War has a tendency to strengthen preexisting notions of one’s civic responsibilities. Lincoln (2012) renders a powerful demonstration of this effect, as it follows the president on his trying path to the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. While Lincoln himself certainly exhibits an ideal of selfless service, his eldest son (Robert Todd Lincoln) offers a more zealous, passionate example.
As a man of fighting age, Robert feels the call to join the other men defending the Union. Like his father, he puts the welfare of the nation before his own interests, postponing his education and career in order to serve in the military. In addition to a sense of duty, Robert feels that he must contribute to the war effort to preserve his own honor.
Ironically, seeing first-hand the horrors that he would face as a soldier do not deter Robert; his resolve to enlist is only strengthened by a feeling of solidarity with those already on the battlefield. The closer he is to the war, the more Robert is aware of the patriotism and sense of duty that move him.
Throughout the film, Robert serves as the embodiment of common notions of the civic during the Civil War. Because he is free of the political influences and motives that sway many of the Congressmen portrayed, he is able to display these notions freely and plainly; however, several other characters besides Lincoln and his son also act for the greater good.
While being questioned before Congress, Thaddeus Stevens swallows his pride to avoid jeopardizing the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment (although he placates himself by insulting his political enemies), and although many Congressmen exchange their votes for the promise of government positions, some are swayed by the notion of equality alone.
Lincoln certainly portrays the less-than-ideal byproducts of the American political system, but it also reveals common civic ideals that have outlasted any political party or faction. The sense of duty that created unlikely allies and moved men to action during Lincoln’s presidency are just as influential today.