The Lincoln myth on film

Submitted by AWL on 5 February, 2013 - 2:06

The “second American revolution” was a two decade-long political and social upheaval, from the 1850s to the 1870s, which freed millions of black slaves (the Civil War, 1861-5) and drove towards a more radical transformation of United States society (Reconstruction). The radical phase of this revolution was defeated in the 1870s when the dominant sections of the Northern ruling class betrayed the former slaves and allowed them to be deprived of political rights in order to enforce labour discipline in a new, fully capitalist South – though the process of racial subordination was not completed until the end of the 19th century.

The real heroes of this drama were, in the first instance, the slaves themselves, who played a major role in destroying slavery through what black historian WEB DuBois called “a general strike” of mass rebellion and desertion, and after the war went on to demand full equality and briefly push Southern society in a more democratic, egalitarian direction. Their movement interacted with that of mostly white "abolitionists" and Republican Party “Radicals” in the North, who with the coming of war moved from the widely despised left fringe of US politics to reshape Northern public opinion and even dominate Congress.

Steven Spielberg's new film, Lincoln, written by playwright Tony Kushner, pretty much writes out the story of black self-emancipation. Right at the start we see a black soldier criticising Lincoln's inertia and conservatism, but this theme is not developed, at all. The two black characters in the film, White House servants, were real people who in real life were political activists – but not in Kushner/Spielberg's version. Lincoln includes depictions of white Radicals, including one of the greatest of them, but in a way that is dismissive and misleading.

The film stands in what is now the dominant tradition of serious Civil War history, not to mention official commemoration: what has been called “Lincolnolatry”. In its own terms, the film is made worse by this approach, with some extremely manipulative choice of scenes and imagery, particular in connection with his death. People have gone wild, as usual, about Daniel Day-Lewis' acting, and maybe justifiably, but I find the folksy Lincoln manner he portrays irritating. Certainly Lincoln's fondness for telling jokes and humorous stories is less entertaining when you know that, in real life, the jokes were often highly racist.

The Lincoln myth which the film is based on and part of casts him as a – perhaps uniquely – principled and savvy political leader, who won the Civil War and ended slavery by resisting both the rebelling Southern slaveowners and Northerners who wanted to go too far, too fast, whose policy would have undermined Northern chances of victory and the defeat of slavery. Had he not been killed his approach could have laid the basis for a more just and sustainable settlement of the issues posed by Reconstruction.

The myth is mostly just that. Lincoln not only won election and entered the Civil War, but departed life with his assassination in 1865 a white supremacist opposed to equality for the ex-slaves and all black people. Moreover, while opposing slavery on an abstract level, he regarded short-term emancipation with all its consequent social upheaval as a greater evil, and was highly reluctant to touch slavery until events – the action of the slaves, the growing strength of abolitionist and Radical activism in the North and the threat of losing the war – overwhelmed him. Far from being “realistic” policy, the conservatism and racism of his faction undermined the Northern war effort, lengthened the conflict and cost many thousands of black and white lives.

The film does not attempt to deal with any of this. It avoids doing so by setting its action around events right at the war's end, with the passing by Congress of the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, which banned slavery. It was a very close vote.

This sounds dramatic, and in the sense that the Amendment showed how far things had moved during the four years of the war, it was. For the best part of the first two years of the conflict, the Lincoln government insisted that it had no intention of touching the South's “peculiar institution”; Congress had actually passed an earlier Thirteenth Amendment guaranteeing slavery for ever, only for this to be short-circuited by the war's outbreak! But by 1865, slavery was already close to dead – so much so that even the Southern leadership was discussing freeing slaves in order to use them as soldiers. Moreover Lincoln had recently been re-elected and anti-slavery Republicans had won an election which very soon after would significantly increase their Congressional majority. The vote on the Thirteenth Amendment was in no real sense a make-or-break moment.

A more interesting film would have looked at the arguments of 1862-3, when, against Lincoln and other conservatives' resistance, anti-slavery forces outside and inside Congress pushed for the freeing and arming of the slaves, the recruitment of black troops in the North and other revolutionary measures judged necessary both morally and in order to win the war. It would have looked at how during this period Republican activists and Congressional leaders discussed removing Lincoln, just as they would later try to remove his successor Andrew Johnson. A really interesting film would have explored some of the ironies – such as Lincoln issuing his famous Emancipation Proclamation in order to undercut the more radical policy agreed by Congress, so that taken literally the Proclamation returned many people to slavery.

Instead Lincoln presents the Radical Republicans as naive idealists, who in the decisive crunch were pulled by Lincoln rather than pushing him.

Thaddeus Stevens, the dominant figure in the Radical-led House of Representatives, is treated sympathetically, played well by Tommy Lee Jones and given what I thought was the most moving scene in the film. His real goals are stated: to win complete racial equality and give the former slaveowners' land to the former slaves. But this battle-scarred, indomitable fighter against slavery and racism is also rewritten as a political understudy to Lincoln, and when it comes to it cannot answer the great leader's arguments. A tactical manoeuvre on his part is presented as a confusing compromise – in contrast to the supposed determination of Lincoln, who in reality was almost nothing but compromise when it came to slavery. I think the audience is meant to think that Steven's political goals were confused too.

Thaddeus Stevens was part of the last batch of bourgeois politicians in the US who were in any sense revolutionary - as, to a much lesser extent and despite himself, was Lincoln. Stevens' death in 1868, after which 20,000 black and white Americans marched at his funeral, heralded the end of an era, or the closing off of a possible one. The defeat of his vision produced the US of today – an advanced capitalist economy and bourgeois democracy, but shaped by a particular reactionary political legacy (slavery, segregation and racism, genocide of Native Americans, imperialism). This remains the case even after the “Second Reconstruction” of the 1950s and '60s civil rights movement.

One of the reasons even the Northern elite was so reluctant to see the planters' land expropriated and given to the ex-slaves was the ominous precedent this would have set to the increasingly class-conscious workers of the North, as well as poor whites in the South. The year the last Southern Reconstruction governments fell to the white supremacist counter-revolution, 1877, was the same year that US capital and labour confronted each other violently in a virtual working-class uprising – the first national railworkers' strike. Republican President Rutherford Hayes, having just withdrawn federal troops from protecting the Reconstruction regimes in Louisiana and South Carolina, sent them against the strikers. And there was a shift in the working class too: this was the first large-scale workers' struggle which at least partially cut across racial lines.

As US capitalism developed, US workers' organisation was taking steps forward, but it was still stunted and deformed by racism. Nonetheless, many of the best of the Radicals and anti-slavery activists were finding their way into the labour movement – while the Republican leadership, having betrayed black Americans, was now purely a party for the ruling class. I'm pretty confident which side the real Abraham Lincoln would have been on.

• This is a longer version of the article than in the print version of Solidarity.

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