4 Big Lies and the 1 Truth of Lincoln
by Toby O’Ryan | February 24, 2013 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us
“There would be no United States as we now know it today without slavery. That is a simple and basic truth.”—Bob Avakian,BAsics 1:1
The Four Big Lies of Lincoln1) The lie: Slavery was mainly ended through working within the political system.
The truth: it took a major war—a war that took more American lives than any other war in history—to settle the question.
2) The lie: Lincoln actually wanted to end slavery, but had to hide his sentiments in order to do so. Only by virtue of his clever tactics could slavery be ended.
The truth: Lincoln only opposed slavery very late in the game, and only when the choice that presented itself was abolition or defeat.
3) The lie: The Abolitionists (those favoring the immediate end of slavery) had to compromise to be effective.
The truth: The Abolitionists were able to polarize and repolarize the whole nation around this issue and actually create favorable conditions for the Civil War to end slavery,because, as a movement, they refused to compromise on questions of principle.
4) The lie: America’s history is one of solving, even if slowly at times, the “problem” of racial injustice.
The truth: America’s history, and present-day reality, is one of racism, constantly retrofitting itself in new forms. The U.S. system of capitalism has had a strong vein of white supremacy since its very beginning, and that vein is just as strong today.
And, correspondingly, there would be no American art and culture as we know it today without slavery, and the long shadow that it casts to the present day. More specifically, nearly every age has been marked by a major work on either slavery or the Civil War.
Now we have Lincoln, which aims to be the masterwork of thisgeneration on the subject. In actual fact, Lincoln is a piece of sugar-coated poison that obfuscates, or covers over, some essential truths about America. Not so much by blatant lies or inventions (though there are some crude distortions and inventions created by the screenwriter Tony Kushner), as by half-truths and misrepresentations. Taken together, these serve to get over a number of specific wrong conclusions, all in service of a larger upside-down view of the world—both then and now.
This is NOT harmless. This is a big part of how people’s views of what is true are formed and reinforced and because of that it has to be thoroughly taken apart. So, let’s walk this through.
War, Not Bourgeois Politicking, Ended Slavery
Lie Number One: The director Steven Spielberg and Kushner chose to focus Lincoln on the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution that forbade slavery and enabled Congress to pass laws to enforce that ban. The movie does so in a way that makes Lincoln’s legislative maneuvering seem to be the decisive element in the abolition of slavery. And the prospect that this movie will very likely be quickly inserted into the curriculum of every middle-school student in the country as the unit on the Civil War (just as Spielberg’s Schindler’s List is the unit on the Nazi genocide against the Jews of Europe) means that this is what most people will take away as the essential way that slavery was abolished.
While the movie goes on and on in this vein, the actual WAR that had to be fought to end slavery has very little screen time. We see at the beginning a scene of a battle that lasts less than a minute, and then another very brief scene toward the end in which Lincoln views the piled-up corpses of a battlefield and mournfully says to the Union commander Ulysses Grant that they have done “terrible things.” “Terrible”? It has to be said that this scene does not portray atrocities or war crimes, but soldiers who died to defend a system, a “way of life,” a “heritage” that rested on the enslavement and torture and utter oppression of millions and millions of human beings, generation after generation. (There is a very obvious Confederate flag among the dead to make just that point.) And even more to the point, why were the truly terrible horrors of slavery—the wholesale kidnapping and murder of millions, the indescribable cruelties of the “seasoning process” where people were broken and conditioned to be slaves, the generations of heartless exploitation, the literal centuries of torture and wholesale rape, the forcible splitting up of families and sale of children, over and over—why were all these not even mentioned in Lincoln and why was the exposure of slavery limited to when Mary Lincoln’s dressmaker says that she was hit by a shovel when she was a small child and when Lincoln’s son insists on looking at pictures of slaves? Here, as in so many other ways, the clearly fictional movie Django Unchained was far, far truer than the supposedly historically “accurate”Lincoln—and note that Quentin Tarantino, who directed and wrote Django Unchained, has said that he only included one-tenth of the real horror of slavery, because he didn’t think an audience could take more.
