Lincoln: Lessons of the Past Provide Guide for Future

When the Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe awards nominees were announced last week, few were surprised to see Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln among the most nominated films.

Daniel Day Lewis (Abraham Lincoln) was already heavily favored to be a contender in the Best Actor categories and any film by Steven Spielberg is likely to be taken seriously by voters. The cast, including Sally Field (Mary Todd Lincoln), Tommy Lee Jones (Thaddeus Stevens) and David Straithairn (William Seward), also got a nod from SAG, and with the Academy Award nominations coming soon, the film is expected to be a contender in many technical and design categories, too.

Even though the film has been out for nearly a month, I finally headed to the Cineplex for a screening. I was expecting an epic, and Director Spielberg delivered, but in the lessons of 19th century history, I was also surprisingly—and constantly—reminded of today’s fight for LGBT rights.

Be forewarned: At nearly two-and-a-half hours, Lincoln is a long, talky movie. It’s a study (based on presidential scholar Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln) of the political machinations Lincoln had to initiate to get the 13th Amendment passed in the House of Representatives. There are some battle scenes and Lincoln leaves the capital to assess the losses at the Battle of Petersburg, but most of the film is spent behind closed doors as the President twists arms and cuts deals to secure the necessary two-thirds majority necessary.

Historians may have differing opinions on Spielberg’s film, but throughout, I found myself constantly reminded of the legal challenges faced by the LGBT community to any number of contemporary issues including basic marriage equality, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Defense of Marriage Act and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

The Democrats in the House in 1865 recognized that if a peace deal could be struck first, the push for equality for African-Americans might be halted. They also argued that equality would lead to the vote for blacks and eventually women, “a sin against human nature and God.” The fearmongers warned of interracial marriages and the collapse of civil society if the amendment passed.

Not unlike the LGBT outreach to key Republican state senators in New York that led the way to marriage equality in that state, Lincoln and his allies targeted a number of lame duck Democrats, appealing to their consciences (and in this case, offering political payoffs). For three of the four New York Republicans, their act of conscience last year made history, but cost them their political careers.

With the passage of the amendment in the House, the Southern states then demanded immediate readmission to the Union, so they could defeat the amendment from passing the requisite number of state legislatures. A request Lincoln would thwart.

Like so many historical dramas, we know how this film ends (yep, Lincoln gets shot), yet Spielberg created a political drama that is still compelling as the final vote is cast. We don’t know how the modern-day fight for LGBT equality will end, but, hopefully, the lessons of the past will inform and inspire our electorate, lawmakers and Supreme Court justices. Once again, we can only hope they will follow their consciences and choose to be on the right side of history.


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