Historian Brian Kelly examines how Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln compares to the events that abolished slavery in the United States
Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln concentrates on elite political manoeuvring around the 13th Amendment to the US constitution, which sealed the demise of slavery in January of 1865—less than three months before the end of America’s bloody Civil War.
The film is intended by screenwriter Tony Kushner as a modern-day parable on the virtue of compromise. With an eye on the divisions that beset Obama’s Washington, it focuses on the legislative machinations and backroom intrigue that formally ended slavery.
This barbarous but hugely profitable system was central to American political and economic life for nearly two and a half centuries, with a legacy of deeply-entrenched racism that lingers into the present.
Spielberg and Kushner marshal all the human and technical resources and cinematic expertise at Hollywood’s disposal in producing an elegantly rendered film.
Daniel Day-Lewis gives us an Abraham Lincoln that combines the wily, unaffected “plain folk” demeanour for which he was known and the intense brooding and deep pathos that marked his term in office. He is brilliantly supported by Sally Fields and Tommie Lee Jones in their roles as Mary Todd Lincoln and the Radical Republican tribune Thaddeus Stevens.
Together the lowlight camerawork and precise attention to detail give the film a mid-nineteenth century, gas-lamp ambience, a sepia texture like glass-plate photographs.
Some key scenes come off affected and overdone, but technically speaking Lincoln is a well-crafted and compelling film.
It doesn’t do nearly as well, however, in offering viewers a nuanced portrait of the living Lincoln. This is a man who evolved under the pressure of events and the wider, revolutionary context from a middle-of-the-road lawyer and stump politician into his role as emancipator in a profound social upheaval.
Against the current of much of the “new” history of emancipation—which acknowledges the centrality of slave self-activity to the war’s outcome—Spielberg’s Lincoln pushes slaves and northern free blacks to the very margins of the story, sailing close to an older and once dominant view of emancipation as an act of Yankee benevolence.
In what amounts to a snapshot of high politics over a couple of weeks in late 1864 and 1865, the crucial relationship between the slaves’ desperate, persistent drive for freedom and the changing military conduct of the war is left on the cutting room floor.
“With all his deficiencies,” the abolitionist Lydia Maria Child said of Lincoln at the war’s end, “it must be admitted that he has grown continuously” in his willingness to confront slavery.
The same capacity to outgrow his conservatism was acknowledged by many of his staunchest abolitionist critics. This is “Lincoln in motion”, as Eric Foner put it recently. This is the Lincoln who said, “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me”. But he eludes the filmmakers.
The film is constructed around a brief passage in Democratic Party court historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals.
Kushner’s script gives us a wise but stationary Lincoln—one who brings wit, principled agility and tenacity to his role in seeing the amendment through. But viewers get no sense of the process that drove him to enact measures that he would have rejected outright just a couple years earlier.
This stasis is perhaps inevitable given the filmmakers’ decision to focus on the debate around the 13th amendment. But it’s an odd choice in many ways, and one that narrows the scope of the story almost exclusively to Washington’s corridors of power.
The opening scene, depicting black Union soldiers in fierce combat against Confederates, marks an exception, but even here the dialogue between Lincoln and two black recruits seems contrived, the scene disconnected from the insiders’ story that follows.
Kushner’s focus on the legislative arena is not itself the problem. The war marked a revolutionary juncture in US history, and that dynamic was reflected in the polarization between bourgeois revolutionaries grouped around the Radical Republicans on one hand and defenders of slavery among the Democrats on the other. Manoeuvrings at the capital were not peripheral, then, but they take on meaning only in relation to the wider social confrontation detonated by secession, and played out on plantations and battlefields across the South.
A half year into the war, when the European ruling classes were doing their best to ignore its revolutionary significance, and when Lincoln himself was staking Northern hopes on winning back the loyalty of border state slaveholders, Karl Marx—a close and astute observer of events—described “the present struggle between the South and North” as “nothing but a struggle between two social systems,” one that could “only be ended by the victory of one system or the other.”
For Marx, the relationship between high politics, slave self-activity, and the transformation of Union military strategy was both seamless and dynamic. Like the best of the abolitionists—both black and white—he was a staunch critic of Lincoln’s early reluctance to launch a frontal assault on slavery. Early in the war he shared the abolitionists’ frustration with Lincoln’s “tender regard for the interests, prejudices and sensitivities” of border state slaveholders, of his “half measures,” his “spar[ing] of the foe’s most vulnerable spot, the root of the evil—slavery itself.” But even at the low points in the Union war effort, when others (including Friedrich Engels) despaired, Marx acknowledged Lincoln’s steady advance, and felt certain that “events themselves drive to the promulgation of the decisive slogan—emancipation of the slaves.”
His confidence was vindicated in 1862, when in announcing the Emancipation Proclamation Lincoln signalled not just his own conversion but also the wider transformation of the war. “So far, we have only witnessed the first act of the Civil War—the constitutional waging of war,” Marx exulted. “The second act, the revolutionary waging of war, is at hand.”
Here lies the material for taking the full measure of Lincoln, two years before Spielberg takes up the story. Though there’s no shortage of high politics in that story, at its core lay the dramatic shift forced on ground-level Union military commanders by the slaves themselves—who fled to northern lines wherever possible, who provided critical intelligence to an army they viewed as liberators, organized the escape of countless Union POWs, and later enlisted in the Union military to the number of almost 200,000 so that they could take the war to their former masters.
Compelled to respond, Union commanders pushed the Republican Party and a reluctant Lincoln administration to move decisively toward freedom for the slaves. “When Northern armies entered the South they became armies of emancipation,” WEB Du Bois insisted. “It was the last thing they planned to be.” That acute sense of the decisive role of the slave’s relentless wartime agitation, characterized by Du Bois as a “general strike”, is central to the way historians now understand the war, but missing from Spielberg’s Lincoln, and its absence impoverishes the story.
