Lincoln, Corruption, and Compromise

I had the pleasure of watching the Lincoln movie over Thanksgiving weekend. The film fills almost three hours mostly with politicians talking to each other, which of course I found terribly interesting. I’m not spoiling too much to tell you that it mostly revolves around Abraham Lincoln buying votes with job offers and deceptions, all in order to pass the super-important Thirteenth Amendment to abolish slavery.

Naturally, this stirs up some conflict in me. When it comes to the issue of “breaking democracy to save democracy,” the film mostly presents the view that “the ends justify the means.” I generally prefer a more purist philosophy, believing that if you’re sacrificing your principles to save your principles, well, you don’t have any principles left to save.

I first wrestled with this while Bush was president and I decided that I don’t believe torture is justified, even under the pretense of saving lives. I had a similar reaction when Bush talked about abandoning free-market principles to save the free-market system with the economic collapse at the end of his second term.

Many conservatives may praise Lincoln for being a clever man who knew how to get things done, but I was reminded of Obama buying votes for Obamacare. When the other party does it, it’s corruption; when your party does it, it’s playing the game. The Lincoln movie presents a shrewd case for the value of “playing the game.”

I have to admit that such views have been calling me lately. I’ve defended the potential idea of the Libertarian Party accepting government funding to help further their goals of reducing government funding. I’ve also noticed how Rand Paul is having more influence for small-government goals as he “plays the game” within the Republican Party. If a purity towards your principles means your principles never accomplish anything, what good are they? This is indeed the siren call of the film.

And yet I’m not ready to throw ideological purity out the window. Within the very specific constructs of the film, corruption is tempting. If it was true that the Thirteenth Amendment was the only way to abolish slavery, and if it was true that it was only possible to get Congress to pass it before ending the war, and if it was true that it was only possible to get this lame-duck Congress to pass it and not the next one that had a lot more Republicans, and if it was true that it was only possible to get some Democratic votes by offering them jobs in the next administration, etc, etc, etc, then, wow, maybe it would be worth it to trade a couple corrupt bribes for a chance at making history!

But I think such a hypothetical trade is built on a lot of unreasonable assumptions that can only be guaranteed with arrogance. It’s the same with torturing terrorist suspects; if it was true that there was an imminent terrorist attack on the country, and you had a suspect with precise information on how to stop it in time, and he could be convinced to give that information to you only if you tortured him, then that would at least present a compelling case to justify torture. But that type of hypothetical situation is extremely unlikely, especially because you can never really know what someone else knows or what might compel them to reveal it and reveal it accurately.

Similarly, even within the constructs of the film, I find it extremely unlikely that the only way to abolish slavery was to pass the Thirteenth Amendment before the war ended with this particular mix of bribe-able Congressmen; can you really be that arrogantly confident about the opinions and actions of so many other people? Furthermore, it’s entirely possible that the constructs of the film aren’t even remotely accurate; perhaps slavery was already dying, or perhaps the Thirteenth Amendment wasn’t as instrumental as the movie makes it out to be, etc, etc. If any of the numerous, complex assumptions break down, then Lincoln’s clever little bribery-corruption starts to look a lot less heroic.

In that case, the siren call fades quite a bit. There very well may be occasions for compromising ideals in some manner to help advance those very ideals, and every man must set that bar for himself. But I still think that bar is a lot higher than Lincoln cleverly dares to suggest.

4 thoughts on “Lincoln, Corruption, and Compromise”

  1. I began this EM to point out that the author had used “principal” when he meant “principle” in the second paragraph. Later in this insightful article, the word IS used correctly. I must assume this was a text-setting error and not one of grammatical weakness.

    1. Thank you for noticing my egregious error; it has been corrected. I often cringe at the grammatical errors that slip past the professional bloggers and journalists I often read, yet I shudder to think how many more errors I would commit myself if I blogged more frequently.

  2. I’d like to offer a few quick thoughts that may or may not help to clarify the role of the 13th amendment and why it was passed when it was passed.

    First off, I think author of the article you linked to regarding the inaccuracies of “Lincoln” was a little too dismissive of the fact that slavery did still exist in 1865. Sure, it had been thoroughly destroyed by four years of fighting and many slaves running away to Union lines, but it was still thriving in parts of the South that had not seen a lot of fighting, like Alabama and Mississippi. When the Emancipation Proclamation was first issued in 1863, Unionist slaveholders in the border states vocally opposed the measure and feared the freeing of their own slaves through a Constitutional amendment later in the war. Their fears proved to be right (btw, Missouri passed its own state amendment in January 1865 abolishing slavery a few months ahead of the U.S. amendment). These very slaveholders often chose to side with the Union in the first place because they believed their “property” was more secure under United States law than Confederate law. For better or worse, I think we have to acknowledge the fact that many Northerners, although personally opposed to the institution of slavery or having slaves of their own, feared the possibility of slaves gaining their freedom and moving into Northern cities and competing for jobs and labor with Whites, among other concerns.

    “Lincoln” has its inaccuracies, and perhaps one of them is not demonstrating thoroughly enough why the 13th amendment needed to be passed. Slavery may have been destroyed in many areas of the country, but again, an amendment was needed to solidify the end of slavery. Unfortunately, the only way to abolish slavery would have been through a constitutional amendment, because slavery was constitutionally protected. There was nothing else those bribe-able politicians could have done. Furthermore, the Emancipation Proclamation was a war measure of the Chief Executive that would be null and void when the war ended. Lincoln wanted a constitutional amendment passed that would ensure that slavery would be extinct at war’s end. Furthermore, Lincoln’s Reconstruction policy called for a quick return of Southern States into the Union at the end of the war. Had the legislature waited until the next session to pass an amendment, a distinct possibility existed that the requisite 2/3 majority for a new amendment would not have been met, even with a Republican majority. So it makes sense to me to pass the 13th then. Of course there were other factors–abolitionists, the slaves themselves, the military–that helped end slavery in the country, but the 13th is important regardless.

    Looking at the big picture, I appreciate this post because it shows that even the greatest moments in our history might have their dark sides. Fact of the matter is that Lincoln got to be President because he was an able party man who deployed an extremely effective system of patronage to help get support for his measures. With compromise, one must ask when it’s morally appropriate to compromise and when it’s morally appropriate to stand your ground. Should you always stand by your principles no matter what?

    1. As always Nick thanks for your historical perspective. You make a good case that the Amendment was necessary, though I’m not necessarily convinced either way. Sometimes I’m glad I’m not the one in power choosing between principles and pragmatism though.

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