Well, was the 13th Amendment decisive? No, it was not. The decisive political turning point in the war was when Lincoln was forced, both by circumstance and mass opinion, to issue the Emancipation Proclamation (which freed the slaves, though only in the states that were part of the Confederacy) and then, later, to allow black men to enlist in the Union Army. And the Emancipation Proclamation had nothing to do with Congress—Lincoln issued it by executive order, totally bypassing Congress. (More about the Emancipation Proclamation shortly.) The 13th Amendment codified in law what had been won on the battlefield. Because of this—something that Kushner himself mentioned in an interview with Charlie Rose, saying that in all the books he read, only one author really went into detail on the 13th Amendment—most historians just don’t spend that much time on it.
Despite this, Spielberg and Kushner have chosen to give the strong impression that the most decisive thing was the legislation passed very late in the game through Lincoln’s clever combination of arm-twisting, bribery, and compromise. In the world that Spielberg and Kushner invent, congressional dealing is the engine of profound change; in the world that actually exists, masses of people fighting, sacrificing, and dying was and is necessary for any real basic change.
Prettifying Lincoln’s Real Views on Slavery
Lie Number Two: Lincoln, the movie implies, was actually against slavery from the beginning, but he needed to conceal his views. This is implied in a pivotal scene where Lincoln calls in the radical representative Thaddeus Stevens to persuade Stevens to tone down his stand in order to pass the 13th Amendment.
There is more truth in the dog scene of Django Unchainedthan in all of Lincoln.
This scene is worth taking apart. Stevens lays out what he says will be the necessary program after the war to really break slavery and emancipate the slaves—the punishment of the southern leaders and slaveholders, the redistribution of land to the former slaves, the political empowerment of those ex-slaves, and the reinforcement of all that with armed occupation. He further says that the moral compass of white Americans has been hopelessly corrupted and corroded by slavery, and that the role of leaders is to LEAD—to not tail behind what people may want at any given moment. Lincoln demurs briefly on Stevens’ post-war program for Reconstruction, but then gives a pointed parable about while you do need a compass, a compass alone won’t tell you how to avoid swamps and other obstacles. The thrust and sense of this scene is that he and Stevens shared a common objective of ending slavery, but that Lincoln was pursuing this through wiser and more realistic means, and through a different kind of leadership to achieve the same end.
The truth is this: Lincoln’s political stance up until September 1862 was not for abolition of slavery, and not for the emancipation of the millions of black people held in bondage on hellish plantations. His position was opposition to the extension of slavery to new states outside the South while preserving slave relations within the South. During the first year and more of the Civil War, Lincoln continued to state that if the Union could be held together on the basis of continued slavery in the South, that would be fine with him; and that the purpose of the Civil War was NOT to free the slaves but to maintain the U.S. government as a single entity comprising both northern and southern states. And during this whole period, and again this extended all the way up until at least late 1862, Lincoln advocated that any blacks who were freed should be “resettled” in Africa.
This position was not just Lincoln’s, but corresponded to how the northern capitalists perceived their class interests at the time. The political representatives of these capitalists clashed with the representatives of the slave states on a whole range of issues. In brief, the capitalists wanted a unified national market within which to sell their goods, and wanted policies to protect that market and their infant industries from European competition; they wanted farming based on small-holding individual farmers which, at that time, was the most productive form of farming; and other things. The slaveholders, who depended on shipping raw materials like cotton, rice, and tobacco to Europe, did NOT want those things. They badly needed to expand the land available to agriculture using slaves, because that agriculture was NOT modern and tended to wear out the soil. Hence they opposed things like the “Homestead Act” (which gave free land west of the Mississippi—previously promised to Native Americans!—to small farmers), and the idea of a railway going from the Atlantic to the Pacific. (Both of these were passed in 1861, right after the war began.) And the slaveholders wanted to protect the deal struck in the Constitution that gave these slaveholders a virtual lock on some key institutions of political power. This led to increasingly bitter conflict in every sphere of life. But rather than shatter the power of the slaveholders, the capitalists sought to curb and gradually diminish their power, fearing the social upheaval that abolition could carry.
