, I saw in State Rights the only availing check upon the absolutism of the sovereign will, and secession filled me with hope, not as the destruction but as the redemption of Democracy.”

The war was over the Southern right to secede and the Southern right to nullify Union laws.  Lincoln wanted a stronger Federal Government.  The South said “no” and left.  Lincoln would hear nothing of it.  He was the first President of the newly formed Republican Party, which was the resurrection of the nationalist Whig party, the crusaders on behalf of Henry Clay’s “American System” (centralization, protectionism, and mercantilism).  Today, Lincoln is paraded as a hero of the abolitionist movement.  But not only was Lincoln no abolitionist, the slavery issue was secondary to that of the rights of States to determine their own way.  But in this post-Lincoln world of ever increasing centralization and power grabbing, Lincoln must be seen as a hero.  And anybody advocating for a strict reading of the tenth amendment must be rendered both a racist and an anti-American.  A rebel, as it were.

But maybe the true rebels are those who refuse to honor the American way of private property and the rights of the States to secede if DC becomes too tyrannical.  Maybe Lincoln was the rebel.  The progressive.  The one who had no business doing what he did and starting a war to get his way.

But alas, the American society praises him and continues to pay tribute to a dictator.

Was the man behind me in the theater correct in saying that this movie was “needed?”  I don’t think so.  The Lincoln myth was set in stone long ago.  The viewers did not need more Lincoln propaganda thrown their way in order to support the status quo.

It was a decent and entertaining movie.  I liked the political humor and the characterizations of the congressional battles.  It held my interests.  But do your homework before and after.  Lest you too become enthralled by the emotion of Hollywood Lincoln.


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  • Faraz PL

    You provide no evidence that Lincoln did not support the 13th amendment. Also, you need to read South Carolina’s, Mississippi’s, Texas, and Georgia’s declarations of Secession, detailing why they left the Union. All of them say it was because of Slavery:

    1) The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with
    the Government of the United States of America, present to their
    confederates and the world the causes which have led to the
    separation. For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious
    causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States
    with reference to the subject of African slavery.

    2) Texas abandoned her separate national existence and consented to
    become one of the Confederated Union to promote her welfare, insure
    domestic tranquility and secure more substantially the blessings of
    peace and liberty to her people. She was received into the
    confederacy with her own constitution, under the guarantee of the
    federal constitution and the compact of annexation, that she should
    enjoy these blessings. She was received as a commonwealth holding,
    maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery–
    the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits– a
    relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness
    by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all
    future time.

    3) (South Carolina) The General Government, as the common agent, passed laws to carry into
    effect these stipulations of the States. For many years these laws
    were executed. But an increasing hostility on the part of the
    non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a
    disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government
    have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution.

    4) (Mississippi) Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of
    slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor
    supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most
    important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are
    peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an
    imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to
    the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the
    world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.
    That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point
    of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but
    submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the
    Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.

    Leave History to the historians.