‘Lincoln’ versus history: Screening out the past

It took centuries of radical, intransigent struggle, vast majority of it by blacks themselves, for slavery to be ended.

The black slaves and free blacks alike refused from the beginning to accept the status of unpersonhood - that is the real story of how slavery was ended in America, the story that Steven Spielberg's 'Lincoln' entirely obscures [AP]

Works of art about a past historical era are almost invariably more about the era in which they are produced. Consciously or unconsciously, the creator projects back onto the earlier period the issues, concerns and lessons they hold dear about the present. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself. After all, as Buffy the Vampire Slayer once said (Season 6, Episode 3), “You know what they say, those of us who fail to learn history… doomed to repeat it in summer school”. 

Past and present cannot help but inform one another. The only alternative is… summer school. Or summer movies. Or Oscar season ones. In which it’s more a case of past and present misinforming one another. Which brings us to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln

As told in the movie, slavery was ended by the 13th Amendment, just in the nick of time, as a triumph of Lincoln’s pragmatic deal-making over intransigent radicalism. Compromise! Compromise! Compromise! That’s how historic change is made! But everything about that narrative is thoroughly and utterly false. 

Most immediately, as noted by Greg Sargent at the Plum Line blog, Lincoln “knew when not to compromise. History was shaped largely by Lincoln’s intransigence at the right moments”. There were several key turning points where he could have backed down, but didn’t, as Sargent points out. The fact that he compromised repeatedly between turning points only serves to underscore how crucial those turning points were. 

But more fundamentally, it took centuries of radical, intransigent struggle – the vast majority of it by blacks themselves – for slavery to be ended. Without those centuries of struggle, no one would ever have heard of Abraham Lincoln. 

Blacks had ‘already’ abolished slavery

Even so, the Civil War was not begun to abolish slavery, but to preserve the union, and yet, blacks still pressed on to end slavery. Through millions of individual acts of subversion against the South, as well as hundreds of thousands in military service for the North, they forged together their cause of freedom with the cause of preserving the union, transforming them into an indivisible whole.  

In particular, “During the three weeks that the movie deals with, Sherman’s army was marching through South Carolina, where slaves were seizing plantations,” writes historian Jon Weiner at the Nation (“The Trouble With Steven Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’“). “They were dividing up land among themselves. They were seizing their freedom. Slavery was dying on the ground, not just in the House of Representatives. You get no sense of that in the movie.” Lincoln’s true pragmatism lay in realising the central fact that blacks themselves had already abolished slavery – and acting on it. 

But the actual mechanics of how the 13th Amendment was passed were entirely secondary – as can easily be seen by contrasting them with the closely-related 14th and 15th amendments, passed a few years later. A political sea change had already taken place and passage of the 13th Amendment was merely a ratification of that fact. 

“Lincoln was not a prime mover, but a link in chain: No free blacks means no white abolitionists. No white abolitionists means no Republican Party. No Republican Party means no President Lincoln.”

Indeed, as Weiner also wrote, if the lame duck Congress wouldn’t pass the amendment, Lincoln had already promised a special session of the new, supermajority Republican Congress immediately thereafter, which would have swiftly and easily passed the amendment. More fundamentally – addressing the issue of states ratifying the amendment – the slave power was finished politically: 

“Lincoln and the rest of the Republicans were not going to allow the Confederate state governments to remain in power after surrender – that was what ‘Reconstruction’ was all about. Louisiana, Tennessee and Virginia had already formed new governments that abolished slavery. There was no ‘race against time’ – and thus the central drama of the film is bogus.” 

As I said, everything about the film’s core narrative is thoroughly and utterly false. I’ve just sketched out the how of its falsity. So the question is, “Why?” Two excellent analyses – one by Aaron Bady (“Lincoln Against the Radicals“), the other by Corey Robin (“Steven Spielberg’s White Men of Democracy“) – help lay the groundwork, working on the interface of how and why in the movie itself and the immediate historical realities of the war, showing how vitally important actors and actions are both marginalised and distorted, and what purposes this serves.  

Both are essential reading for anyone who wants to critically understand the movie and its relationship to our times. But I believe that fully answering why requires us to understand two additional historical processes – one preceding the war, which broke down a pre-existing white North/South consensus, and one after the war, which re-established a similar white North/South consensus. 

