I am a huge history buff, so I couldn’t wait for the Steven Spielberg film Lincoln to come out. Not only do I love history, but I have a particular interest in Abraham Lincoln. I’ve read countless books about him and visited both his birthplace in Kentucky and home and museum in Springfield, Illinois. I’ve also read the Doris Kearns Goodwin book Team of Rivals on which the film is based, so I’m well aware that the real Abraham Lincoln wasn’t necessarily perfect.
The film depicts Lincoln’s efforts to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in the U.S. House of Representatives before the end of the Civil War. That Lincoln died at the hands of John Wilkes Booth a few days after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse makes the meaning of Lincoln’s tireless efforts to win passage of the Amendment and thus ultimately end slavery all the more poignant. Obviously, ending slavery was a very good thing. There is no question that the cause was just.
Here’s the problem.
Throughout the film, Lincoln is depicted as directly or indirectly using threats, bribery, and lying (or shading the truth to be generous) in order to get his way. After the film, I talked to my 19-year-old niece and 16-year-old son about the film, and they both came away with the idea that the main theme was that the end justify the means. While I greatly admire Lincoln as an historical figure, I’m not sure how I feel about encouraging them both to see the movie if that’s what they got out of it.
When I was growing up, my generation was taught about “Honest Abe,” a humble man born in a Log Cabin who grew up to be our greatest President. It wasn’t until we were all much older that we learned that Lincoln was also human. Whenever I visit the Lincoln Memorial or Gettysburg, I feel inspired by his accomplishments as President. I’m not sure how much these feelings can be attributed to the Superhuman Lincoln I was spoon fed as a child or by the accomplishments themselves. Maybe it’s both.
I’ve never asked my boys what they learn about Lincoln these days. I recall, however, being mortified when my oldest son’s 8th grade American History class skipped the Civil War entirely. I joked with the head of the Upper School that at least my son knew the Civil War happened because we took him to Gettysburg on vacation. A friend of mine whose daughter was in the class that same year shared with me that she and her husband felt compelled to take their daughter to a World War II museum to explain to her why the Americans were actually the good guys in the war. Evidently, her teacher convinced her that we were the evildoers because we dropped the Atomic Bomb.
Here are rather deep questions to start the week.
Does the end ever justify the means? Should we be teaching our kids that they do? If so, how does one teach that exactly?