Lincoln

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Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln provides an excellent though dramatised snapshot of one of the most seminal moments in US and world history, when slavery was formally abolished with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution as the Civil War neared its conclusion.

It is hard to grasp, when viewing these events 150 years later, the monumental part that Abraham Lincoln played in ending slavery in the midst of a political environment which ensured that its abolition was far from certain right up until the vote on the Thirteenth Amendment was taken.

As the movie highlights, the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 was a temporary war measure drawn up by Lincoln under his constitutional authority as commander in chief of US armed forces. It was not a law passed by the Congress. The danger that Lincoln faced was that without an amendment to the Constitution formally abolishing slavery the power to do so would revert to individual states once the war was over, making it certain that it would remain legally sanctioned in the former slave states. The amendment passed easily in the Senate, where the Republicans held an overall majority, but in the House they did not and winning the vote by the two-thirds majority required was far from a foregone conclusion.

IMG-20130127-00185Lincoln was faced with centrifugal political forces both to the right and left of him as he sought the votes he  needed to pass the amendment. On his left the radical Republicans, led by Thaddeus Stevens, would brook nothing less than immediate steps to recognise the full and complete racial equality of the slaves, up to and including their enfranchisement. This Lincoln knew was impossible. The best that could be won, based on the forces arrayed against him to his right in the shape of a small group of conservative Republicans and War Democrats, was equality under the law. Ever a pragmatist, Lincoln understood the necessity in politics of tailoring aims at any given time to prevailing conditions. In the movie this is depicted in an exchange between Lincoln and Stevens, during which their respective differences on the speed at which full equality can take place are discussed.

In response to the Senator’s accusation that Lincoln is a compromiser and weak, Lincoln tells him

“A compass will point you true north. But it won’t show you the swamps between you and there. If you don’t avoid the swamps, what’s the use of knowing true north?”

I’m not sure if this exchange was apocryphal or not, but it offers an object lesson in politics as the art of the possible, an art in which Abraham Lincoln was a true genius.

To his right, Lincoln was faced with those previously mentioned War Democrats and conservative Republicans who were up in arms over the possibility that the amendment would result in racial equality and the enfranchisement of 4 million former slaves being called for by Stevens and the abolitionists. For them the priority throughout the Civil War had always been the maintenance of the Union and to halt the expansion of slavery rather than see its complete abolition. It was the same position taken by Lincoln himself in the initial stages of the Civil War, reflected in the contents of a letter he wrote in response to an editorial by Horace Greeley which appeared the New York Tribune in 1862, calling for abolition. Lincoln wrote

“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”

However, further on in the same letter, he writes

“I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.

Here we see irrefutable evidence of the distinction that Lincoln drew between what he viewed as his official duty as president of the United States to preserve the Union at all costs in 1862, including slavery if need be, and his personal wish to see it ended. It is a vital distinction, as it serves to refute the notion that Lincoln was not anti-slavery as a matter of principle but instead adopted an anti-slavery position as a tactic to help win the war. The difference between 1862, when he articulated the sentiments expressed in his letter to Greeley, and 1864-65 when he was pushing for the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, was two years of Civil War making the conditions required to push for abolition more favourable and his re-election with a mandate to do so.

Frederick Douglass, the great black champion of the abolitionist cause, once said of Lincoln, “In his company, I was never reminded of my humble origin, or of my unpopular color”

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Lincoln was able to win the necessary Democrat votes required to give him his two thirds majority by offering patronage in the form of federal jobs and positions of influence. The passing of the amendment is a very powerful moment in the movie, illustrative of its impact after 400 years of African slavery. The fact that Lincoln shared a country with millions of barbarians who believed that slavery was ordained by nature and the bible, his achievement in winning the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment was a phenomenal one. But by no means did the struggle end there. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which taken together with the Thirteenth are known as the Reconstruction Amendments, followed after Lincoln’s death on April 15, 1865, when he was assassinated.

The movie includes Oscar winning performances by Daniel Day Lewis (Lincoln), Tommy Lee Jones (Thaddeus Stevens), Sally Field (Mary Lincoln), and David Strathairn (William H Seward). Typically of a Speilberg movie it is beautifully shot and the attention to historical detail when it comes to sets, costume, and atmosphere is first rate. There are a couple of melodramatic moments in the film that it could have done without- none more so than the unlikely scene of two black Union soldiers repeat the Gettysburg Address to Lincoln while the president is on a visit to their camp. It is also unconscionable that Frederick Douglass is missing from the movie, given the historical role that he played in the campaign to end slavery and his relationship with Lincoln.