Robin, in particular, brings us close to the latter process by referring to its end result – the once-standard Dunning School view of Reconstruction as an unmitigated disaster. He does so in response to an excerpt from an NPR interview with Tony Kushner, the renowned playwright (Angels in America) who wrote the script for Lincoln. Here’s Kushner: 

“The inability to forgive and to reconcile with the South in a really decent and humane way, without any question, was one of the causes of the kind of resentment and perpetuation of re-alienation and bitterness that led to the quote-unquote ‘noble cause’, and the rise of the Klan and Southern self-protection societies. The abuse of the South after they were defeated was a catastrophe, and helped lead to just unimaginable, untellable human suffering.” 

And here’s Robin’s response: 

“I have to confess, I was truly shocked by this comment. Though it points to events after the Civil War, it reveals a point of view that I had thought we abandoned long ago: the Dunning School of American historiography, which essentially holds that Reconstruction was a ‘tragic era‘ – and error – in which a cruel and unforgiving North decided to wreak havoc on a victimised (white) South, thereby producing Jim Crow and a century of southern backwardness.” 

Kushner’s comment is more directly relevant to the film than Robin’s passage might suggest. Kushner is responding to a question about a scene in the film where Lincoln is talking about reconciliation. This is clearly meant to be part of the whole Lincoln-pragmatic-compassionate-good narrative, in contrast to the radicals who only make things worse. 

Fighting for emancipation for generations

The Dunning School’s description of Reconstruction dominated how Reconstruction was seen up until the Civil Rights era, when a new generation of scholars took up the earlier lead of WEB Du Bois in Black Reconstruction in America, and began to write a very different history of the era.  

It’s now well understood that widespread white resistance and terrorism played a fundamental role in making Reconstruction ultimately fail, and in replacing it with the segregationist system that endured after it up until the Civil Rights movement finally gained mass traction in the 1950s and 60s. 

But what’s most interesting to me – and important for us to understand – is how the myopic Dunning School view came to be established. To understand that, we can turn to the 2001 book, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory by David W Blight. In a review for the Denver Post, I summarised: 

“Blight explains three broad visions of Civil War memory – reconciliationist, emancipationist and white supremacist. The first was born in wartime responses to its terrible brutality, epitomised by Walt Whitman’s experience of tending the wounded and dying of both sides. The second sprang not just from the war, but also from the Emancipation Proclamation and the more than 200,000 black combatants who joined the fight. The third gradually reformulated itself after the shock of military defeat, eventually dominating reconciliationist thinking by sacrificing racial reconciliation for the sake of sectional reunion.” 

This is the point that cannot be emphasised too much: the reconciliationist impulse that Kushner praises in the interview and endorses in the film, however admirable in the abstract has an actual, concrete history of its own – and that history ended up with it becoming totally dominated by the white supremacist viewpoint of the post-Civil War South, as it rebuilt itself with new institutions of white supremacy for the post-slavery era.  

As told in the movie, slavery was ended by the 13th Amendment, just in the nick of time, as a triumph of Lincoln’s pragmatic deal-making over intransigent radicalism [AP]

In the real world, those institutions were drenched in blood. So the story justifying them and their creation had to blame blacks themselves – along with outside agitators, Yankees from the North. This is precisely the rationale that Kushner is repeating in his NPR interview. He may have written Lincoln, but the narrative he’s echoing here is right out of Birth of a Nation

As Blight describes the three narratives over time, the Southern white supremacist narrative increasingly came to dominate the reconciliationist narrative as the decades passed. The Dunning School’s eventual emergence testifies to how thoroughly the white supremacists managed to assimilate the rhetoric of reconciliation to their cause. 

The key to national reconciliation – given the total intransigence of the white supremacist South – was the re-exclusion of the black population, viewpoint and voice from American politics. Thus, it’s shocking, but not really surprising to hear such a viewpoint echoed by the screenwriter of a film which has similarly marginalised black agency from the ending of slavery. 

There’s one more historical process to consider, however, in order to complete our picture. That is the pre-Civil War process that’s the mirror image of the process Blight describes, one that begins with a North/South white consensus, and proceeds with its fracturing by the small, but significant free black community, which wills the white abolitionist movement into being. An excellent source on this story is Of One Blood: Abolitionism and the Origins of Racial Equality, the last book by the University of California historian Paul Goodman, who died in 1995. 

Before the Civil War, both free blacks and slaves had been fighting for emancipation for generations. In the North, the free black community played a key role in promoting the once unthinkable idea of racial equality as a core American principle, a role that Goodman helps elucidated. They did this in response to a fantasy of white reconciliation – the notion of “African colonisation”, shipping all of America’s free blacks back to Africa. 

