Reviewed by Andrew DeCort
Most of us have probably heard the maxim, “Pick your battles.” In most cases, this saying is given as a counsel of caution to temper “unrealistic” passion or principle. The idea is that if you fight uncompromisingly for your conviction, you might get crushed. Better, then, to play it safer, be pragmatic, and stick to “what’s possible.”
In many ways, the man and the film Lincoln stand as a challenge to this popular “wisdom.” At the center of the film’s suspense is a fundamental choice facing Abraham Lincoln: either accept slavery and achieve “peace,” or fight for universal human freedom and risk the intensification of civil war. Throughout the film, Lincoln is told by those closest to him how much he is loved by the people and how foolish it would be to endanger his fame and safety by continuing to fight for the Thirteenth Amendment (Abolition). Better, they say, to accept slavery in the South and to save himself and the Union. After all, society wasn’t ready, and emancipation would cause too much trouble.
One of the film’s great achievements – in addition to Daniel Day Lewis’s astonishing, Oscar-winning embodiment of Lincoln – is its depiction of Lincoln’s resolute moral clarity in the midst of undeniably tragic choices. The absolute categories of “right” and “wrong” – categories that may strike the modern person as simplistic and outdated – run like a red thread through Lincoln’s thought from his Lyceum Address (1838) to his First (1961) and Second (1865) Inaugurals. And for Lincoln, slavery was simply wrong and freedom right.
We get a mathematical articulation of Lincoln’s moral vision in a scene in which the President of the U.S. sits and talks with two meager telegraph boys, explaining to them that in Euclid’s geometry, if any two things are equal to something else, they themselves are equal to one another. And thus, if human beings are equal in having been born in the sight of God, then they are equal to one another. Lincoln calls this “natural law,” a category Martin Luther King, Jr. invoked in his struggle for Civil Rights a century later. And thus Lincoln remained resolute in his fight for universal human freedom and equality against all odds, declaring, “I can’t accomplish a goddamn thing of any human meaning or worth until we cure ourselves of slavery…Now! Now! Now! And you grouse! See what is before you! See the here and now! That’s the hardest thing – the only thing that counts.”
One of the most arresting scenes in the film centers on an intensely emotional argument between the Lincolns. Mary, weeping over the death of her son Willy, accuses her husband of being unfeeling, as if his confidence in “the high road” protected him from the “real heartbreak” of human grief. Abraham replies, “I wanted to crawl into the earth, into the vault, with his coffin. And I still do. Every day I do. Don’t speak to me about grief.” Lest we forget, the film reminds us that moral principle is no protection against personal pain.
And thus Lincoln deconstructs the wisdom of “pick your battles” by rejecting its basic premises: self-preservation and the fear of death. Lincoln’s story is a moral martyrdom – an undying witness by life and death to human freedom “with malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right.”
The film – like the man – has the ring of truth and is a delight to behold. It should not be missed, especially when we are tempted to overlook inequality and un-freedom in the name of “picking our battles.”
Andrew DeCort. is a PhD student in Ethics at University of Chicago. He can be reached at: email@example.com