Finally, a word on the pictures that accompany the article. They are of the only monuments to the US Civil War that exists outside the US. The monument is located in the Old Calton Cemetery in Edinburgh city centre. It was erected in 1893 in honour of Scottish soldiers who volunteered and fought on the Union side.

This report from BBC News provides more detail and history of the monument.

 

 

 

49 comments on “Lincoln

  1. It doesn’t require a great deal of moral courage to come out against slavery 150 years later. The movie gives Spielberg a platform on which to guise as a right-on American liberal. Liberal that is as opposed to a member of the Ziocon (noble US vs the rest) fraternity to which he,Kathryn Bigelow and 95% of Hollywood all surely belong.

  2. Tony

    Nonsense. The point of the political argument is to observe that there was considerable support for slavery that had to be overcome, in the North and in the Army, with figures like General McClellan reluctant to force the war to victory.

    Lincoln is one of the world’s greatest political and military leaders ever, and it is salutory that this enormous progressive political reform was acheived by the American state, waging war against a pro-slavery revolt, that was itself supported by the British Empire

  3. There’s one in Manchester as well, appropriately given the role plyed by the City in the anti-slavery movement and by Lancashire cotton workers boycotting cotton from the csa during the civil war.

  4. Vanya: There’s one in Manchester as well,

    In contrast, Bristol still has a statue up of Edward Colston, founder of the slave trade in the modern era; and bizzarely, the Bristol anti-cuts alliance has held meetings in rooms in the Colston Hall named after him, without being troubled.

  5. George Hallam on said:

    Andy Newman: Bristol still has a statue up of Edward Colston, founder of the slave trade in the modern era; and bizzarely, the Bristol anti-cuts alliance has held meetings in rooms in the Colston Hall named after him, without being troubled.

    Nescire autem quid ante quam natus sis acciderit, id est semper esse puerum.

    Not to know what happened before you were born is to be a child forever.

  6. George Hallam on said:

    Andy Newman: the political group central to the Anti-cuts allaince is in thrall to puerile economism

    Bristolian economism, it’s an infantile disorder?

  7. jack ford on said:

    “I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. As a result of the war, corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands, and the Republic is destroyed. I feel at this moment more anxiety for the safety of my country than ever before, even in the midst of war.”

    Abraham Lincoln – In a letter written to William Elkin

  8. I think Lincoln is deserving of our admiration, no problem with that. I do have a problem though if this is some veiled subliminal message to get us to support the ‘practical’ Ed Miliband and slowly slowly progressivism, very slowly at that and not much hint of progressivism come to think of it!

    I think I am correct in saying that in the South blacks were still treated appallingly well into the 20th century, so he could have gone further, and should have.

    Thaddeus Stevens is more my type of guy.

  9. BombasticSpastic on said:

    Andy Newman:
    Tony

    Nonsense. The point of the political argument is to observe that there was considerable support for slavery that had to be overcome, in the North and in the Army, with figures like General McClellan reluctant to force the war to victory.

    Lincoln is one of the world’s greatest political and military leaders ever, and it is salutory that this enormous progressive political reform was acheived by the American state, waging war against a pro-slavery revolt, that was itself supported by the British Empire

    So frustrated did Lincoln become with his commander of the Army of the Potomac that on 10 January 1862 he had said that if McClellan did not want to use the army, “he would like to borrow it, provided he could see how it could be made to do something”.

  10. andy newman on said:

    Marko: I do have a problem though if this is some veiled subliminal message to get us to support the ‘practical’ Ed Miliband and slowly slowly progressivism, very slowly at that and not much hint of progressivism come to think of it!

    Do you think Lincoln exemplifies gradual reform?

    Marko: I think I am correct in saying that in the South blacks were still treated appallingly well into the 20th century,

    a somewhat ignorant remark, in the immediate aftermath of the civil war there was considerable progress by blacks in the south in the reconstruction era, that took some decades to roll back.

    Marko: [Lincoln] could have gone further, and should have.

    Do you not think his death by assassination impeded his political carrer in any way?

  11. andy newman on said:

    BombasticSpastic: So frustrated did Lincoln become with his commander of the Army of the Potomac that on 10 January 1862 he had said that if McClellan did not want to use the army

    At no point does Lincoln disappoint, becomming more radical and deepening the social impact of the revolutionary war at every fork in the road.

    At the point where the army was in the hands of commanders as ruthlessly committed to victory at any cost as he was, Sherman and Grant, then enforcing emancipation upon the South was guaranteed.

