Steven Spielberg’s new film Lincoln has excited great debate between reviewers, historians, and commentators. Here, Kelly Candaele leads us through the many strands of the argument:
One of the most gratifying aspects of Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln has been the debate that its release has generated among historians and journalists, a debate more important than the movie itself. What were the complex dilemmas that Lincoln faced as President? What were the political realities and conduct of the time? How should we interpret the decisions that Lincoln and others made? What role did slaves and free blacks play in their own liberation?
Despite the fact that the film focuses on a short period of time in Lincoln’s presidency and deals primarily with the political cut and thrust associated with the passage of the 13th Amendment, there is a real sense in which the film can be described as deeply philosophical. Lincoln is portrayed as a man of discipline, concentration, and energy, all characteristics that sociologist Max Weber defined as part of the serious politician’s vocation. By forging an effective and realized political character — one aspect of Weber’s definition of charismatic authority — an astute politician can change the nature of power in society. By controlling his all-too-human vanity, he can avoid the two deadly political sins of lack of objectivity and irresponsibility. For Weber, a certain “distance to things and men” was required to abide by an “ethic of responsibility” for the weighty decisions that leaders are often required to make.