When I was a child in grade school, whenever a teacher asked us who Abraham Lincoln was and what he did, in unison we would all delightfully answer, "he freed the slaves." Yet it would be many years before I was able to fully comprehend the magnitude of what that entailed. The concept that those slaves, who had previously been only shackled, imaginary beings in my mind, with no particular significance, were in fact men and women who looked just like me. These slaves were my ancestors.
As an adult I struggled with what I perceived as the context for why the 16th President of the United States, was compelled to act in favor of a people who at the time were despised by the majority of those in power. A decision so unfavored by the masses that it became the catalyst for the nation's first and only civil war, claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans. Why would President Abraham Lincoln put himself on the line to accomplish such an unpopular task, a task which ultimately cost him his life? History often portrayed Lincoln as a moral man, who was sickened by the concept of slavery and therefore used his power as president to abolish the practice, yet depending on who you ask you may get a different version of history. To others Lincoln had his hands tied, and needed to end slavery in order to end the the massive bloodshed that came with the civil war. He was not the compassionate, friend of the Negro history books portrayed him to be, but rather a man with his own racial prejudices who only did what he believed was inevitable.
The fact is that Lincoln had been vocal about his disdain for the expansion of slavery since before his election to congress. He spoke out against the institution being practiced in newly acquired territories in the west and he condemned the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision, which essentially said that blacks had no rights under the law which whites were bound to respect.
The Steven Spielberg directed depiction of the end of Lincoln's first term as president was a compelling story of how the 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution came to be. It was a bittersweet journey, reminding viewers of how far this country has come, yet surprisingly it also revealed how much things in America have stayed the same.
In the film, Lincoln, played by Daniel Day Lewis viewed the institution of slavery as an immoral stain on America's soul, a blemish that ultimately had to be removed in order for the country to live up to its potential. Lincoln explains the relationship he had with his father, who although was no saint, did not support slavery, but as a plantation owner knew he could never compete with those who did use blacks as cattle. Lincoln loosely acknowledged, what he had learned from his father, which was that slavery was wrong.
What was oddly familiar about the portrayal of the political process in 1865 Washington, was the corrupt, backdoor, often bitter battles that go into passing a bill and in this case an amendment to the constitution. Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation a couple of years earlier, yet he realized the job was not complete. To permanently abolish slavery, and ensure it never resurfaced, Lincoln knew that it had to be written into our nation's founding document so that it could forever and always be known that in America, one human being will not own another.
There is a scene in the film which seemingly reveals Lincoln's struggle with race equality. In a conversation with two of Lincoln's aides during the film, he describes a basic law of advanced arithmetic he learned while a student. The concept is that 'two things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other.'
In order to accomplish his goal of passing the 13th Amendment, Lincoln had to lie, cheat and deceive, putting not only his reputation on the line, but his presidency, not a far stretch from how legislation is passed today. It is not easy to accept the black and white version of what history often conditions us to believe, in this case, that in a time of extreme racial prejudice, Lincoln was some outlier who believed blacks and whites should live side by side in harmony. Yet, in the real world there is no room for extremes on either side of any proverbial two-sided coin. Life is full of grey areas where most things are not what they seem.
Lincoln may have struggled with his own personal racial biases, he may not have believed that blacks and whites should learn in the same schools or fight for the same jobs, but there is no way he could not have known that ending slavery was the first step toward something even greater for black people and for that he will always have my admiration and respect.