Spielberg’s Lincoln: flawed, but worth seeing

MV5BMTQzNzczMDUyNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjM2ODEzOA@@._V1._SY317_CR0,0,214,317_The following interview was conducted especially for Redline. Mark Lause is a professor of History at the University of Cincinnati and a longtime active Marxist.  His books include The Secret Society History of the Civil War and Race and Radicalism in the Union Army. He sat down with Ben Stockwell, a Cincinnati activist and member of the International Socialist Organization (USA), to talk about Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which opens in New Zealand on January 31.  Special thanks to Ben and Mark.

Ben Stockwell: Starting out, you’ve written extensively about the period in which the film takes place; what are your initial thoughts about this film and its accuracy?

Mark Lause: This movie is basically the story of a singular legislative process in 1865. Specifically, it’s about how the president, congressmen, political parties, and lobbyists piloted what became the national elimination of slavery through its first stages to becoming the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – that is, its proposal to the state legislatures as a constitutional amendment by a vote of Congress. Most of my own work focuses on the activities and ideas among working people, radicals, African-Americans, Native Americans, and others, particularly those on the western end of the war and farthest from Washington.  To say the least, these tended to be under-represented in the councils of power.

Their voices tell the vital back story which the movie hints at but does not develop. To be fair, of course, people produce movies to make money by entertaining us with a story, not to enlighten us about history.

Given the story the movie opted to tell, they took a few dramatic liberties, where they imposed anachronistically modern ideas of the presidency on the story. In trying to put and keep President Lincoln at the centre of the story, they misrepresented him in several important respects. While he became well-loved after he was harmlessly dead and out of the way, he was doubtlessly, at the time, the most hated president the country ever had.

Nor did Lincoln have the kind of immense powers the movie implied.  The modern president can use drones to order the arrest, torture or execution of anyone anywhere in the world, including citizens of the U.S.  In contrast, Lincoln acted as commander-in-chief to order a general advance of the Federal armies across the entire front of the war in February 1862, only to be virtually ignored by almost the entire military.  When they began mustering African-American units into the army in early 1863, his War Department ordered the generals to commission black officers, but that, too, was simply ignored almost to the end of the war.

Most notably, the movie implies that Lincoln kept a Confederate peace offer secret in order to get this amendment passed. That this futile exercise took place early in 1865 reflected the genuine war weariness on both sides. However, after having spent several hundred thousand lives and the treasure of what had been the country’s ruling class for generations, representatives of the secessionist government could hardly consider any peace that would not recognize the Confederacy as an independent nation. And, after similar costs, the most war-weary and conservative Unionists would have found this unacceptable.  When asked to permit such peace feelers, Lincoln had no problem going along with it.

I thought the movie also introduced an anachronistically modern fetish that reduces substantive issues of policy to mere symbolism. Perhaps due to the prominence of media, appearances tend to be everything and words trump policies. This reached an absurd point in the movie where radical congressmen regaled Thaddeus Stevens for not arguing for immediate racial equality in debate with Democrats over the continuation of slavery, as though he was under some political or moral obligation to discuss something that wasn’t on the agenda.

This marred and trivialized a well-dramatized Radical smashing of the Democratic position on the floor of the Congress.

Ben: So, what was this missing narrative about the end of slavery?

Mark: The national elimination of slavery actually grew from what happened outside the formally-designated institutions of power.  Large numbers of African-American slaves engaged in the largest rolling strike in American history, leaving their work at the first possible opportunity to seek freedom. They did so increasingly by seeking the safety of the Union Army. Contrary to a lot of assertions, the Army did not respond in a uniform and coherent way to this. The higher up in the ranks, the more you encounter conservative regular Army officers with no sympathy for slaves or abolitionists.  Some of these certainly follow the letter of the law and returned runaway slaves to their owners. However, the rank-and-file soldiers increasingly saw slavery as an asset of the Confederacy. Some certainly shared the abolitionist sentiments of their communities, especially those from New England, upstate New York, and the upper Midwest. Many more developed abolitionist sentiments because of their direct human contact with runaway slaves. In early 1861, sections of the Union army had begun to support emancipation in practice.

In keeping with its general pragmatism, the Lincoln administration left local commanders a lot of leeway in these things, and basically made assessments over time as to what seemed most likely to work. By the middle 1862, Lincoln had already decided to issue an Emancipation Proclamation ending slavery in those areas in rebellion against the Union. That did not keep him from publicly responding to Horace Greeley in his often-quoted letter that if he could save the Union without eliminating slavery he would do so. In fact, the decision was already made both to proclaim emancipation on this level and to justify it as a war measure.

