Spielberg's simplistic narrative that it was Lincoln's political genius that won the American Civil War ignores the decisive role black Americans played in the abolition of slavery
'a first-rate second-rate man'
Wendell Philipps, abolitionist, on Lincoln
America's 16th President has been mythologised more than any of the other holders of that office. From the imposing 20 foot statue on Washington’s National Mall to the gigantic face carved on Mount Rushmore he seems to bestride US history like a colossus. This characterisation of Lincoln as a towering giant moulding the world according to his will is perpetuated by Steven Spielberg's new biopic. The limitations of this historical perspective, however, explain the shortcomings of the film.
Much of the publicity surrounding it has focused on the undoubted power of Daniel Day Lewis' remarkable recreation of Lincoln's appearance and personality. At times,the actor almost appears to be the Washington statue come to life and going for a stroll around the White House. The centrality of this performance, however, mirrors a simplistic narrative that it was Lincoln's unique political genius that won the American Civil War. Even worse, the film fails to include the decisive role black Americans played in the abolition of slavery.
The film covers the last few months of Lincoln's life and Presidency, from November 1864 to his assassination in April 1865. The plot is centred on his attempt to steer through Congress the Thirteenth Amendment which abolished slavery. This narrow focus is partly the reason for its failure to produce a rounded portrayal of its protagonist. Lincoln is presented as a principled and immovable champion of abolition, ignoring the protestations of conservative and radical critics alike. It is true that at the point the film opens, Lincoln had arrived at this position but only after years of opposing abolition and arguing that blacks and whites were incompatible.
Recent research by scholars has confirmed that even after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, Lincoln ‘laid the groundwork to ship freed slaves overseas to help prevent racial strife in the US. Lincoln authorized plans to pursue a freedmen’s settlement in present-day Belize and another in Guyana, both colonial possessions of Great Britain.’
The transformation in his political consciousness throughout the course of the war is therefore omitted by the fim and so is the opportunity to provide an accurate portrayal of the man.
The narrow focus on the passage of the Amendment over a few months also means the film provides no adequate explanation of the historical dynamics of the civil war and its role in securing the foundations of US capitalism. The simplicity of its portrayal of Linoln reflects the lack of a materialist perspective that interprets the war as a clash between two rival models of capitalist development. As Neil Faulker observes:
’The stakes were irreducibly high for both sides: for the North, the survival of the Union, a unified national economy, and policy geared to industrial growth; for the Southern elite, the defence of slavery, the foundation-block of their social order’
Lincoln’s undoubted political genius was his gradual realisation that the consolidation of US capitalism could only be secured by uncompromising war by the forces of Northern capital against their Southern counterparts. The film alludes to the President’s awareness that part of this uncompromising mentality implied deploying the 200,000 black soldiers who would ultimately help deliver victory for the North. But again, apart from a brief scene at the beginning when black soldiers confront Lincoln over their unequal pay, the pivotal role this force played in turning the tide in favour of the North is neglected by Spielberg. The 1989 movie, Glory, provides a more valuable dramatisation of the impact of black soldiers on their own liberation.
Similarly, the film portrays two black members of Lincoln’s household staff, Elisabeth Keckley and William Slade, as apolitical figures who passively observe the political machinations of white politicians. In reality, both were active members of the abolitionist movement through the ‘underground railway’ that assisted slave refugees from the South.
The climactic scene in which Congress debates and then narrowly passes the Thirteenth amendment is even more patronising in its portrayal of black Americans. They sit silently and nervously in the gallery of Congress, watching the white politicians debate and then gratefully burst into applause when the vote is won. The great black abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, worked closely with Lincoln during this period but is totally absent from this version of the story. Spielberg misses another opportunity to present black Americans as active participants in their own liberation.
Apart from Day-Lewis’ bravura performance much of the publicity surrounding the film has focused on its relevance to contemporary US politics. Obama has made much of his supposed inspiration by Lincoln. His decision to appoint Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State in 2008 was allegedly based on his reading of Doris Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals, which the film is partly based on. According to the book, Lincoln intentionally appointed his arch rival within the Republican Party, William Seward, to this senior position in order to avert potential opposition. Likewise, Obama brought Clinton into his team for the same reason.
At his recent inauguration, Obama made it known one of the Bibles he used to take the presidential oath had belonged to Lincoln. Comparisons between the two men however, only serve, to underline Obama’s failings.
Spielberg’s film effectively conveys the unswerving drive that enabled Lincoln to drive through the anti-slavery amendment when others in his party were advising him to delay it in order to avoid alienating the South during peace negotiations. Some of the best scenes portray Lincoln confronting his cabinet with the moral imperative to abolish slavery.
In contrast, Obama’s negotiating technique with his congressional opponents over the recent fiscal cliff controversy amounted to ‘back down when they laugh at your proposal’!
The contrasting the demeanour of the two Presidents ultimately reflects the changing dynamics of American capitalism. Lincoln led the US state when it was in its early revolutionary phase, overthrowing an archaic social system. Obama is presiding over the decline of the American empire as it struggles to maintain the global hegemony that Lincoln helped initiate.
Sean Ledwith is Lecturer in History and Politics at York College, where he is also UCU branch chair. He is a member of Counterfire and York People's Assembly. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books.