The Internationalist  
  April 2013  

Lincoln, Lincoln, and the Abolition of Slavery

Abraham Lincoln and actor Daniel Day-Lewis (Photos: Matthew Brody/National Portrait Gallery; David James/DreamWorks II)

Lincoln, the movie, was billed as Hollywood’s Great Movie of the season. It had everything that the motion picture moguls love: an illustrious director (Steven Spielberg), a renowned scriptwriter (Tony Kushner), an accomplished lead actor (Daniel Day-Lewis) who gave a sterling performance (and looked like Lincoln’s double), plus historical heft and plenty of flag-waving paeans to American “democracy.” But in the end, it lost out in the Academy Awards to two flicks lauding the dirty work of the CIA: Argo (anti-Iran) and Zero Dark Thirty, which celebrates torture and the assassination of Osama Bin Laden. The Academy wants its patriotic gore to be crude and contemporary these days. 

Lincoln has been called a history lesson in film by various reviewers, and the movie certainly comes off that way. Dealing with the formal abolition of slavery, it was timed to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. The problem is that history is a casualty of war in Lincoln. At bottom, the film is a political tract billing the United States as an eternal beacon of freedom, and hailing Obama-style liberalism and compromise. Lincoln is really all about Obama, whom screenwriter Kushner described as “Lincolnian” for giving up the “public option” in order to enact the “affordable health care” act, a huge cash giveaway to the health insurance companies.

Barack Obama is no 21st-century Abraham Lincoln, but even less so was Lincoln a 19th-century Obama, as portrayed in the film, intent on compromising to achieve the will-o’-the-wisp of bipartisanship. Works of art often take liberties with historical details in order to dramatize a point, but the important historical inaccuracies in Lincoln go to the heart of its message. Most striking is the near total absence of African Americans, except for a handful in peripheral roles, and in particular of black slaves fighting for freedom from bondage.[1] “Where was Frederick Douglass,” the black abolitionist and relentless fighter for enlisting black soldiers for the Union army, many have asked.

Where indeed? It is almost impossible to tell the story of the events leading up to the passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude without referring to Douglass. In a revealing interview with Bill Moyers on PBS (21 December 2012), Kushner justifies the absence of important black characters in the film by disingenuously arguing that “Lincoln didn’t know any black people.” Yet Lincoln met twice with Douglass, first in 1863 where they talked of equal treatment for black soldiers, and again in 1864, when the foremost African American champion of  abolishing slavery sought assurances that emancipation would not be sacrificed in any peace negotiations.

Answering Moyers’ reference to “some criticism that the film presents blacks simply as faithful servants waiting for white males to liberate them,” Kushner elaborated:

“I don’t accept the idea that the only thing to tell about emancipation is that the victims of oppression are always the authors of their own emancipation because it’s not the case. Frequently people that are severely put upon and severely oppressed don’t have the means. They’re ordinary people and they don’t have the means to rise up and destroy it on their own….”

Lincoln the movie deliberately excludes the role of blacks in the struggle to crush the slave system. Showing Frederick Douglass would have made it harder to ignore the 200,000 black soldiers who signed up to fight against the slavocracy – and whose contribution was termed “indispensable” to Union victory and emancipation by Lincoln the man – as well as the more than 50,000 among them who gave their lives on the battlefield or in Confederate captivity in this cause.

Lincoln is a narrowly-focused film. It is not even about Lincoln so much as about the politicking behind the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which dragged on from February 1864 until January 1865. The film pretends that the abolition of slavery was a formalistic legal process, initiated by Lincoln and carried out by the all-white U.S. Congress. But even within that constrained framework, little sense is given that slavery was being destroyed in a great war outside the halls of Congress. In order to sell its message about the wonderfulness of compromise in politics, and “surrendering” some of the “romance of revolution,” the film engages in a string of lies and distortions.

The movie invents dissension among the Republicans about the amendment which did not exist. In reality, the party was united behind this measure and pushed Lincoln to champion it.[2] According to the film, Lincoln was in “a race against time” to push this measure through before the end of the war, when the returning Southern states would attempt to block it. Again, there is no evidence for this. It is not even true that it was vital that the lame duck Congress meet in January 1865. If it had failed to ratify the amendment, Lincoln could have called a special session of the new Congress in March, in which the Republicans would have had a two-thirds majority. And so on and so forth.

Heroic fighters for the abolition of slavery: Harriet Tubman, John Brown and Frederick Douglass.
(Photos: Smithsonian, Boston Athenaeum, New-York Historical Society)

The overriding concern to get bipartisan support is Kushner’s, not Lincoln’s, and it is linked to his virulent denunciation of Radical Reconstruction. Since conciliation is wonderful, Kushner explained in an interview with National Public Radio (15 November 2012):

“The inability to forgive and to reconcile with the South in a really decent and humane way, without any question, was one of the causes of the kind of resentment and perpetuation of re-alienation and bitterness that led to the quote-unquote ‘noble cause,’ and the rise of the Klan and Southern self-protection societies. The abuse of the South after they were defeated was a catastrophe, and helped lead to just unimaginable, untellable human suffering.”

Outrageous! The Reconstruction period, when the South was under military occupation and former Confederate officials and officers were deprived of political rights while the mass of former slaves were enfranchised, was one of the few interludes in the history of American capitalism when there was a semblance of democracy for the oppressed.