However the Emancipation Proclamation did not eliminate slavery in those areas that were not recognized as being in rebellion against the Union as of late 1862.  Starting with the Cherokee nation in early 1863, governments of slaveholding peoples loyal to the Union began taking action themselves to eliminate slavery.  This reflected tremendous social conflicts within those societies.  The old rulers, the army high command, Washington officialdom, rarely sympathized with these moves.  The army so hated emancipation in those places that it actually dissolved two regiments in the county where I grew up – in Missouri – for helping slaves get to freedom and it did this in the face of a Confederate military threat.  The 1864 election turned on the future of slavery there, and the Radicals swept to power.  The movements of Southern Unionists themselves made a Thirteenth Amendment particularly necessary to settle the question.

More than that, though, by 1863, white Unionists in New Orleans were passing resolutions calling for black suffrage.  In this, they, too, faced opposition from Washington and the local military bureaucracy, but launched an experiment in interracial politics of immense importance.

Ben: Is this the most compelling time in Lincoln’s life to highlight with an epic movie?

Mark: The emergence of the Republican Party, and Lincoln’s role within it, would make a fascinating and instructive movie.  People usually forget that the American two-party system, at that time, consisted of Whigs and Democrats, and Republicans represented an insurgent third-party force.  In 1860, Lincoln won the national election only because the Democrats split along sectional lines, while the remnants of the Whigs in the South ran as a Constitutional Union party. This represented the only time in American history that those governing the country did not successfully close ranks against the success of a popular-based third party.

All this took place against the backdrop of a shooting war in Kansas over attempts to introduce slave labour into the territory. In response to that, the persistent radical calls for a new party actually gained purchase across the upper Midwest and Northeast.  However flawed and faltering, Republicans became an effective instrument for some of the most radical changes that took place in American history.

Emancipation represents the most dramatic of these changes; Republicans made the initial efforts nationally to challenge the white supremacist foundations of American civilization. They also adopted measures like the Homestead Act, long advocated by working-class organizations as a means of getting land to the landless. They introduced a graduated income tax. Though not unknown, they introduced paper money, which made capital so readily available for farmers and small entrepreneurs that the battle over the future of “greenbacks” provided a touchdown for social politics for decades to come.

Ben: Before the interview, you described Lincoln as “the great pragmatic radical of his time”. What was the makeup of politics – whether it be about being a Republican or Democrat, or being in or out of Washington – in that period and where did Lincoln fit in?

Mark: Despite the fact that Lincoln had read law and become an important figure in Illinois politics, he had been a poor boy from the back country and always remained something of an outsider to power.  His first bid for public office back in the middle 1830s included his advocacy of women’s suffrage. A decade later, his principled opposition to the US war on Mexico cost him his only term in Congress.  Lincoln came to conclusions that would allow him to be friendly to abolitionists like Owen Lovejoy, while remaining disinterested personally in small organizations with good positions that he thought too marginal to do anything about them. The woman suffragists who knew him rightly believed that he supported the idea, but his experience had inspired a belief that it would be futile for a politician to take a position in advance of what the voters wanted.  He became quietly involved in the new Republican Party in the middle 1850s but he avoided a prominent role until it became clear that it could win elections.

His law partner, William Herndon, described Lincoln as a “fatalist,” who had read Robert Chamber’s book anticipating Charles Darwin, and thought of change in evolutionary terms. He once told Herndon that it wasn’t the job of a politician to push progressive change, but to move in the wake of public opinion, nailing changes in the public mind into law. In his mind, this is what he was doing on slavery, and we should appreciate the sincerity of his position, which he demonstrated by acting on it, which proved successful on some issues.  We also have to appreciate his ability to adapt his evolutionary ideas to what became revolutionary times.

That said, Lincoln strove – perhaps as only a self-conscious outsider would – to fit into that politicians’ world.  He had no interest in figuring out how to go about making that kind of change in public opinion, and thought about institutionalizing those changes only in the most formalistic and legalistic sense. Considered as a whole, for example, the Reconstruction Amendments did not entirely end involuntary servitude or assure black suffrage or equality before the law. Generations later, it took mass social movements to do these things.

Ben: At one point, Lincoln asks two telegraph operators if they feel that they are fitted to the time they find themselves in. Earlier, you mentioned anachronisms in the film; were there other parts of the film that seemed out of place and how does the film serve the historical moment we find ourselves in?

Mark: I thought that particular exchange a very good reflection of the Civil War period. In contrast to an abolitionist who’d argue in eternal absolutes about liberty, Lincoln saw the times as placing very specific kinds of demands on us, and he also believed that the times shape us and our capacities.  His rhetoric was so popular because it reflected a general sense that the nation faced an ordeal of expiation for the sins of slavery and greed.  It is simply inconceivable to me that anyone in a position of power today would ask themselves if they are fitted to the times.

