Views in brief

Lincoln and the unfinished revolution

IN HIS letter on the recent movie Lincoln ("The disservice done by Lincoln"), Charlie Post describes the Union leader as a "reluctant revolutionary" who only moved against slavery due to the "facts on the ground." Most importantly, Post writes that slavery had already collapsed by January 1865 when Congress passed the 13th Amendment outlawing it. I think Alan Maass' original article, emphasizing Lincoln's refusal to compromise on slavery, comes closer to the mark.

In January 1865, slavery was not yet dead. Approximately one slave in seven had managed to escape from slavery, an impressive number, but not one that suggests that the system had fully collapsed. Slaveholders still had bloodhounds, guns and night-riders. They used all of their power to capture and torture runaway slaves--even cutting off the ears of escapees. If one had children or elderly relatives, escape to Union lines became all but impossible.

Of course, the half-million slaves who did escape--those who waged a "great strike" against the plantation South--played a crucial role in deciding the war, notably by fighting for the Union. But winning the war and ending slavery were not the same thing.

In January 1865, the four border slave states that backed the Union still had the peculiar institution. Further, the reactionary Supreme Court could have ruled that the Emancipation Proclamation, a wartime measure, was invalidated by the return of peace. Would defeated Confederate states have had the nerve to bring back slavery? Their behavior after Lincoln's death, when they drafted the notoriously cruel Black Codes, suggests this was a real possibility.

We don't have to love Lincoln. But we should understand that he played an important part in our still unfinished revolution. Surely that is enough to justify one night at the movies.
Wally Hettle, Cedar Falls, Iowa

Reluctant, but still revolutionary

IN HIS contribution to the discussion of the film Lincoln ("The disservice done by Lincoln"), Charlie Post calls the historical Lincoln a "reluctant revolutionary."

Why can we call Lincoln this? Because he led a government that was compelled by force of circumstances to play a key role in smashing the institution of slavery in the United States. The passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which is the main focus of Lincoln, was the legal expression of this revolutionary process.

It is absurd to compare this legislative debate and action to those in the 1930s, carried out by a government that was navigating a labor uprising in order to save capitalism. Unless I'm missing something, Roosevelt and the other Democrats in government were not "reluctant revolutionaries," but enthusiastic defenders of capitalism.
Paul D'Amato, Chicago

What part did Lincoln play?

CHARLIE POST'S response ("The disservice done by Lincoln") to my review of Steven Spielberg's film Lincoln ("The great uncompromiser") adds another interesting perspective to the discussion about the movie. Toward the end of his reply, though, I think he confuses a point I was trying to make, and I'd like to clear things up.

Charlie takes issue with my suggestion that Lincoln couldn't be about "everything that happened in the Civil War," but can be appreciated for the important historical event--the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery--it was about. He asks this question: How would socialists "have reacted to a film on the organization of industrial unions in the 1930s that looked only at the deliberations of the U.S. Supreme Court"?

I raised just such a comparison in my review--only I alluded to the 1960s, writing, "We'd be outraged if Steven Spielberg made a movie about how Lyndon Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. So what's so different about Lincoln?"

Here's my answer in the review:

In a nutshell, it's this: Lincoln was the political leader of Northern capitalism at a time when it was locked in a battle for dominance over the U.S. as a whole against the reactionary rulers of a Southern system who extracted their enormous wealth from slave labor. The interests of capitalism in the U.S. coincided--probably for the last time in world history, as it would turn out--with a massive expansion of democracy and freedom by ending slavery.

In order to lead the North to victory, Lincoln was compelled to participate in one of the most important struggles for justice ever known. Lincoln played no part in initiating that struggle, and very little in bringing it to the point of open conflict. But he was one important actor at the end of it, with a special role to play--and Spielberg's movie captures that role brilliantly.

I think that's a patently different role than the political representatives of the U.S. ruling class played in the 1930s and 1960s--one was still revolutionary, though within the confines of capitalism, while the 20th century ones were not. I realize that Charlie's writings as a historian challenge just this interpretation. That's fine--but I wanted to point out that I did answer exactly the objection he raises, whether he agrees with my answer or not. And what's more, I think I have Karl Marx and Frederick Engels on my side. W.E.B. DuBois, too. Which inspires confidence, for sure.
Alan Maass, Chicago