    I particularly like the poetic exchange between Lincoln and Sherman, when the President despatched his general to destroy the breadbasket of the Confederacy, by a terror campaign in the Shannandoah valley.

    “I want you to leave it so that if a crow flies over the Shennandoah, it will need to take its own provisions” said Lincoln.

    “I understand” replied Sherman, “I will leave them nothing but their eyes to cry with”

  12. Karl Stewart on said:

    Of course the US civil war was about slavery and of course the right side won – no doubts there.

    But just to suggest a “counterfactual” for a moment, does anyone think that the ongoing existence of two mutually hostile European settler polities might have been in some degree a better outcome for the native Americans?

  13. Vanya: There’s one in Manchester as well, appropriately given the role plyed by the City in the anti-slavery movement and by Lancashire cotton workers boycotting cotton from the csa during the civil war.

    I just came across a letter Lincoln wrote to the Lancashire cotton workers, thanking them for their support. Their support for the anti-slavery cause was all the more courageous given that the Civil War had precipitated their destitution due to the impact it had on imports of baled cotton from the US.

    Lincoln’s letter reads:

    “I know and deeply deplore the sufferings which the working people of Manchester and in all Europe are called to endure in this crisis. It has been often and studiously represented that the attempt to overthrow this Government which was built on the foundation of human rights, and to substitute for it one which should rest exclusively on the basis of slavery, was unlikely to obtain the favour of Europe.

    “Through the action of disloyal citizens, the working people of Europe have been subjected to a severe trial for the purpose of forcing their sanction to that attempt. Under the circumstances I cannot but regard your decisive utterances on the question as an instance of sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country. It is indeed an energetic and re-inspiring assurance of the inherent truth and of the ultimate and universal triumph of justice, humanity and freedom.

    “I hail this interchange of sentiments, therefore, as an augury that, whatever else may happen, whatever misfortune may befall your country or my own, the peace and friendship which now exists between the two nations will be, as it shall be my desire to make them, perpetual.”

    Abraham Lincoln, 19 January, 1863

  14. on a pedantic note on said:

    “I know and deeply deplore the sufferings which the working people of Manchester and in all Europe are called to endure in this crisis.”
    In the actual letter the reference is to “workingmen”. The non-sexist version was invented by Manchester City Council in the 1980s. It’s surprising they didn’t go all the way and insert a passage which had Lincoln supporting gay rights or opposing nuclear weapons.

  15. Graham Day on said:

    Karl Stewart, well, a hundred odd years previously there were mutually hostile British, French and Spanish colonies, and it didn’t help the native Americans much…

  16. Marxist Lenonist on said:

    Inspiring. And they did it all again in the 30s, welcoming Gandhi into their communities despite his cotton boycott decimating their industry in the middle of the depression. Truly the best internationalist traditions of the British working class

  17. Karl Stewart on said:

    Fair point Graham, it seems the native Americans don’t feature in anyone’s agenda of that time.
    Marx completely ignores them as a people too.
    All of the USA’s founding myths of “liberty” etc are based on ignoring the inconvenient fact that this was a nation created through genocide.

  18. Marxist Lenonist on said:

    #25 Yes and the division of Spanish-speaking America into many states didn’t help the Native Americans there all that much (or indeed the division between the USA and Canada); in fact now that native leaders like Chavez and Morales have come to power they are the ones puching for regional unity and transcending the petty nationalisms of the old settler elites…

  19. Marxist Lenonist on said:

    #27 Indeed =)

    #28 Good point and to the best of my knowledge Lincoln was not much better than any other 19th century President in that regard. This article is useful though in rehabilitating him from some of the more misguided “Marxist” myths about his position on slavery, criticisms which Marx himself didn’t share I believe…

  20. 26. Agreed. Neither did they feature much in Latin America either. A lot of the left’s world view was and continues to be Euro centric.

    28. Agreed. And it continued with Anti Apartheid, Stop the War, Palestine solidarity and much more. Guess the “puerile economists” at the time would have opposed a boycott on the grounds that “it would alienate the slaves and drive them to support the slave owners” pretty much the same arguments that some use to oppose the boycott of Israeli goods.

  21. jim mclean on said:

    We now have more chattel slaves than in any time in history, at this time there are more African blacks in captivity than at the height of the southern plantation system. In localised areas chattel slaves far outnumber wage slaves. If we extend slavery to include serf’s, peons, bondsmen and prison Labour we are reaching the 30 million mark. Go that one step further and include those on workfare systems throughout the industralised nations can we take a stab at 40 million. Could do with a modern day Lincoln it seems to me.