The problem with Radical Reconstruction was not that it was too hard on the former slave masters, but not hard enough. The plantations should have been expropriated and the land handed over to the former slaves. Kushner’s attack on Reconstruction is an outrageous excusing of the rise of Jim Crow segregation. “Southern self-protection societies” were night-riders for white supremacy, sowing terror. Such claims are not even Gone with the Wind, Hollywood’s nostalgia for the slavocracy of the Old South as the plantations were burning, but more Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith’s glorification of the KKK lynchers (which was praised by another Democrat, Woodrow Wilson). For shame!

Abraham Lincoln indeed played a revolutionary role in the U.S. Civil War, one of the most revolutionary events of the 19th century. But the ruling-class figure as agent of salvation is a recurring theme in Spielberg’s political films. Schindler’s List (1993) focuses on the “good Nazi,” who initially only wanted to be a war profiteer but ended up defending his Jewish workers. Amistad (1997) starts with the story of an uprising on a Spanish slave ship, but spends the bulk of the film on the legal case which was argued before the Supreme Court by former U.S. president John Quincy Adams. The film misleadingly suggests the court decision was against slavery, rather than just against the slave trade. As imprisoned black journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal pointed out:

“For Africans born in the U.S., however, it brought them no closer to freedom. Unlike the captives of the Amistad, international law did not apply to their wretched condition, and for them, as well as those shackled Black millions in Cuba, there was little to celebrate with this decision.”

Still, Amistad graphically showed the horrific conditions aboard the slave ship, and the rebellion with the Africans as protagonists – which Lincoln does not. If Spielberg is just a paternalistic liberal propagandist, Kushner is ostentatiously backing away from his recent radical criticisms of U.S. capitalism and imperialism. These were laid out in his 2011 play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism, which was favorably reviewed in the pages of this newspaper. At that time, Kushner was facing a witch hunt by vicious anticommunist “neocons,” including a member of the Board of Trustees of the City University of New York (CUNY), who sought to deny him an honorary degree.

Whether lured by Hollywood’s big bucks or Obama’s electorally timed acceptance of gay marriage, Kushner has evidently moved on. His adulation of the Democrat in the White House goes hand-in-hand with denouncing “the abandonment by the left of the possibility of radical change through democracy” following the Vietnam War. And in having Lincoln assert unlimited presidential war powers in the revolutionary Civil War, Kushner echoes the Obama administration’s brief for running a reactionary imperialist Murder Inc. with drone strikes. For Kushner, “progressive people” have a “complicated job” of figuring out how “this terrifying new weapon” is “to be used responsibly.”

Curiously, Spielberg and Kushner have found defenders among purported socialists like the International Socialist Organization. A piece on the ISO website titled, “The great uncompromiser” (Socialist Worker, 29 November 2012) by Alan Maas opines that “Probably a bunch of reporters heard the press-kit description that Lincoln was about how the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery was passed by a divided and partisan Congress, and they decided it must be a fable about Washington today….” No, actually, the author of the screenplay says that’s what the film is about. But this is par for the course from the ISO reformists, who always position themselves one step to the left of the Democrats (and from someone who thinks the super-patriotic Saving Private Ryan is an “anti-war film”).

Another member of the Lincoln fan club is the “World Socialist Web Site” of David North’s Socialist Equality Party. Its web site is so drenched in references to defending the heritage of the revolution of 1776 that you can almost see them turning up in Paul Revere costumes. So it’s no surprise that “Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and the historical drama of the Civil War” (WSWS, 12 November 2012) not only fulsomely praises the film but also swallows some of the falsifications hook, line and sinker, merely demurring, “Yet the role of the masses in history is minimized; the conception of politics as horse-trading is privileged.” That’s putting it mildly.

 But again, what else could be expected from an outfit that sides with the capitalists against the unions, and reviles any reference to the special oppression of black people as “identity politics,” including the simple mention of the fact that African Americans are targeted for incarceration by the capitalist state’s racist drug war. Or that the vigilante slaying of Trayvon Martin was racist murder. The historical distortions of Lincoln, along with liberal lies of a “post-racial America,” are right up the alley of these viciously “color-blind” scab “socialists.”

There are those defenders of Lincoln who moan that nobody could make a film encompassing the entire Civil War. Granted. But Lincoln presumes to be about slave emancipation, while deliberately ignoring the key role the slaves themselves played in achieving it. In this vital aspect, it is a historical lie. But this is all you will get in this day and age when the Supreme Court is debating rolling back the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and anti-immigrant racists are campaigning to abolish the 14th Amendment, which granted citizenship to all those born in the United States.

It has been nearly a quarter-century since the only film dealing halfway truthfully with black soldiers in the Civil War (Glory, 1989). It’s no accident there have been no Hollywood movies about Frederick Douglass (or John Brown, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, or Denmark Vesey). For the arbiters of what’s fit for mass consumption, the true history of the second American Revolution and the fighters who brought it about is too hot to touch: at most you’ll get a sanitized liberal treatment in the rarified ether of PBS. It will take a new, socialist revolution to give these champions of black freedom their due.

[1] Northwestern University associate professor of history Kate Masur objected in the New York Times (12 November 2012) that Mr. Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’ helps perpetuate the notion that African Americans have offered little of substance to their own liberation.”

[2] James Oakes, a professor of history at the City University of New York and author of Slavery and Freedom (1990) and most recently, Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865 (2012), commented: “Most troubling of all is the fabrication of a division among Republicans over the Thirteenth Amendment. There was no such division. From the moment their party settled on the amendment in early 1864, they formed a solid, virtually unbroken bloc in support of it” (PSC Clarion, February 2013)

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