In contrast, we are spoon-fed assumptions today that there exists some kind of default to which everything naturally wobbles, regardless of the individual injustices and systemic problems.  That’s all that the general use of “left” and “right” mean, some wobbling that increasingly comes back to the centre and stability. No need to think much about what’s happening in politics or getting any more involved in mobilizing your peers, because the people in charge, however imperfect, are naturally the best to be there. Once this set of assumptions is in place, you can have the bottom fall out of the global economy and address it with fairy tales about the free market or you can accept sophistries as a responsible response to global warning. Somehow, we’ll muddle through somehow and things will get back to normal, because our time isn’t really that different from what our parents’ time had been. This contemporary view is incompatible with much soul-searching as to whether we are fitted to the times.

Ben: Obama has been compared to Lincoln extensively during his presidency; do you think this movie is timely in that regard?

Mark: I’ve heard that, too, and from the makers of the film.  I have no idea what they could possibly be talking about.  Lincoln announced his expansion of Unionist war goals to include emancipation in September 1862, as part of his bid to get a mandate from voters in the November elections.  His scrupulous concern about getting a mandate was unusual in the day, but the notion of using the election to get a mandate to pursue a particular policy seems to play no role whatsoever today.  Obama made only the most feeble kind of statements about what progressive measures he would do when he ran for president, but he hasn’t actually met a single one of them.

If voters repudiated the lawlessness of the Bush administration in 2008, Obama entered office with a declaration that they wouldn’t investigate, much less prosecute, any action against those who consciously and deliberately lied the U.S. into two wars.  Despite occasional anti-war mutterings, Obama has now expanded that into acts of war in half a dozen nations.  Voters baulked at the unconstitutionality of Bush’s so-called Patriot Act, but Obama’s expanded it.  Obama talked about universal healthcare coverage, but deferred to special interests in excluding from consideration the single-payer option which most members of the public favoured.  For years, he’s been openly courting a deal with the Republicans to start slashing social security and other benefits. You couldn’t have a president more favourable to the oil interests and hostile to anything conservationist, in the old sense, much less anything substantive to minimise global warming.  The list goes on.

If Lincoln approached the job like Obama, you have to wonder if we’d still have slavery.  Most strikingly, I suppose, the comparisons are made between Lincoln’s pragmatism in terms of suspending habeas corpus and taking other war measures with Obama’s institutionalised repressive apparatus.  Lincoln certainly felt that he had to keep his generals placated, sometimes accepting deplorable concessions to military government, repression, the use of forced labour, etc., but he believed there were and should be limits as to what the government could do.  Nothing the Lincoln administration ever did approached the claimed executive authority of the Obama administration.  The railsplitter who only read law had a far greater respect for precedent than the law review fellow.

Ben: How did the film portray the radicals of the time?

Mark: It was only concerned about the Congress, of course, and the filmmakers won merited praise for their portrayal of Thaddeus Stevens.  However, the inane depiction of the radicals arguing with Stevens after his brilliant dressing down of George Pendleton tended to present radicals as self-righteous dunderheads unengaged with the realities of getting the Thirteenth Amendment passed.  In contrast, they gave us a Stevens that was willing to compromise and trim his principles, admirable but precisely because he wasn’t really a radical, but just a kind of liberal candied cherry perched on top of a liberal muffin.

Similarly, the implication that Stevens had contempt for the opinions of the people in general did not reflect the actual views of a man who won elections, got other people elected, and always saw himself as an advocate of government that should be “republican,” that is, representative of the people.

On these matters, the generations of Hollywood’s institutionalised anti-radicalism still oozed into the screen. But the entire orientation of the movie – to describe serious and fundamental change – as coming from the top of society down reflected this.

Things are the way they are because the rulers of society benefit from them.  Things don’t change because the rulers want to continue benefiting from the way things are.  So, the way we get change is to make the status quo untenable, as we did with slavery, with the treatment of women as property, or the prosecution of labor organization based on whatever interpretation of conspiracy their lawyers manage to sell each other this year.

After doing this, the radicals of the 1860s found themselves as maligned, misrepresented and forgotten as widely as the rulers could arrange.  Much the same happened to those of us who were through the 1960s.  Official memory is never going to celebrate its critics.

Ben: What can people interested in politics learn from the movie?

Mark: What we should learn is that even the best mass entertainment carries a message, often not on the surface.  This one frames emancipation as an administrative question for lawyerly bargaining and maneuvering, while the reality was that the people had already made the decision.  Lincoln was indisputably “great” as U.S. presidents go, but not for the reasons readily apparent in the movie, which was good on style, but murky as to his reasoning.

That said, the movie was certainly worth seeing if it provides discussion and gets people interested in exploring these questions more deeply.



  1. Interesting movie, great discussion. Face it: what would we do without historians?! ~Howard Beeth

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