  22. Marxist Lenonist on said:

    #32 We could certainly do with a modern day Lincoln to take up the issue of workfare and prison labour, here and, especially, in the States. As for your other examples of serfs, chattel slavery etc which countries do you have in mind? I know there’s still holdouts in parts of Africa but I’m surprised you say there’s more people of African descent enslaved now than then

  23. on a pedantic note on said:

    The story of Lancashire workers supporting the North has taken on the quality of a “myth that will not die” among Marxists, not least because it was aggressively promoted by Marx himself. But it is worth pointing out that historians like Royden Harrison and Mary Ellison have indicated a much more complex reality, with, to say the least, considerable sympathy for the Confederacy among Lancashire workers also. And there were fairly obvious class-based reasons for this – the most prominent supporters of the North in Britain were free trade industrialists and middle class anti-Chartists like Cobden and Bright, and the North was seen as synonymous with an aggressive industrial capitalism which was anathema to workers. In addition to this, a very prevalent argument, which should be familiar to the ultra-leftists of today, was that since the war wasn’t really about slavery it wasn’t worth taking the risk of siding with the North.

  24. Andy Newman said,

    “Do you think Lincoln exemplifies gradual reform?”

    No but I think the message behind this article is to support those ‘practical’ politicians who don’t rock the boat too much and seek to work as the ‘conditions’ allow. Am I wrong to draw this conclusion and link the article to current matters?

    “a somewhat ignorant remark, in the immediate aftermath of the civil war there was considerable progress by blacks in the south in the reconstruction era, that took some decades to roll back.”

    So overnight things changed, and then it took decades to arrive back at the bad old days…………..mmmmmmm

    “Do you not think his death by assassination impeded his political carrer in any way?”

    A rather clever clogs tone Mr Newman. Odd you should put the comment in this way as this article is arguing that Lincoln wasn’t as radical as he could have been because he had to be ‘practical’. I am saying that maybe if he had been more radical while he was alive then things may have changed more quickly.

  25. Marko: I am saying that maybe if he had been more radical while he was alive then things may have changed more quickly.

    Nonsense, that is neither true, nor what JOhn Wight is saying.

    What Lincoln was not prepared to do was endanger the fragile political support for the war by self-indulgence.

  26. red snapper: Dont forget Michael Corcoran, Thomas Francis Meagher and The Irish Brigade, especially the “Fighting 69th”

    However, for ballance, Irish immigrants in New York were a mainstay of support for the anti-war and objectively pro-slavery forces endangering the war effort

  27. Stephen on said:

    I’ve spent the last 25 years reading extensively about the Civil War and I am looking forward to seeing the Spielberg film. From the reports I have read, it looks like it tries to wring dramatic tension from a supposedly urgent battle to pass the 13th Amendment. I understand why Spielberg does this, but it is not historically accurate. By January 1865 slavery was over and done with. The border states had formally abolished it and the plantations that were the biggest consumer of slaves were mostly destroyed by Sherman’s march through the South the year before. The 13th (and 14th) Amendments were certainly necessary as political affirmation of the civil rights of former slaves but there was no chance of slavery reasserting itself after the war had concluded.

  28. Stephen on said:

    on a pedantic note,

    North was seen as synonymous with an aggressive industrial capitalism which was anathema to workers. In addition to this, a very prevalent argument, which should be familiar to the ultra-leftists of today, was that since the war wasn’t really about slavery it wasn’t worth taking the risk of siding with the North

    In which case, why did the most “ultra leftist” of the lot, Marx himself, side unambiguously with the North? The notion that the Civil War was not about slavery is a modern revisionary conceit. In 1861 no one had any doubts about slavery being the cause of secession and of the war. South Carolina’s own instrument of secession makes this point abundantly clear. I think we should take the secessionists at their own word rather than rely on the interpretations of revisionist historians.

  29. Stephen on said:

    Andy Newman,

    The point of the political argument is to observe that there was considerable support for slavery that had to be overcome, in the North and in the Army, with figures like General McClellan reluctant to force the war to victory

    By 1865, McClellan was washed up. He was no longer in the army and had been decisively defeated in the 1864 presidential election. I am not sure that there as ever “considerable support” for slavery in the North but there certainly was resistance to making the abolition of slavery a Union War aim. When the Emancipation Proclamation came in 1863, Lincoln carefully worded it as a means to deny the enemy resources to prosecute the war. It was defended as a war measure rather than on humanitarian grounds. This was done specifically to appease those who objected to a war on slavery.