Abraham Lincoln was a tentative revolutionary in a revolution aimed at consolidating bourgeois democracy in the face of an anti-democratic, slave owning ruling class willing to risk all for its survival. He was compelled by the force of events around him—and against his own inclinations—to lay his hand on the “thunderbolt of slavery” to win a desperate and otherwise unwinnable war.
However slow in coming round, ultimately Lincoln rose to the challenge, consummating the triumph of the American bourgeoisie over a regressive social order. But it was a triumph first conceived by slaves and their allies, and bought with the blood and sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of Union soldiers.
Marx celebrated the defeat of the slave Confederacy, viewing it as a world-historic advance. Earlier he had drafted a letter from the First International congratulating Lincoln on his 1864 election victory. Faced with news of a slaveholder-led “counterrevolution” in the US, he wrote, European workers felt keenly their own interest in seeing it crushed, aware that “even their past conquests were at stake in that tremendous conflict on the other side of the Atlantic.”
Now, the destruction of the slave system presented new opportunities for class politics in the US itself. “Out of the death of slavery a new life at once arose,” embodied for Marx in new agitation around the eight-hour day, but (as we now know) also evident in the momentous, bitter strikes and other struggles the former slaves commenced to give some meaning to their freedom.
Marx was right to regard the American Civil War as “the greatest event of the age,” and to point to the new foundations the defeat of slavery provided for a revived working-class movement that might overcome the racial divisions slavery had planted. A triumphant Confederacy would have extended black slavery nationally and withdrawn the limited democratic rights white workers had won in the North.
But the consolidation of capitalism over the whole of the US brought another prospect, and one that ultimately came to pass: the consummation of the last of the genocidal wars on Indians in the west; the rise of the industrial corporations and the military suppression of the new working-class movement at their insistence; a dramatic expansion of American imperialism; and the re-subordination of slaves and their descendants under a new system of brutal violence, racism and exploitation.
Having defeated its slave owning rivals, the triumphant bourgeoisie turned to face a new threat in the form of an expectant working class. Among the abolitionists and Radicals, the finest of those who outlived the age of emancipation found their way into the workers’ movement and continued the struggle for racial equality. The “new birth of freedom” promised by Lincoln at Gettysburg went unrealized in the new scramble for profits. But that is a story that Hollywood seems unwilling to shine a light on just yet.
Marx and Engels both followed developments in the run-up to war closely. After the defeat of the 1848 revolution, many Germans radicalized by their experience emigrated to the US, where they played an important role in the ranks of the antislavery movement and, later, as officers in the Union military.
Through their contacts among German radicals and their close reading of the American and European press, both men kept abreast of events as they unfolded. In January 1860, after a failed slave insurrection in Missouri, Marx wrote that “the biggest things now happening in the world are… the American slave movement, started by the death of [John] Brown, and the slave movement in Russia….”
The descent toward war after Brown’s execution intensified during the 1860 elections, and the triumph of the Republican Party—a new, antislavery coalition with Lincoln on its presidential ticket—led directly to secession and the declaration of an independent “Confederate States of America”. Marx had been London correspondent for the New York Daily Tribune, a leading newspaper whose editor was influenced by utopianism, since the early 1850s, and from 1861 began writing regularly about the Civil War. Events in the US were a regular topic of conversation in the Marx household: his daughter Eleanor recalled having “had the unshakable conviction that Abraham Lincoln could not succeed without my advice, and so I wrote him long letters, which [Marx] had to read and take to the post office.”
At a time when the powerful British “cotton interest” was scouring for a pretext to support the slave South, and when Lincoln’s reluctance to tamper with slavery reinforced the charge that there was no principle at stake in the war, Marx’s analysis offered an incisive alternative analysis. “The South,” he insisted, “is neither a territory sealed off from the North geographically, nor a moral unity. It is not a country at all, but a battle cry:” whether Lincoln chose to face the issue squarely or not, the slave South was set on “a war of conquest for the extension and perpetuation of slavery.”
In Britain, he and Engels were involved not only in analysing the war, but in organising through the First International to ensure that Confederate sympathisers among the large cotton mill owners were frustrated in their attempts to win support among factory labourers. The “cotton famine” caused by the Union blockade of Confederate ports brought real misery to the northern mill towns, as tens of thousands were thrown out of work, and employers hoped that their desperation would translate into support for the Confederacy.
“Week after week,” Marx observed, the press “exhausts its powers of foul language in appeals to the working classes to urge [war].” But its efforts came to nil: “It ought never to be forgotten in the United States,” Marx exulted after the crisis had passed, “that at least the working classes of England…have never forsaken them. To them it was due that… not one single public war meeting could be held in the United Kingdom during all the period that peace trembled in the balance.”
It was Marx who drafted a letter from the First International congratulating Lincoln on his re-election in 1864. “If resistance to the Slave Power was the reserved watchword of your first election,” it read, “the triumphant war cry of your re-election is Death to Slavery.” Neither he nor Engels held any illusions that Northern victory would bring socialism to the United States, but they understood that a triumph for the South would strengthen reaction internationally, while the overthrow of slavery would embolden workers in the US and beyond. Near to the war’s end, when it was clear that slavery could not outlive its end, Marx concluded that “never has such a gigantic transformation taken place so rapidly. It will have a beneficent effect on the whole world.”
Brian Kelly is a US historian and recipient of the 2002 Deutscher Memorial Prize. He is co-editor of After Slavery: Race, Labor and Citizenship in the Reconstruction South, forthcoming from the University Press of Florida.