by John Denvir
As Presidents' day approaches,
maybe we can use film to get a new perspective on Abraham Lincoln's
view of law. We all know that Nixon earned his nickname "Tricky
Dick," but maybe the same adjective could be applied to
another lawyer president, Abraham Lincoln, at least as he is
portrayed in John Ford's classic Young Mr. Lincoln.
movie portrays a Lincoln ambivalent towards law, sometimes almost
contemptuous of its sonorous banalities. For instance, our first
sight of him practicing law involves dispute about a small amount
of money. Abe first structures a settlement that would not require
litigation and then playfully, but meaningfully, threatens both
parties with physical violence if they do not agree to the deal.
We next see him as the judge
of the pie contest at the county fair. Here Ford allows Lincoln
to put on a burlesque of judging. First, he tastes the peach
pie and likes it; then he tastes the apple pie and thinks he
likes that even more, but then he feels it his duty as judge
to give the peach pie one more taste, and on it goes. I think
here we can see three messages. First, the judge doesn't want
the contest to end before he's had his fill of the evidence.
Secondly, the whole idea of judging as choosing one side of the
argument as totally "right" is silly. And Ford is also
showing us that the law often forces citizens to make impossible
decisions. In the movie, for instance, the mother of Lincoln's
clients is required by the law to choose which of her two sons
she will see executed.
Soon thereafter, we see Lincoln
once again impishly fiddling with the rules. Here he is on the
weaker side of a "tug 'o war" at the fair; he cleverly
rescues victory from defeat by hitching his side's end of the
rope to a passing wagon heading in the opposite direction.
Of course, the central scene
in the movie is Lincoln's famous cross-examination of a hostile
witness in which he uses the Farmer's Almanac to show that moon
was dark at the time the witness said its brightness allowed
him to identify Lincoln's client. This, of course, is an example
of admirable lawyerly trickery. But once he has destroyed the
credibility of the witness, Lincoln goes on to bully him in the
best Perry Mason fashion to confess to the murder. Substantive
justice is done, but little attention is paid to the niceties
of legal procedure.
Within the structure of Young
Mr. Lincoln it turns out that the hero must save society
from two evils. One is the evil of mob violence that presents
itself in the form of a lynch mob screaming for blood. This scene,
which anticipates the stand against the mob of another lawyer,
Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, is usually interpreted
as a paean to the rule of law, but actually, it's not law, but
the Abe's courage to face down the mob which is the operative
moral force. The second evil is the law of homicide that requires
the execution of both sons with little concern that at best only
one of them committed the murder. Once again it's the lawyer
who saves the day for justice.
Of course, it's not too surprising
that Ford should show Abraham Lincoln as a hero, lawyer or not.
But when we think about it, the structure of Young Mr. Lincoln
is the structure of most trial movies. Instead of the conventional
idea that lawyers are all slimebags, we instead see in movies
like Young Mr. Lincoln a more favorable image of the lawyer
and a less favorable image of the law. Usually we have a noble
lawyer fighting to find justice within a corrupt system of law.
Maybe the layman movie audience
sees a social reality that lawyers themselves too often miss.
Most people don't experience law as a rational system of rules
aiming towards justice, but as the unpredictable exercise of
arbitrary state power. They like lawyers best when we stand with
them against the law in hope of justice.
Posted February 19, 2003