    However by 1865 there was no need to appease these views as slavery was done, as a fact, if not recognised at that point in the Constitution.

  30. Graham Day: a hundred odd years previously there were mutually hostile British, French and Spanish colonies, and it didn’t help the native Americans much…

    This isn’t really true. During the Seven Years War, both Britain and France has treaties with various native American tribes, and dealt with them as significant soveriegn polities.

    As late as the war of 1812 Britain had treaties and alliances with native American tribes, and indeed the 1812 war led to the creation the pan-Indian alliances which provided the back-drop to the next decades of war with the USA.

  31. Andy Newman: This isn’t really true. During the Seven Years War, both Britain and France has treaties with various native American tribes, and dealt with them as significant soveriegn polities.

    True enough. The nature of the French colonial economy meant that the French relationship was the more beneficial for the Indians. Also intermarriage seems to have been more acceptable in New France.

    For the British the land hunger of the colonists meant that displacement was ongoing and inevitable. During the Revolution most Indians sided with the Metropolitan British as the lesser of two evils. They did the same in 1812.

    The problem for the tribes, many of whom were politicaly sophisticated, was the desire for European manufacture including but not soley drink and guns and ammunition. They also could not match colonist numbers.

    Richar Berleth’s ‘Bloody Mohawk’ a history of the Mohawk Valley is an interesting read on the subject.

  32. Stephen: However by 1865 there was no need to appease these views as slavery was done, as a fact, if not recognised at that point in the Constitution.

    Yes, but the whole point surrounding the importance of the 13th Amendment was to enshrine its abolition within the Constitution, necessary to prevent any chance of its recrudescence at a later date.

  33. Stephen on said:

    John: Yes, but the whole point surrounding the importance of the 13th Amendment was to enshrine its abolition within the Constitution, necessary to prevent any chance of its recrudescence at a later date.

    I am not questioning the need for the 13th Amendment but questioning the historical accuracy of the film, which presents it as an against the clock race to pass the Amendment before the new congress sat or before the war ended. That new Congress passed the 14th Amendment in 1866 that gave full political and civil rights to ex-slaves so there is no historical basis for thinking that the 13th Amendment was ever at risk.

    I don’t condemn the film for this. The race against time theme introduces some dramatic urgency into a story that otherwise would have little.

  34. Stephen: I am not sure that there as ever “considerable support” for slavery in the North but there certainly was resistance to making the abolition of slavery a Union War aim. When the Emancipation Proclamation came in 1863, Lincoln carefully worded it as a means to deny the enemy resources to prosecute the war. It was defended as a war measure rather than on humanitarian grounds. This was done specifically to appease those who objected to a war on slavery.

    Regular readers will know how much I abhor being rude to commenters here; but you mst be incredibly stupid not to realise that the meaning of your own words here contradicts your own argument.

    Slavery did not exist in the Majority of the Northern states (though I believe it did in Maryland and Washington DC), so those in the North who supported the continuation of slavery were only in favour of (or indifferent to) its continuation in the South. The only force that would abolish slavery was if the Union declared it a war aim; and therefore opposing abolition being a war aim was precisely the position of those who supported slavery; and that position did have considerable support in the North, among those who simply wanted the war to reestablish the status quo antebellum , and who therefore SUPPORTED SLAVERY

    This confounds your whole argument.

  35. Manzil on said:

    Andy Newman: Andy Newman: status quo antebellum

    two good bands BTW

    Definitive proof Andy’s lost the plot. :P

    I’m not reading this article or the comments because I haven’t seen Lincoln yet and I get the distinct feeling you buggers are going to take all the enjoyment out of it.

  36. Stephen on said:

    Andy Newman: Regular readers will know how much I abhor being rude to commenters here; but you mst be incredibly stupid not to realise that the meaning of your own words here contradicts your own argument.

    I am afraid that you grossly simplify the range of Northern opinion on the war, which covers copperheads, Know-nothings, war Democrats, anti-conscription groups and so on. To class all of these shades of opinion as “considerable support” for slavery is crass, and to use your own words “incredibly stupid”.

    Indeed those who were actively supportive of slavery and the South could be dealt easily, as Congress had suspended Habeas Corpus, which meant that pro-slavery agitators and fifth columnists could be readily neutralised. Lincoln’s problem was in dealing with those forces that were not actively disloyal and could probably be persuaded of the practical necessity, if not the moral necessity, of getting rid of slavery.

    I didn’t come here for a fight. And I am not inclined to engage further with someone who flies off the handle with so little provocation. Goodbye.