My wife and I went to see Stephen Spielberg’s “Lincoln” last night. Both of us came away disappointed and surprised to discover that the film had received multiple Golden Globe nominations.
As a successful exercise in hagiography, Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of a saintly Abraham Lincoln was well done. In those whitewashed terms, Lewis convincingly embodied a simple, straight-forward, wise man obsessed not with image or popularity, but with the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Lewis’ Lincoln was witty, self-deprecatory, an eloquent homespun speaker, and a charming raconteur. Above all he was a single-minded abolitionist. In fact, apart from their vastly differing charm quotients, there was little to separate President Lincoln from his ally, the caustic and belligerent Thaddeus Stevens (overplayed by Tommy Lee Jones) – the abolitionist chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
But as many have observed, Abraham Lincoln was also a racist who openly thought of whites as intrinsically superior to African Americans. Howard Zinn points out that candidate Lincoln was anti-slavery when speaking in the North. He was white supremacist campaigning in the South. In the end he advocated sending former slaves back to Africa. As he said repeatedly, his main purpose as president was not to free the slaves or to pass the 13th Amendment, but to preserve the union even if that meant keeping blacks enslaved forever. Moreover, it’s impossible to distance Lincoln from the wholesale slaughter of the Civil War and its scorched earth campaigns. Even according to Spielberg’s portrait of St. Abraham, Lincoln was willing to sacrifice untold numbers of other people’s sons to his “noble cause;” but he was stubborn in refusing to offer up his own. Abolitionist Wendell Phillips put it well when he described Lincoln as “a first rate second-rate man.”
Similarly, because of the Day-Lewis performance and its unflinching depiction of the absolute slaughter of the War between the States, Spielberg’s film might well be described as a first-rate second-rate movie. It is second-rate because it leaves us with an eighth grade understanding of its subject. It fails to deepen our grasp not only of the complexities of the man Lincoln, but also those of his historical context and the important working class struggle that was represented by the United States’ Civil War. As a result, we’re left with “feel-good” images of elderly white Republicans embracing and singing “Union Forever” because the cause of freedom and equality for all has been advanced by Constitutional amendment.
In reality, the purpose of the newly formed Republican Party was not to free blacks [who remain(ed) largely despised by whites] but to advance the cause of 19th century industrialists, railroaders, and mining interests. Those exclusively white cabals were part of the struggle between old money and new that had reached its apex in Europe during the revolutionary year of 1848. Across the European world, the old money interests were the land owning agriculturalists that had ruled since the onset of the middle ages. The “new money” people were the products of the Industrial Revolution. In their eyes, it was their turn to call the shots, and they were willing to go to the mat with their rivals, whatever the consequences or cost in working class corpses.
In terms of such ferment, the Civil War represented the mid- 19th century struggle in Europe “crossing the pond.” The Civil War was really about land and gold. Specifically, it was about what to do with the vast acreage recently stolen from Mexico in the war of 1846. It was about who would own and transport all that gold discovered in Old Mexico in 1849. Would that territory be used for plantations worked by slaves? Or would it be used for industry, mining, and railroads? Northern industrialists were determined to use the territory for their own profit. So they sought abolition of slavery in the New West. Republicans like Lincoln also passed legislation subsidizing railroaders as they colonized the land for purposes of moving eastward the spoils of the Mexican War. That form of abolition and subsidy was what precipitated the South’s secession from the Union.
So the Civil War really wasn’t primarily about slavery, but about land and hegemony. Nonetheless, slavery was deeply part of the struggle. Eliminating that “peculiar institution” played a major role in weakening the competitive advantage the old money had. Abolition would also create a mobile labor force providing a surplus of workers to fill job openings and suppress wages in northern factories. The exigencies of emerging industrial capitalism had made it clear that slaves were more expensive to maintain than wage labor. Hence northern joy at the passage of Amendment 13.
Similarly slave rebellions were co-opted by the new captains of industry. Thus insurgent slaves represented a working class contribution to the mid-nineteenth century changing of the hegemonic guard in the United States. Slave interests melded with those of the industrialists opposing the old aristocracy based on plantations and forced labor. In a sense, in fighting for the North, slaves were going from the fire into the frying pan – from a more egregious form of servitude into a softer form of bondage.
None of this historical context is even hinted at in the Spielberg film. As a result, viewers are left no more enlightened about history or the causes of current struggles than they were before their 150 minute investment. Instead Spielberg perpetuates the myth that significant change comes from the top. He shows us the familiar and misleading portrait of U.S. leaders primarily responding to ideals of freedom and equality and the needs of “the people” rather than to those of the moneyed classes who use “the people” as cannon fodder to advance their venal concerns.
Certainly there were idealistic abolitionists like Thaddeus Stevens. But Abraham Lincoln was not one of them. He was more complex, ruthless and beholden to his patrons than Spielberg allows. Had the director portrayed that Lincoln, had he not erased class differences and conflicts from his portrait, his film would have been first-rate indeed.