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The role of Lincoln's determined revolutionary leadership in the American Civil War is explained by Neil Faulkner

Abraham Lincoln

Sympathetic portrayals of revolutionaries can make for spectacularly impressive cinema. Steven Spielberg’s new film Lincoln is a biopic of one of America’s greatest revolutionary leaders told with understanding and panache.

Theme, script, cinematography, and, not least, Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance in the title role lift this film far above the mainstream dross of the modern corporate movie industry. It could so easily have been done badly; so easily turned into sickly homespun, gawky melodrama, or some cringe-making parody of history. Not a bit of it.

Here is the second phase of America’s bourgeois revolution depicted in its idealism, complexity, and tragedy. Here, too, is the revolutionary leader as an historical giant whose vision and resolution elevate him above the squabbling and petty-mindedness of the bourgeois political class from which he is sprung. And – perhaps most surprising – there is direct engagement with the contradictory character of the bourgeois revolution: with, that is, the limitations of a popular mass movement led from above by a property-owning class.

LincolnFor the bourgeois revolution inherently has this character. To break the power of an existing ruling class and state – in this case, the planter-aristocracy of the South and the secessionist Confederate States of America – it is necessary to mobilise mass forces. But no property-owning minority can countenance giving such forces full rein, lest they lose control of the revolutionary process and it turns into a social conflagration that consumes them.

A bourgeois revolution

This is perhaps a complexity too far for a modern Hollywood blockbuster. And there are more obvious omissions. The self-activity of black Americans contributed more substantially to the abolition of slavery than you would ever guess from the movie. It is problematic that the impression is given that America’s ‘second revolution’ was entirely ‘from above’, a gift of freedom handed down by powerful white men, without any significant pressure ‘from below’.

Nonetheless, much of the criticism of the film on this basis is overstated, reflecting a simplistic view of the complex and contradictory character of the bourgeois revolution. For the fact remains that the primary instrument of abolition was indeed the Union Army created and led by the Northern bourgeoisie. It was not slave insurrection from below that burned the heart out of the Old South; it was General Sherman’s soldiers, black and white, marching through Georgia and the Carolinas in the last year of the war.

Despite the brilliance of the film-making, the subject matter remains dense – much use is made of original verbatim quotation in the script, for example – so most viewers will benefit from some background knowledge.

The film is set in January 1865, towards the end of the American Civil War. Temporary, emergency war measures will soon be exposed to legal challenge in the changed context of peace. Above all, the Emancipation Proclamation of September 1862, which had declared that after 1 January 1863 all slaves in the rebel Confederate states ‘shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free’, might be reversed. The Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution – passed (narrowly) with the requisite two-thirds majority on 31 January 1865 – was necessary to formalise the abolition of slavery in the United States. The struggle to win this vote is the focus of the film.

Cotton, slavery, and abolitionism

Plantation slaves of the Old SouthAs James McPherson explains in his seminal study of the Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom, the expansion of slave-based cotton production was the root of the crisis that produced the war.

In 1800 cotton exports had been worth $5 million, representing 7% of total US exports. By 1860 it was $191 million and 57% of the total. The traditional planter-aristocracy of the South grew rich and they became increasingly powerful within the structures of the federal state, where they pushed hard for the expansion of plantation slavery southwards into Latin America and westwards into the new territories being opened up by pioneer settlers.

The 1860 presidential election had, in consequence, been the most polarised in US history. The programme of the new Republican Party formed in 1854 expressed the aspirations of the fast-growing capitalist economy of the North and the fast-expanding pioneer communities of the West. Central planks were higher tariffs to protect US industry, free farms for new settlers, and government subsidies for railroad construction.

The slogan was ‘Free soil, free speech, free labour, free men’. ‘The free labour system,’ explained Lincoln, ‘opens the way for all – gives hope to all, and energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all.’ This was the rhetoric of a young, confident, forward-looking bourgeoisie – and, if needs be, a revolutionary one.

Two economic systems, two social orders, two types of ruling class with different needs and rival demands were strapped together in a single polity. Whose interests should the state represent?

Lincoln and the Republicans

One issue became the prism that concentrated the growing antagonism and turned it into a mighty conflagration: human slavery.