This only changed a year into the Civil War, when Lincoln—and again, the mainstream of the class he represented—realized that unless the U.S. government freed the slaves, there was a great danger that the war would be ended on slaveholder terms. By freeing the slaves, the North did three important things: they encouraged a massive movement of slaves running away from the southern plantations, badly crippling production; they made available a huge reserve of black soldiers, which they soon tapped and which proved crucial to the war; and they endowed the soldiers and civilians of the North with a moral mission. Still, it took another two-and-one-half years of grinding bloody war to crush the slaveholders.
As for Lincoln’s personal views, the best evidence seems to be that he found slavery personally distasteful but had very little love for black people. As noted, he favored “resettlement” of black people in Africa, and as late as August 1862, he recommended this to a group of free African-American leaders he met with—a meeting at which he also seemed to blame them for the war! The very good series on PBS, The Abolitionists, details this, as well as Lincoln’s actual stand on slavery. Far from being the “purest man in America,” as the movie claims Stevens called him, Lincoln’s morality, as on display in this 1862 meeting, was the reptilian calculation typical of capitalism, mixed in with white supremacist entitlement: “Who cares about justice? Since you former slaves might get in the way, why don’t you just get yourselves to Africa, where maybe we could use you to colonize other people?”
But Kushner won’t have this, either in his screenplay or his view of the world. Both in the movie and then in the interview with Charlie Rose, he explains away statements made by Lincoln throughout his life as political ploys to keep in line the states that kept slaves but did not leave the Union. In other words, according to Kushner, all this time Honest Abe was lying. There’s no proof for that position; all there really is, is Tony Kushner’s desire to project his own values and wishful thinking on to Lincoln.
Why go into this? Because wishful thinking about Lincoln is typical of all too many people beyond Tony Kushner and does great damage. Kushner, who at one time in his life took important progressive stands, now invokes this view of Lincoln and the logic behind it to defend and extol the war criminal Barack Obama, as he did in the Charlie Rose interview. The belief that Lincoln was motivated by dreams of emancipation—rather than what best served the interests of the capitalist class—allows people like Kushner, who has no small degree of privilege, to stay in a comfort zone where they don’t have to think too much about the great injustices that may have outraged them when young and where they don’t have to face what it really might take to deal with those injustices. Actually, the ways in which Kushner (and Spielberg, presumably) are using this movie to push a particular political line are pretty blatantly on display in this Rose interview—including at the end, when Kushner says that in his youth he was more drawn to revolution, but now he’s thinking that slow evolution may be more the way to go. Not to write off people like Kushner, but they need to come to grips with reality and stop deceiving themselves and others.
Standing on Principle, Fighting to Change the Terms
This leads us to Lie Number Three: “In order to emancipate the slaves, the radicals had to compromise their principles.” The climactic scene of the movie features Thaddeus Stevens giving a speech in the House of Representatives renouncing his long-held principle of full social equality for black people, in order to pass the 13th Amendment. (The amendment outlawed slavery and gave black people equality before the law—before that amendment, the official law of the U.S. was that black people had no rights that any white person was bound to respect (!)—but the 13th Amendment did not grant them the vote or other social and political rights.)
The abolitionists started out small. They refused to compromise their beliefs and came up against a lot of opposition and violence. But they stood on principle and they changed the whole nation. Above, Frederick Douglass talks with John Brown in a scene from the PBS TV series The Abolitionists.