The idea was always absurd on its face – there were vastly more free blacks than could ever be shipped back across the Atlantic, and vastly more slaves than free blacks. But it allowed whites North and South to pretend that slavery would end someday, with all the former slaves shipped back to Africa. This shared fantasy helped them ignore the reality of slavery as it actually was and submerge the profound differences which the Civil War ultimately revealed. 

It also allowed them to treat black inferiority as a given – whether inherent in blacks themselves or in the immutable prejudice of whites, it made no difference in the world of the colonialist fantasy. Hence, high-minded Northern whites could condemn slavery in theory without feeling any pressing need to oppose it in practice. And Southern whites could pretend to agree with them, while benefitting from slavery indefinitely. 

Undoing the dominance of one over the other

The colonisation fantasy was institutionalised in the American Colonisation Society (ACS), which was supported by both presidents, Madison and Monroe, and had hundreds of local chapters. The story of how free blacks fought back against this ideology, ultimately giving birth to the biracial abolitionist movement, is one of the main subjects in Of One Blood. In an overview passage, Goodman wrote: 

From the outset, African Americans in the free communities from Boston to Baltimore defiantly rejected colonization, warning that they never would freely abandon the land of their birth, which they had drenched with their blood and sweat. They would struggle for full equality, encouraged by the impressive advances they already had made in the decades since winning their freedom. By the 1820s, the free black communities of the large Northern cities had developed resources, leadership, self-confidence and militancy that proved formidable, even against so weighty an opponent as the ACS. By 1830, African American leaders had begun to convince whites who supported colonisation that racism underpinned slavery and colonisation, that colonisation stood in the way of emancipation, and that as long as Northern whites embraced both, there was no prospect for ending slavery in the United States. By insisting on their inherent equality, by acknowledging but explaining black deficiencies as the result of slavery and persisting white prejudice afterward, and by pointing with pride to their patriotism and piety and to their achievements through education and industry, blacks affirmed bourgeois values that they shared with whites. Black confidence that whites could overcome prejudice if they only opened their eyes to black aspiration and accomplishment thus challenged a core assumption of colonisation. 

By the early 1830s, free blacks had convinced a small but prophetic vanguard of white men and women to repudiate colonisation and embrace immediate emancipation and racial equality. By virtue of their personal example and through the power of their argument, they created the modern biracial abolitionist movement. Their faith in the ability of white people to change, to abandon colonisation for integration and racial prejudice for equality, was the triggering force behind the emergence of racial egalitarianism. 

I was particularly struck by two things when first reading this section of Goodman’s book. First was the portrait of how the colonisation fantasy constituted what Barack Obama might have called a “grand bargain” between two poles of elite white political power. The shared fantasy allowed each side to ignore their own and each other’s bad faith, as well as the complete lack of any real solution. 

“The Civil War was not begun to abolish slavery, but to preserve the union, and yet, blacks still pressed on to end slavery.”

But second, I was struck by how free blacks’ faith in the potential enlightenment of white people, actually was the key motive force in creating that very enlightenment. By creating white enlightenment, free blacks eventually emancipated their entire race. 

Whites have repeatedly told the story from a white-centred perspective – Lincoln is just the latest example of that. But historically, this simply is not true. Lincoln was not a prime mover, but a link in chain: No free blacks means no white abolitionists. No white abolitionists means no Republican Party. No Republican Party means no President Lincoln. It’s just as simple as that. 

There was a prime mover, of course: the black slaves and free blacks alike who refused from the beginning to accept the status of unpersonhood. That is the real story of how slavery was ended in America, the story that Lincoln entirely obscures.

It is a story of two races working together to undo the dominance of one over the other, but in that story, the race that has the leading role is the weaker one, not the stronger one, the oppressed one, not the oppressor. And that’s arguably the most radical thing about the true story – that, and the fundamental refusal of blacks to compromise on the fact of their own humanity.

There were many tactical and strategic compromises along the way, of course. How could there not be, in a struggle that took centuries to win? But the very foundation of the freedom struggle was a refusal to compromise on the fundamental principle. How could it not be, in a struggle that took centuries to win?   

If today’s political establishment in America depends on utterly denying that history, and draws strength from doing so, who can or should trust anything it says or does? That, I’m afraid, is the real message of Lincoln.

Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.

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