The great uncompromiser

November 29, 2012

Alan Maass reviews the movie Lincoln--and the spirited discussion it has sparked.

IT'S ALWAYS worrisome when people you agree with about nothing like the movie you like--and people you disagree with about very little can't stand it.

On the one hand, many notables of the political and media establishment loved Steven Spielberg's Lincoln because they decided it was a lesson about the wonders of bipartisan compromise.

I figure this conventional wisdom may have settled in before anyone saw the movie. Probably a bunch of reporters heard the press-kit description that Lincoln was about how the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery was passed by a divided and partisan Congress, and they decided it must be a fable about Washington today--with Lincoln as a stand-in for Barack Obama and the maneuvering to put a legal end to the historic crime of slavery as nothing more than the 19th century equivalent of Obama's cynical campaign photo op with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie after Hurricane Sandy. (No, I'm not making that up.)

They are totally, abysmally wrong.

Actually, Lincoln is about a president who refuses to compromise when it comes to erasing slavery from the Constitution--not with his political enemies, not with his allies, not with his closest advisers, not with the vacillating "moderates" in the middle--and who is determined, bordering on fanatical, about achieving that end by whatever means.

Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln

How anyone could mistake that with modern-day Washington--or anyone in it, Barack Obama especially--is beyond me.

On the other hand, some voices on the left have criticized Lincoln for having "African American characters [who] do almost nothing but passively wait for white men to liberate them," for "effectively preclud[ing] the inclusion of Blacks as political agents in their own right," and for teaching "that radical change comes about by triangulation, by backroom deals, and by a willingness to forego ideological purity."

They aren't totally wrong. But mostly.

First of all, Lincoln isn't about everything important that happened during the Civil War.

It's true that Lincoln doesn't feature Black slaves or Black union soldiers among its main characters, and therefore doesn't directly depict how Blacks played a central, catalyzing role in their own emancipation.

It's also true that Lincoln doesn't portray the abolitionist movement and the decisive role it played. With one wonderful exception, the radical opponents of slavery depicted in the film are one-dimensional and a bit thick. Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner could have done better. But to be fair, I really doubt that either one thinks Lincoln is the final word on the radical abolitionists and their historical importance.

Review: Movies

Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg, written by Tony Kushner and Doris Kearns Goodwin, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field and David Strathairn.

So please do see Glory, if you haven't already, and read about the abolitionists until someone makes a movie about them worthy of their memory.

But in the meanwhile, Lincoln deserves to be seen as more than "a movie about old white men in beards and wigs."

The film is about only one episode--the House of Representatives vote, during the final months of the Civil War, on the 13th Amendment that outlawed slavery--in a decades-long struggle. But it's a crucial episode.

It's also mostly about one figure in that struggle. But Lincoln is one of the most important single figures in the fight against slavery, and his story is worth understanding--a political moderate who was transformed by events; who managed, despite all his flaws, to rise to the historical occasion when others around him didn't; and who made a profound contribution to the cause of freedom.

I don't care about correcting the pundits who want to press Lincoln into service as an argument for why Democrats and Republicans need to agree on reducing the deficit. I'm guessing they're not reading this website.

But I bet there are readers who are wondering if Spielberg made an empty Hollywood spectacle that misses the real point of history. My opinion is no, and my advice is you should give Lincoln a chance.

SO IS Lincoln really about the "white men of democracy," as Corey Robin wrote?

Spielberg and Kushner failed to create a single Black character who participates in the debates the movie revolves around.

Yes, the setting is largely the corridors of power in Washington, which excluded Blacks under the very Constitution Lincoln wanted to change. But as Kate Masur pointed out in a New York Times article, two characters in the film, White House servants Elizabeth Keckley and William Slade, were real people who were part of "an organized and highly politicized community of free African Americans" in Washington--Keckley raised money and solicited donations of clothing and food for Black refugees from the South, and Slade was a leader of a Black organization that tried to advance civil rights.

In a movie where the main characters talk (and talk and talk and talk) about slavery and politics and anti-slavery politics, Black characters really should have done some of that talking.

That said, Spielberg and Kushner deserve two points made in their favor. First of all, Lincoln is about slavery. If that seems like a no-brainer, it's not. There's a whole cottage industry in university history departments to shove aside slavery as the main factor in the Civil War. In popular culture, it's worse--think about how many times the first thing you hear about the Civil War is that it "set brother against brother," it was a tragic conflict, southern gentlemen, blah, blah, blah.

Spielberg and Kushner made a movie where slavery is the only political issue of any significance--a clear recognition of what was most revolutionary about the Civil War. That's to their credit.

Second, just because Blacks aren't shown throughout "as political agents in their own right" doesn't mean the movie doesn't recognize they were that. In fact, I think the struggle of Blacks for their own emancipation lingers as a presence during the whole film because of the way it begins.

Lincoln starts, like Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan film about the Second World War, with horrific images of carnage on the battlefield. This establishes from the start the terrible toll of the deadliest war in U.S. history.

But also, crucially, something else: the battle involves Black soldiers fighting for the Union. Blacks were first recruited into the Union Army halfway through the war after abolitionists like Frederick Douglass overcame Lincoln's initial resistance--this was another critical step in the Civil War becoming a revolutionary struggle to destroy slavery.

