Lincoln Has Lessons for the EU

Steven Spielberg’s new film shows the Great Emancipator at his political best, while revealing uncanny similarities to the issues at stake for a struggling European Union

Opinion | Philip Ellison | February 2013

Allan Janik wrote recently of lessons for the EU from American history, examining the Colonial era, but Steven Spielberg’s new film Lincoln (see Film Events, page 25 in Feb 2013 TVR) moves our focus to the mid-19th century.

What can Austrians gain from Hollywood’s take on a "dead president"? This man, and his super-human feats of pragmatism, shows us that a "more perfect" (European) Union may require "Lincolnesque" political cunning, if the greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts whole is to survive. Lincoln makes it clear: the path to a federal "Super-State" is no easy road.

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln treats the last four months in the life of Abraham Lincoln, America’s 16th president. The "War Between the States" raged on, pitting a never fully integrated and agriculturally-based South against the states of the North, many in the throes of the Industrial Revolution, stoked by the nation’s financial capital, New York City. The war questioned the purpose of Union in much the same way as today’s "euro crisis" challenges Europeans to give substance to the Union with fiscal discipline as a guarantor of the euro.


Lincoln the ‘poker-player-in-chief’

In the film, Lincoln, portrayed superbly by Daniel Day-Lewis, is a man who loves to win, and on his own terms. He enjoys the game, including the occasionally necessary bluff and "double-deal", relishing high stakes political infighting at the outset of his second term. Lincoln saw an imperiled nation, and a great cause. That cause, and his ultimate victory, would yield nothing less than the survival of the United States itself.

Lincoln, the political pro, calculated that abolishing slavery with a 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution railroaded through a rump Congress would strengthen his hand in the peace negotiations to follow. While a Confederate peace delegation of presumptuous "sovereign envoys" made its way north to importune Lincoln, the poker player-in-chief wisely chose to "set it by a while".

Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, nimbly played by David Strathairn, advised Lincoln to end the war first, and worry about slavery later. Lincoln’s vision of America would require union. Abolishing slavery was a means to an end… proof that the practical can serve the ideal.


Parallels with today’s struggles in the EU

The "dis-union" of the Civil War, like today’s strains within the EU, included troubled economic times and inflation, a result of issuance of $500 million in paper "greenbacks" to pay the government’s bills, a de facto tax. This experience of the inflationary potential of deficit financing is a vital lesson from American history: when the government is the nation’s chief debtor, the siren song of inflation to relieve private debts is hard to resist.

Still traumatised by the war, efforts to realise the Lincolnian vision and "bind up the nation’s wounds" led to the 14th Amendment, reinforcing the fiscal authority of Congress and guaranteeing the integrity of federal debts from the war and post-war period. As a price of Union, the debts of the Confederacy were nullified, ensuring that a "reconstructed" Congress – with the South readmitted – could not reverse these decisions. As a consequence – significant in the current debt-ceiling wrangle – limits on new borrowing must not mean the risk of default for America’s creditors.

Section 4 of the 14th Amendment states that "the validity of the public debt… authorised by law... shall not be questioned," placing the U.S. Treasury firmly behind lawfully incurred federal debts. (Note that "debts" protected by the 14th Amendment do not include entitlement programmes.) Were the EU to adopt such a measure, with concomitant obligations binding on member states, the choice to borrow against the future to pay today’s bills would be clearly framed as a policy option, going a long way toward restoring confidence in the eurozone.

Lincoln is a "big" film, about big ideas. A film this good is a delight, proving Hollywood can take political history seriously, showing respect for politics itself. Go see Lincoln with a young person, to discover, and re-discover that active participation in politics can be good for you... and everyone around you.

Philip Ellison is a regular contributor to The Vienna Review

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