Mythologising Lincoln’s opposition to slavery

Directed by Steven Spielberg
In cinemas now

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a fantastically rendered account of the passage of the 13th Constitutional Amendment which outlawed slavery once and for all. It is also a fantastically boring film.

Spielberg reduces the abolition of slavery to a series of ever more complicated debates amongst a select group of rich white lawmakers, held in a series of ever-darker rooms. In doing so, he consigns the work of the former slaves themselves and their abolitionist supporters to the margins.

There is good reason to take Spielberg’s Lincoln seriously. By foregrounding the debate over the 13th Amendment Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner correct the standing assumption that the Emancipation Proclamation, issued in the midst of battle, was the legal tool that ended slavery.

Spielberg’s Lincoln is obsessed with correcting the use of what he sees as a legal loophole to end slavery. He argues that he put the Emancipation Proclamation in place to free slaves to fight in the Civil War to preserve the Union.

Logically of course, this meant that these same slaves could be returned to their masters come the cessation of battle. This was a proposition that suited many in both Lincoln’s Republicans and the Democrats.

The Emancipation Proclamation was introduced by presidential decree using the president’s war powers, without passing any legislation through Congress. Radical abolitionist activists believed the Amendment was needed to ensure that there would be no post-war backlash. Lincoln reflects the need to win a political fight for the freedom of former slaves—a fight that could not be won through Presidential proclamations alone.

The role of compromise

Much of the establishment in the US has accepted Lincoln as a tale of the need for political compromise in the modern divided Congress and Senate. This interpretation says that Obama should (further) restrict his aim on issues such as healthcare and seek to gain the votes of Republicans.

However, this interpretation doesn’t stack up when compared to the film. Spielberg’s Lincoln compromises with no one.

Lincoln was an unwilling liberator of the slaves

In the film, it is staffers and politicians who seek compromise with pro-slavery forces that are judged. Under pressure in front of the House of Representatives, the radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens is advised by a staffer to temper his language and “compromise [or] risk it all”. Backed by swelling music, he does so in an attempt to seize the middle ground of the debate. The House, and Spielberg himself, clearly do not forgive Stevens his weakness in the pursuit of political compromise.

Lincoln, on the other hand, follows his own path, taking advice from no one—not his staffers, not his family, nor his Cabinet. According to Spielberg, this reflects a man with a singular determination to do the right thing.

In reality, Lincoln (the real one, not the Daniel Day Lewis version) was not always so full of conviction. His convictions were a product of the logic of the war and the efforts of an active and militant anti-slavery movement.

Abolitionists and the war

Lincoln himself wrote to a Unionist in Kentucky during the war, “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me”. Despite what Spielberg would have us think, it was the efforts of these activists that created the conditions for the abolition of slavery.

Some of the earliest criticism of Lincoln looked at the relative absence of black people in a film exploring the abolition of slavery. The opening battle scene depicts Lincoln casually chatting to black soldiers fighting for the Union. There are some other brief cameos for black characters—particularly the domestic servants in the Lincoln home—but the majority of the film focuses on the efforts of Lincoln and other politicians.

Lincoln’s exchange with renowned activist Elizabeth Keckley halfway through the film provide a small indication of the pressure that kept Lincoln on track in the late days of the US Civil War.

Activists like Keckley, many of whom had lost children fighting for the Union, were the real intransigents.

The deaths of black soldiers fighting for the Union only sharpened the resolve of activists to abolish slavery once and for all.

Clocking in at 150 minutes, Lincoln is an epic contribution to the mythologising of Abraham Lincoln.

Unfortunately for Spielberg (and viewers), his limited understanding of the forces of history neglects both the way the prospect of losing the war radicalised Lincoln and the contributions of thousands of brave activists whose stories are far more interesting than that of the 13th Amendment.

Ernest Price


Solidarity meetings

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