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The Problem with Progress

Updated: Jul 1, 2020

“To wake the soul by tender strokes of art,

To raise the genius and to mend the heart,

To make mankind in conscious virtue bold,

Live o’er each scene and be what they behold”

- Cato, by Joseph Addison

The real President Abraham Lincoln (left) and actor Daniel Day Lewis playing the role in Stephen Spielberg's film Lincoln (right)

Given my educational background in history I should be ashamed to admit that I love movies about history. They’re never perfect, but like all good art sometimes they are excellent tools of communication when trying to understand the world and our past. I for one, am grateful these films exist since they allow me an avenue to discuss history with my family and friends without them getting lost in my babbling. One of my favorites is Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln. It chronicles the debate surrounding the passage of the 13th Amendment (abolishing slavery) to the Constitution of the United States as well as the end of the American Civil War and President Abraham Lincoln’s Machiavellian strategy in both monumental struggles. Spielberg’s Lincoln is not an honest Abe. He is a politician with pure motives, though not afraid to get his hands dirty. At one point in the film, the Amendment is being blocked by a representative from the president’s own party, the radical curmudgeon from Pennsylvania Thaddeus Stephens. Stephens refuses to say the Amendment does not establish equality and only abolishes slavery, holding up the necessary bipartisan votes. President Lincoln decides to work his political magic on Stephens in a basement storeroom of the White House during a party. “A compass, I learnt when I was surveying, it'll... it'll point you True North from where you're standing, but it's got no advice about the swamps and dessert and chasm that you'll encounter along the way,” Lincoln says. “If in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp... What's the use of knowing True North?” He was dedicated to seeing the bigger picture and eventually the Amendment is passed, slavery ended and the war concluded. Though this is a work of fiction the scene summarizes Lincoln’s real political philosophy. He believed the “government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free,” though he also believed his “paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy Slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.” Lincoln knew that if he could not hold the union together no one would be free. What if Lincoln had pushed emancipation too soon? Would the lives of the millions of Americans in bondage have been improved? Would he have won the Civil War? Where would the world be today? "Had he put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the union," said Frederick Douglass at the unveiling of a Lincoln statue in 1876. "He would have inevitably driven from him a powerful class of the American people and rendered resistance to rebellion impossible." If he had been less politically calculating it is more likely the nation would have fallen apart, the rebelling slave holding South would have succeeded and slavery would have lasted for another decade or more. Instead due to Lincoln’s political pragmatism he was able to save the union and become an instrument of emancipation at the right time. "Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent," continued Douglass. "But measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined."

President Abraham Lincoln (1865)

Some of the nuance of politics is lost on many liberals today when it comes to their issues, particularly social issues. I often hear people say they can’t wait, and there is more of a focus on forcing an issue than understanding the Constitution or the political moment. Social issues are as important as any other political question, and I am not advocating for anyone to sacrifice their political principles. However maintaining a secure democratic atmosphere is essential if one is to put those principles into action. When it was suggested to Lincoln that he postpone the 1864 election he said, “If the rebellion could force us to forego, or postpone a national election it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us.” If one were achieve a political battle at the expense of our democratic norms it would be at best a pyrrhic victory. Only by protecting our democratic process can we have tangible political discussions and obtain one’s sought after liberties. This is why every American should be taking an interest in the impeachment proceedings taking place right now. When one party is hijacked for one man’s personal power we have to get our priorities straight. If we cannot maintain our republican government, any progress on any important issue is lost for generations. If democracy fails then no one will be free and no one can be free. Progress in a democratic country is slow, which can be frustrating, but it is lasting. Frederick Douglass had said too accurately “if there is no struggle, there is no progress.” It is worth seeing the bigger picture and achieving a more lasting change if one is willing exercise prudence and educate themselves on the democratic processes.


Frederick Douglass speech -

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