John Wight looks at the Oscar laden movie and the remarkable political story behind it.
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.
Lincoln 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.’
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.
In any rendering of the US Civil War it would be a mistake to negate the huge economic imperative that was involved, and instead focus solely on the moral impetus to end slavery that has come to dominate the historical narrative, especially when it comes to the Union side. The now popular antiwar dictum of ‘A rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight’ was first popularised during the US Civil War, and there was more antiwar sentiment prevalent on both sides than most historians care to admit, especially among the poor and the working class. In his excellent ‘A People’s History of The Civil War’ (The New Press, 2005), David Williams writes
‘…northern industrialists and financiers vigorously pressured the government to keep the cotton states in the Union – by compromise if possible, by force if necessary. How else could they guarantee continued access to southern markets and cheap cotton? It was a question that united most elites across party lines. The majority of them had direct business ties to the cotton South or investments in cotton textile industries. The Boston Herald warned that an independent South could “impose a heavy tax upon the manufacturers of the North, and an export tax upon the cotton used by northern manufacturers.” Such taxes would drive up both the price of cotton and the cost of doing business in the South, thus cutting into profits and reducing stock values.’
There was also the issue of America’s role as an emerging global industrial power to consider. If the South had won and become an independent nation and economy, the North’s industrial imprint across the globe would have been hugely impacted. Britain was a direct competitor in the burgeoning global textile trade with the US, a trade which required cheap sources of cotton, and northern industrialists knew that an independent and cotton rich South would be eager to strike favourable trade relations with the British. Indeed the British and French were on the verge of officially recognising the Confederacy until the Battle of Antietam in 1862, when Lee’s invasion of the North was checked.
Abraham Lincoln was well aware of the importance of winning international support for the Union cause. In Britain most support for the North came from the working class. The remarkable thing was that in a city such as Manchester, which was heavily dependent on the cotton trade at the time and which was suffering as a result of the North’s naval blockade of the South, Manchester cotton workers maintained their support for the Union side and the struggle to end slavery. Their support prompted Lincoln to send them a letter of gratitude. In it he writes
‘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.’
The movie includes an Oscar winning performance by Daniel Day Lewis (Lincoln), and also fantastic performances by 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 repeating 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 below that accompany the article. They are of the only monument to the US Civil War that exists outside the US, which includes the only statue of Abraham Lincoln in Scotland. The monument is located in the Old Calton Cemetery in the centre of Edinburgh, on the right hand side as you head up Waterloo Place. It was erected in 1893 in honour of Scottish soldiers who volunteered and fought on the Union side in the Civil War.
This report from BBC News provides more detail and history of the monument.