Lincoln Movie – Thoughts on a Compass


There’s a scene in the movie where Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens are discussing the amendment to abolish slavery.  They are both for the amendment, but differently so.  Lincoln was milder in his approach, maybe not less mild in his actual conviction, we see by the end how fully passionate and committed he was to the abolition of slavery, but his mannerism at least was milder.  Stevens, however, was abrasive.  Some of that was a personality issue; some of it was due to his passionate conviction about the issue at hand, heightened, no doubt, by the fact that he was secretly married to an African American—secretly married because the persecution for them both would be unthinkable if they were to be open about their union.  This was a personal, intimate matter to Stevens, to say the least.

They were on the same side, but, as I said, their approach was very different.  Lincoln was diplomatic and mild and soft in his approach.  Stevens was bullish, abrasive, offensive and condescending.  While he was brilliant and quick-witted and even respected, he wasn’t liked and therefore often created more enemies and opposition than supporters.  Maybe the real difference lay in how they felt about people—Lincoln seemed to genuinely care about all people, even those who were not “on his side”.  Stevens didn’t seem to have that same love for all mankind.  In his own words, “This is the face of a man who has worked for the good of the people without caring much for them.”  It seemed that Stevens cared more for issues and principles than for people.

All of that brings us back to the discussion between Lincoln and Stevens about what it was going to take to get the amendment passed.  Stevens made a comment about the inner compass of men; “You know the inner compass that should direct the soul toward justice has ossified in white men and women, North and South, unto utter uselessness though tolerating the evil of slavery.”  He was right.  Because his inner, moral compass so truly pointed due North, it was easy for him to see where the inner, moral compasses of the people around him had gone South.  When they allowed slavery, their consciences became seared to the point of uselessness, at least in regards to that issue.  All true.

Lincoln’s response was brilliant.  A compass, I learnt when I was surveying, it’ll… it’ll point you true North from where you’re standing, but it’s got no advice about the swamps and dessert and chasm that you’ll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp… What’s the use of knowing True North?”  The issue at hand wasn’t what was right, or what was North.  They agreed on that point.  The issue was how to get there.  To put it another way, being right doesn’t always make you right.

I was playing soccer last night and a teammate who is very principle oriented got upset about a call the referee made.  Even though he was right about the rules and right that the referee didn’t make the right call, he wasn’t right about how he responded.  His compass may have pointed North, but the route he took to get there plunged him into a bog of quicksand he couldn’t get out of, and the harder he fought it, the deeper and faster he sunk.  Not only that, but he was taking the team with him.  Even though we didn’t agree with his response, when he got carded for his response, the penalty affected the entire team.  In the end, our beloved but rather belligerent teammate cared more about principle and about being right than he did about the people around him, even his own team.  What he missed though was that he was sabotaging his own point.  If he’d truly cared about the principle, he would have had far more success in getting there if he’d used some restraint and tact.  Belligerence never wins friends.

Lincoln’s comment made an impact on Stevens.  He realized that if true North was his goal, he was going to need to show some tact in getting there.  Later, his response was genius when asked about the true intent of the law.  I could share it with, you, but really–you should see the movie instead—it’s so much better in context!  (Or, you can see it here in a list of quotes from the movie.)

 Questions for Discussion:

  • Do you tend to be focused more on people or principle?
  • How is your compass?  Does it point True North, or has it gone a little South, calloused by compromises in your life?
  • Are you willing to do whatever it takes to reach True North, even if it means humbling yourself, using tact, taking the circuitous route, etc?
  • What is the difference between compromising True North itself and compromising the route to get to True North…because there is a critical difference between the two?  Can you think of examples of each?  (Click here to read a blog response to this question.)

Read a review of Lincoln here.

Read a collection of quotes from the movie here.

by Stacey Tuttle