Lincoln (2012) Directed by Steven Spielberg. Screenplay by Tony Kushner. Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln
Lincoln: 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 decided I needed them to exist to uphold my oath to protect the Constitution, which I decided meant that I could take the rebels’ slaves from them as property confiscated in war. That might recommend to suspicion that I agree with the Rebs that their slaves are property in the first place. Of course I don’t. Never have. I’m glad to see any man free and if calling a man property or war contraband does the trick, why I caught at the opportunity.
Now, here’s where it gets truly slippery. I used the law allowing for the seizure of property in a war knowing it only applies to the property of governments and citizens of belligerent nations. Well, the South ain’t a nation. That’s why I can’t negotiate with ‘em. So, if in fact the Negroes are property according to the law, have I the right to take the rebels’ property from ‘em if I insist they’re rebels only and not citizens of a belligerent country? Slipperier still, I maintain it ain’t our actual Southern states in rebellion, but only the rebels living in those states, the laws of which states remain in force… The laws of which states remain in force… That means that, since it’s states’ laws that determine whether Negroes can be sold as slaves – as property – the federal government doesn’t have a say in that – at least not yet. Then Negroes in those states are slaves, hence property, hence my war powers allow me to confiscate ‘em as such, so I confiscated ‘em, but if I’m a respecter of states’ laws, how then can I legally free ‘em with my proclamation as I done unless I’m cancelling states’ laws? I felt the war demanded it… my oath demanded it… I felt right with myself and I hoped it was legal to do it. I’m hoping still.
Two years ago I proclaimed these people emancipated “then, thenceforward, and forever free.” Well, let’s say the courts decided I had no authority to do it. They might well decide that. Say there’s no amendment abolishing slavery. Say it’s after the war and I can no longer use my war powers to just ignore the court’s decisions, like I sometimes felt I had to do. Might those people I freed be ordered back into slavery? That’s why I’d like to get the Thirteenth Amendment through the House and on its way to ratification by the states; wrap the whole slavery thing up forever and nigh as soon as I am able. NOW! End of this month! And I’d like you to stand behind me like my Cabinet’s most always done.
As the preacher said, I could write shorter sermons, but once I start I get too lazy to stop.
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