This conveniently leaves out the most important fact about the abolitionists: for 30 years they refused to back down and refused to compromise on their views, fighting in many ways for the abolition of slavery, often losing their lives in the process. Indeed, they sought to continually escalate the struggle. But Stevens’ betrayal of principle—and the scene of his peaceful self-satisfaction at having done so—is necessary to make Lincoln the great hero of Spielberg’s and Kushner’s imaginations. Even if Stevens did this—and I haven’t been able to confirm it—this is a case of using one “outlier” fact to obscure a much greater truth. And again, people can and should watch the PBS series referred to earlier.
Lie Number Four: “There are still injustices in America, but Lincoln and the history of Black people generally shows that American democracy will make things better in the end.” Throughout the movie, there are rather crude nudges in the ribs to look back and see “how far we’ve come.” At one point, a black soldier tells Lincoln that soon there will be black officers and then black lieutenants and so on, while Lincoln smiles benignly. But what are the facts? Yes, there have been tremendous struggles and great sacrifices. The Civil War witnessed the deaths of 35,000 black soldiers, a casualty rate twice that of whites. But very quickly after the war—in the space of 10 years—black people were clamped into a different form of servitude: sharecropping and Jim Crow, enforced by Jim Crow terror. Following that, again through tremendous social, political, and economic upheaval, the masses of Black people migrated to cities—only once again to be put, in their masses, in the lowest part of the social order, super-exploited as wage workers, if they could find work at all. The civil rights and then the Black liberation struggles arose in response. And again, many sacrificed their lives, but the system, while rocked once more, was not shattered. Instead, there were a few concessions—and new, more twisted forms of oppression. So now we have a “new Jim Crow” of police brutality and murder, wholesale criminalization and mass incarceration, and legalized discrimination. How does any of this prove the illusion that Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg are pushing in Lincoln?
While Spielberg and Kushner will probably win a lot of awards forLincoln, the only one they really deserve is the Golden Shovel for most bullshit in a single movie, domestic division.
Having said all that, there is one bit of truth in the giant vat of bullshit that is Lincoln. This is the notion that had Lincoln lived, he would have “gone easy” on the defeated southern slaveholders. This is shown when Lincoln, toward the end of the movie, says that he “wouldn’t mind” if Jefferson Davis, the leader of the Confederacy, was allowed to escape to another country, rather than face prison. In actual fact, this is not that far from what happened. Even though Davis himself ended up serving several years, almost all of the other Confederate officials served little or no time and returned to high positions of power.
To take one stark example that says everything: John Brown, the abolitionist who raided a federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, to seize guns and distribute them to slaves, was hanged within two months of the incident, as were the vast majority of his band. Robert E. Lee, who led the Confederate Army, was given high honors—and the movie makes a big point of showing how the Union Army allowed Lee to keep his sword (a big symbol of honor) when he surrendered and then tipped their hats to him as he rode away.
What is not shown in Lincoln is that after the surrender and following Lincoln’s assassination, the former slaveholders remained basically unrepentant and unleashed a reign of terror against the ex-slaves. The “radical” faction of the Republican Party, including Thaddeus Stevens, pushed through legislation that enabled Black people to vote and hold political office, as well as own land, and sent the army there to protect them. But in just a few short years, things shifted once again and it more suited the interests of the bourgeoisie overall to re-integrate their former slaveholding rivals into the ruling structures and to re-subjugate the former slaves in new forms. By 1876, the short period of Reconstruction had been betrayed and the new reign of Jim Crow, with all its horrors, was firmly implanted.
And here we have to say that this is a prime example of what all the “reaching across the aisle” and “seeking compromise” (with slaveholders!) gets you, what it can only get you, and what it has always been intended to get you: the same essential division into oppressor and oppressed, sometimes with slightly different content. And in the case of America, it gets you the same compact between different ruling class interests to preserve and update the institutions of white supremacy at the core of the U.S. capitalist system and social order—even if today a Black man presides over those institutions.
If the history of America proves anything, it is that this centuries-old injustice cannot be dealt with within the confines of this system; that revolution, and nothing less than revolution, is needed; and that anything else is bullshit.