Pure Corruption


The greatest measure of the Nineteenth Century. Passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America

This is how Thaddeus Stevens paints Abraham Lincoln’s landmark achievement in the Steven Spielberg’s movie: the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution abolishing slavery(1). This sentence tells a blunt fact about politics: that advancing the cause of social justice requires more than grand ideas and principles.

Spielberg presents Lincoln’s task as a race against time. He must, by almost any means possible, obtain enough votes from a recalcitrant Congress before the American Civil War ends and it is too late. To get the votes, he has to trade patronage jobs and trim and parse the truth. You may call it consequentialism: the end justifies the means, but the movie digs deeper into the politician dilemma, when the end demands inexcusable means and it is the politician himself or herself who have to pay the bill

I decided that the Constitution gives me war powers, but no one knows just exactly what those powers are. Some say they don’t exist. I don’t know.

I must make my decision, (…) you yours. And bear what we must. Hold and carry what we must. What I carry within me, you must allow me to do it. Alone, as I must. And you alone (…) may lighten the burden. Or render it intolerable. As you choose. (Lincoln)

In “Why we love politics”, talking about the same film and the same politician, David Brooks say:

You can do more good in politics than in any other sphere. You can end slavery, open opportunity and fight poverty. But you can achieve these things only if you are willing to stain your own character in order to serve others — if you are willing to bamboozle, trim, compromise and be slippery and hypocritical.

And I fully agree with him that politics doesn’t produce many Lincolns, but it does produce some impressive people. I am not so sure about the results…


(1) Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution:

  • Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
  • Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation

Featured Image: Lincoln movie poster

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