The Young Mr. Lincoln is so over-determined as to be a complete cipher, and in the hands of a less expressive actor than Henry Fonda, the title character would be completely crushed by the heavy weight of the dead president’s mythology. That’s all in the future, of course; here, in 1939, John Ford only addresses the years when young Abe was a lawyer in Springfield, when his political ambitions were still well masked by a layer of self-doubt and country humility. But the events that will come after are so incredibly present throughout the film that it only really signifies, proleptically, through reference to that context.
As I wrote here, Ford’s The Prisoner of Shark Island did something similar from a different angle, replaying and re-mixing the civil war in order to resolve its aftermath. In that film, the firing on Fort Sumter is reincarnated as the very act by which Mudd, the confederate scapegoat, can be re-admitted into the union, for it turns out that only he can order the recalcitrant black soldier to do what needs to be done. Only southerners, you see, have the necessary knack of command, so as freed slaves are re-cast as the divisive factor that must be overcome if the union is to be reborn, the special talent that a white Virginian brings to the table is what allows him to file for citizenship.
In The Young Mr. Lincoln, on the other hand, African-Americans are striking by their almost complete absence. This is the way it has to be, I think; since neo-confederate fantasies like Shark Island would re-imagine the racial other as the divisive cause of the civil war, a movie that is set in the period before the civil war can’t allow itself to be populated with racial others without skipping the record ahead. So when the first piece of law that the young Abe Lincoln reads is on a man’s liberty to own property, he can sit and marvel at its transparent self-evident truth status precisely because there are not, yet, any black people to muddy the waters. The problem of man as property, the question of people’s claims to own other people, has not yet emerged.
In this sense, the movie makes racial purity into the object of a kind of pastoral nostalgia: since we’re all aware of the hidden significance of his words–in ways that he, himself, is not–the film’s wish fulfillment is for a world without black people, where something like rights to property can be a kind of uncomplicated first principle. So, to hear this Abe Lincoln tell it, his family left Kentucky not to get away from slavery as a system, but to get away from the slaves themselves. Kentucky’s a mighty fine place to live, he says, “but with all the slaves coming in, white folks had a hard time making a living.” So, he moved north.
David Blight has written a great book on popular memories of the civil war, where he makes the point that national reconciliation (and the roll back of reconstruction) was a project of misremembering the causes of the civil war, small issues like the citizenship of black people which could (after being forgotten) be allowed to slip under the radar. Instead of focusing in on the basic issue that still divided the country, therefore, people like Horace Greeley retrospectively recast the conflict as been caused by hot tempers and mis-applied patriotism, and not by slavery at all. In sharp contrast to the ways that Lincoln himself reluctantly, but firmly, made slavery the central issue in his second inaugural address, general reunification actually proceeded only after slaves and freedmen had been erased from the historical narrative, and, in effect, the north turned its military victory into a political defeat by folding like a lawn chair on every important issue, allowing the South to re-establish a violent racial hierarchy familiar in its outlines if not exactly the same as slavery. This transcendence of partisan bickering by renouncing anything resembling a principle would have made today’s congressional democrats stand and salute, of course, but I digress.
In The Young Mr. Lincoln, containing and regulating overzealous enthusiasm is the central problem, and Abe Lincoln strides forth not as a steadfast man of principle but as a kind of “Great Mediator” whose folksy ways, gentle humor, and willingness to use violence can solve every disagreement. From a pie-eating contest to his law practice, Lincoln’s principles are far less important than his Solomon-like ability to broker compromise: instead of compromise, everyone magically comes away satisfied whenever Abe Lincoln hands forth a decision.
So it’s exactly right that the film’s central event is Lincoln’s prevention of a lynching of white people by white people. In a movie made at a time when the lynching of black people in the South was still a relatively common occurrence, when the Ku Klux Klan was still a real political force, the inextricable racial element in the practice of lynching has been extricated, exactly as the centrality of slavery in the civil war had to be forgotten in post-bellum mythologies of The Lost Cause.
In this movie, therefore, rebellion becomes the problem of keeping public order, not of resolving a real dispute, and the man who is the man for the job is a guy who plays Dixie on his Jews Harp (called that because of David’s harp, he informs us). When his companion notes that the song makes you want to march, he simply muses; imperturbable, the young Mr. Lincoln keeps his passions in check, and because he can, he succeeds in keeping the passions of Springfield’s overzealous citizenry in check as well.
And so, when the time comes, he is a Solomon. A man is dead, and two brothers stand accused of killing him. Neither will speak, so after Lincoln stops a mob from lynching them, he becomes their attorney. And when the prosecution offers him the choice of letting one brother live and one brother die (if one will confess, the other can go free) he makes the inexplicable choice to go for broke, risking all in the effort to save them both. Like Solomon, who offered to let the baby be cut in half and in doing so saved it, and like President Lincoln, who preferred war to sacrificing the South, this young Mr. Lincoln refuses the choice, saves them both, and everybody is happy. There are no losers here, because the problem of race has been erased from the movie before it began. And, as a fitting coda, his accomplishment wins him the attention of a young southern belle named Mary Todd, who tells him she admires his conduct during this recent “deplorable uprising.” Indeed.