The Northern bourgeoisie was not abolitionist on principle. The Republican Party included an abolitionist wing, but it was a minority. Lincoln was typical of the Republican mainstream. He hated slavery and favoured abolition, but he took a pragmatic view of whether, when, and how it might in practice be achieved.

What brought the issue to crisis was the expansion of the slave-power and the threat it posed to the wider interests of the Northern bourgeoisie. As this threat grew, slavery became the issue by which the struggle was defined. ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave, half free,’ Lincoln had said in 1858; and so it was to be.

Lincoln won only 40% of the national popular vote in the 1860 presidential election, but he carried almost every county in the Upper North, and won a clear majority of 54% across the North as a whole. Throughout the South, by contrast, his vote was minimal, largely restricted to border-state Unionist enclaves like West Virginia and East Tennessee; in ten slave states his name did not even appear on the ballot paper.

Lincoln’s election triggered the secession of 11 slave states and their organisation into the Confederate States of America. The war began when Lincoln attempted to enforce federal authority in the rebel states.

Everyone thought it would be over in a few months. Lincoln first called for 75,000 volunteers to serve for 90 days. But it lasted four years and killed more than 600,000 Americans.

By the middle of 1862, it was already clear that the war would be long, hard, and bloody. Slavery had produced secession and war, and slavery now sustained the resistance of the South, releasing poor white men to serve as Confederate soldiers while black slaves did the work at home. But now there was an easier routeway to freedom, and increasing numbers of slaves fled the plantations and found refuge with the Union Army. Dubbed ‘contrabands’, many were employed as army labourers. Later, they would fight as soldiers. Eventually, around 200,000 black men, 10% of Union Army strength at the end of the war, would serve. What made this possible was the Emancipation Proclamation of September 1862.

Antietam and the Emancipation Proclamation

America’s ‘fiery trial’: Confederate dead in the ‘sunken lane’ on the battlefield of Antietam.  The war was going badly for the North that summer. Lincoln had to wait for a victory before issuing the proclamation lest it appear an act of desperation. A narrow Union victory at the Battle of Antietam on 17 September – the bloodiest day in American history – gave him his opportunity. Antietam thus became, along with Gettysburg, one of the two key turning-points in the war, the moment when it was transformed from a political struggle to restore the Union into a revolutionary struggle to destroy the social order of the Old South.

Lincoln had become convinced that slavery had to be destroyed in order to re-found the nation-state anew on the basis of Northern bourgeois supremacy: the divided house could not stand. He was also convinced that Southern military resistance had to be drained away by attacking its basis in slave labour.

It is his clarity and resolution in relation to the key link in the chain of events that define Lincoln as a great revolutionary leader. The self-made man who had progressed from log-cabin to White House, the self-taught lawyer and politician who had reached the highest summit of personal ambition, the orator who had proclaimed ‘as I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master: that expresses my idea of democracy’, became, in the crisis of the American Civil War, the personification of a bourgeois revolution which came to turn on the question of slavery.

But while he expressed the radicalism and logic of the revolution in action, he also expressed its limitations. The entire bourgeoisie, Lincoln included, had united against the insurrectionary abolitionism of John Brown in 1859. The Northern bourgeoisie remained resolutely opposed to slave insurrection, even at the height of the war. Contrabands could be enrolled by the Union Army; black insurgents might have attempted to remake the South in their own manner – perhaps, as Spielberg has abolitionist politician Thaddeus Stevens suggest, by dividing the old plantations into 100,000 black-owned farms. And abolition ‘from above’ would not be allowed to equate to racial equality, to voting rights, to black social advancement to a level with white Americans.

The American Revolution and the American Civil War represent the two phases of the bourgeois revolution that created modern America. Racism, sexism, and class exploitation remained – and still remain – central features of American life. But that should not detract from our appreciation of how history was driven forwards by determined revolutionary leadership in ‘the fiery trial’ of 1861-1865. And we are offered a vivid reconstruction of such leadership in action in Spielberg’s Lincoln. Strongly recommended.

Marxist historians John Rees and Neil Faulkner will be speaking on ‘Lincoln and the Fight Against Slavery’ at Firebox, 106-108 Cromer Street, Kings Cross, London, 6.30-8.30pm, Thursday 7 February. Reserve your place.