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Lincoln: Best film ever about …. The House of Representatives!

- December 7, 2012

I suppose the competition isn’t very stiff.  (Even the rare film on Congress tends to focus on the Senate — Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Advise and Consent, The Candidate.)  Still, Seth Masket’s excellent piece about Lincoln (in which he argues that Lincoln “is probably the best film on the American presidency ever made”) motivates me to make the case for the other end of Pennsylvania Ave.  Granted, I study Congress, and all I know about the presidency is that the White House is located a mere four blocks from my office at GWU.  But what’s not to like about a movie in which the drama takes place on the floor of the 19th century House of Representatives?!

Lincoln does four things especially well.

First, I think the film does a superb job capturing the nature of legislative politics at the middle of the nineteenth century.  This is a legislative body in transition– symbolized by the expansion of the U.S. Capitol, depicted in the 1861 photograph above.  (Lincoln insisted that the mammoth building project go on, after stopping briefly with the onset of war.)   More than the building of course was in flux, as both the committee and party systems had yet to develop their modern forms.  Who leads the fight for the passage of the 13th Amendment in the movie?  Not Speaker Colfax, who sits impassively in many of the scenes that take place on the chamber floor.  Where is the Republican floor leader?  There were no such officially designated or elected leaders at this time.  As Allan Bogue suggests in The Congressman’s Civil War, Colfax’s predecessor as Speaker, Galusha Grow, once called a meeting of committee chairs, but did it only once (apparently to no avail).  And, as Jenkins and Stewart ably show in their new book on the speakership, the party caucus itself was at a critical transition point in the Civil War period.  Leadership more often came from a handful of committee chairs.  In the case of the 13th Amendment, the floor manager was Rep. James Ashley.  If Ashley looks fresh-faced and inexperienced in the film, he was.  First elected in 1858, by 1861 he was chair of the Committee on Territories– his quick rise to power typical of a committee system in development before the advent of durable congressional careers.

Second, as Seth notes in his post, the film deftly suggests the limits of presidential power.  This would have been especially true over the course of the 19th century, a period that Joseph Cooper has documented as a period of congressional– rather than presidential– preeminence.  With the succession of representatives from the southern states, large Republican majorities over the course of the war were strongly factionalized, as the film carefully shows.  Even in the heat of debate, Conservative Republicans in the film physically take their cues from the de facto leader of their bloc, Francis Preston Blair, as he sits in the visitors’ galleries.  Notably, the film ably depicts the other powerhouse within the Republican party, the Radical leader and chair of Ways and Means, Thaddeus Stevens.  Nor can the president count on a claimed electoral mandate to move pivotal Democrats to change their votes in support of the amendment.  Instead, as the film emphasizes, patronage is the president’s weapon of choice for greasing the skids– promising jobs as postmasters, tax collectors and land surveyors.  The Democrats know the positions they want, hold out for bigger and better, and only occasionally seem conflicted about trading their positions on slavery for a cushy federal outpost.  This is the reality of party-run government before the advent of a civil service and the creation of a modern bureaucracy to staff the emerging state.   As Allan Bogue reminds us, even Rep. Ashley would later promise to give up his seat if he could be guaranteed a four-year term as surveyor general in a western territory.  (He appears to have settled for the governorship of the Montana territory.)

Third, the film captures what historians have conveyed about the often dramatic nature of congressional floor debates in the nineteenth century.  Charles Sumner, after all, wasn’t beaten in the 1850s for his tepid one-minute speeches.  The final passage scene seems to have been true to contemporary accounts (such as the Harper’s Weekly drawing to the right), with wild cheering and hat waving on the crowded floor and in the galleries above.  (In the movie, the Republicans break into song. That seems a stretch from the Times‘ coverage, but I’ll give the producers the benefit of the doubt.)

Finally, the film remains true to 19th century parliamentary procedure.  Admittedly, I did wonder about the scene in which Speaker Colfax requests to vote from his chair on the dais. (Wasn’t he required to go to the House floor like other members?)  Still, as befits the best film ever about the House of Representatives, Spielberg did his procedural homework. Before final passage of the 13th Amendment, the reading clerk moves the previous question motion to gauge the majority’s readiness to vote.  A previous question motion in a Hollywood movie? I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.  Move over Mr. Smith.  Finally, a Hollywood film the House can call its own.