In addition to providing an excellent glimpse of a man much studied yet nevertheless lost to history, Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg, affords us an opportunity to grasp a particular virtue that applies rather surprisingly to politics. Simply in there being such a virtue applicable to a profession much maligned and relegated to swamps, an insight into the value of politics is here for the taking.
On the negative side of the ledger, the art of politics suffers from the vice of self-aggrandizing compromise—selling out the voters, for example, for a private perk. Additionally, fabrication is often associated with politics. In the film, Thaddeus Stevens admits to a bevy of his colleagues that Lincoln is indeed not to be trusted. Noting the men’s flabbergasted expressions, Stevens remarks, “Gentlemen, you seem to have forgotten that our chosen career is politics.” The implication is that mendacity is interwoven into the very fabric of politics, and should therefore be expected rather than held as blameworthy.
Yet surely the purpose of the compromise or lie matters. In refusing to take the bait, Stevens tells his adversaries in the House that equality before the law, rather than in all things (such as in slaves being given the right to vote), is the sole purpose of the proposed 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In the gallery, Mary Lincoln says out loud, “Who would have guessed that man capable of such control; he might make a politician someday.” Off the House floor, Stevens explains to one of his allies, “I want the amendment to pass.” That is why he held back, in great self-control, from divulging his true North—freed Blacks able to vote and even getting some land from the government. Had he stated his version of radical reconstruction, the anti-slavery conservatives in the House would have bolted rather than support the Amendment.
Mary Lincoln’s observation is the hinge on which the insight for us pivots. To be sure, Stevens lied, and compromised, but—and this is crucial—he did so with great self-discipline. The exigency of self-restraint points to the priority of a public good over private gain, for who needs to draw on discipline to pursue the latter? So here we have a virtue applicable to the profession of politics. By this reckoning, pushing through one’s own ideological true-North, whether by lying or expedient compromise, or by playing it straight, does not evoke the virtue. Rather, it is demonstrated by a politician holding back on the allure of an unabashed pursuit of one’s vision out of a mature recognition of being one mere mortal among others.
Even though similar virtues applicable to politics exist along the tether of self-discipline, such as having the political courage to act in the public good in the face of constituent discontent (even though the action is in their own best interest), Lincoln illustrates a particular virtue, or version of it, that I suspect is not well-known among the citizenry. In short, compromise and even lying in the service of politics are not necessarily indications of a sordid character. Rather, a stubborn, or otherwise unrelenting pursuit of an ideology may point to an underlying vice.