It says something about how deeply into my head Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of Lincoln has lodged itself that I hear this actual quote from a letter Lincoln wrote trying to explain an unpopular decision in the voice Day-Lewis used in the movie:
“Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier boy who deserts, while I must not touch a hair of a wiley agitator who induces him to desert?”
But I think it also says something yet again about the beauty and magic of Day-Lewis’ performance in that he managed to capture the cadences of the voice behind that letter and the spirit of the man of who would make his argument in those words and rhythms.
The point, though, of my giving you the quote is the story behind it. The wily agitator was Clement Vallandigham, a former United States Congressman, who was arrested, tried, imprisoned, and eventually exiled by military authorities for, according to this post on the New York Times’ Opinionator blog, “defying an order of forbidding the public expression of sympathy with the enemy.”
Lincoln was not directly involved and wasn’t happy about what had occurred but he didn’t feel he could interfere. But it contributed to a general concern that Lincoln was working his way towards using his war powers to make himself a dictator.
There were good reasons for the concern. And Lincoln’s assertions that he was not doing anything illegal, unconstitutional, or permanent, although reasoned and based on law and precedent, can be read as boiling down to “Trust me.”
It’s an interesting story and one I recommend especially to progressives for whom it is apparently not enough to criticize President Obama or object and even oppose something he’s done or is attempting to do (Chained CPI, drones, NSA datamining) but we have to repudiate him on moral grounds, condemn him as a fraud, an incompetent, a knave, and a tool, dismiss him as a political and moral failure, at best, an active enemy of liberalism, at the least, and admit we were wrong to vote for him, wronger still to continue to support him.
Anyway, read the whole post by historian Douglas L. Wilson, Lincoln answers his critics, at the New York Times.