The following scene is after the fighting, and two Black soldiers are talking with Lincoln as he visits the battlefield. The first soldier tries to keep the conversation on war stories, but the second is having none of that--he wants to know whether Lincoln thinks it's fair that Blacks don't receive equal pay or get promoted.

This discussion is interrupted by two young white soldiers, who tell Lincoln they saw him deliver the famous Gettysburg Address at the site of the war's most important battle--which they then proceed to recite.

This might seem like hokum designed to prove Lincoln's "greatness," but the anecdote is true to life, and it conveys something important: The death and violence of the Civil War were so enormous that the soldiers who fought it needed to be inspired by a political purpose in order to bear the sacrifice. Thus, Lincoln's ability to express the aims and ideals of the Northern side was one of the Union Army's secret weapons.

The two young recruits return to their units without finishing the speech, and so that's left to the second Black soldier: "We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

This seems to me to be a challenge to Lincoln, no less than the soldier's questioning of unequal pay. Using Lincoln's own words, he asks what all the suffering and struggle has been for. Will the Civil War end in "a new birth of freedom"? And what will Lincoln do to bring it about?

IT TURNS out that Lincoln has been agonizing about this very question: Will the war end with the death of slavery or not?

Lincoln, remember, was a lawyer, not a political theorist--so he viewed the slavery question through a legalistic lens. In 1862, he unveiled the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared all slaves in the Southern states still in rebellion to be "forever free" as of the turn of the New Year.

This was another sign of Lincoln's transformation from a moderate willing to consider compromise into a war leader prepared to take revolutionary action. From this moment, as Lincoln fully understood, the Union Army became an army of liberation, since emancipation could be enforced wherever it marched in the South. The revolt of Southern slaves fleeing the plantations was backed up by Union guns and cannons.

But the Emancipation Proclamation was clearly a wartime measure--and in an early scene in Lincoln, the president spins out the many scenarios under which a peacetime court might find it unconstitutional. So if the Emancipation Proclamation won't guarantee that ex-slaves would be "forever free," what will? Lincoln's answer: Passing the 13th Amendment to enshrine freedom in the Constitution itself.

There's a complication, though--the South was close to military defeat by early 1865. As Lincoln's Secretary of State William Seward demonstrates in the film, a majority of Northerners might support the 13th Amendment as long as the South remained at war, in order to deprive the enemy of its chief source of labor--but the more conservative among them would balk at radical action if the war ended.

Thus, Lincoln concludes that he needs to get the 13th Amendment passed before he can allow the war to end. The race to line up the votes--while preventing the Confederacy from agreeing to surrender terms--is the basic plot of Lincoln.

Having decided on what needs to be done, Lincoln uses every means in his power to achieve that end. Where he can appeal to "the better angels of their nature," he pleads with Democratic opponents to be on the right side of a history-making moment. Where he can't, he employs a shady trio of fixers to blackmail and bribe their way to votes.

Among fellow Republicans, he allows the leader of the conservative wing of the party, Preston Blair, to enter into secret peace negotiations with the Confederacy as the condition for Republican unity in the vote on the amendment--even though Lincoln knows he can't allow a peace to be concluded before the vote.

From the radical Republicans, he asks them to do whatever is necessary to pass the amendment, including limiting their rhetoric so as not to alienate the votes he lines up from conservatives. Lincoln depicts the radicals as suspicious of the president's motives. But the leading radical Thaddeus Stevens recognizes that Lincoln has passed the point of no return. "Abraham Lincoln has asked us to work with him to accomplish the death of slavery," he says.

ACCORDING TO one radical critic of the film, Aaron Bady, all this is just "the triumph of a political compromiser." But what I don't understand is: Where's the compromise?

Lincoln didn't ask the radicals to support a watered-down amendment or a compromise measure. The 13th Amendment outlawed slavery, period. On the other hand, Lincoln did let a more conservative ally try to negotiate an end to the war, while planning to betray him if peace came too quickly.

And--to be clear--in not allowing a peace to be negotiated, Lincoln was prolonging a war that was, to date, unparalleled in its death and destruction.

Was it a compromise to ask Thaddeus Stevens to hold back from saying, in the congressional debate, that he hoped the 13th Amendment would lead to complete equality of Blacks and whites? The Stevens of the film struggles painfully to contain his most deeply felt beliefs. But in the end, he recognizes the difference between a compromise with principle and a tactical maneuver to achieve an end. The passage of the 13th Amendment spoke louder than even the finest speech by Thaddeus Stevens.

The irony of Bady's criticism is that in the actual history of the Civil War, Lincoln stands out at each crucial juncture for his refusal to compromise--in contrast to fellow Republicans, including those with stronger abolitionist credentials, who were prepared to do so. Lincoln refused earlier calls for negotiations with the South, even when that risked losing power to the Democrats in elections. After deciding on the policy of emancipation or the formation of Black regiments, Lincoln resisted every proposal for limiting them.

In this sense, Spielberg's Lincoln confirms the observations of a contemporary radical journalist living in England, who wrote insightfully about the Civil War in the U.S., when he wasn't studying political economy.

Karl Marx recognized the titanic importance of the struggle against slavery, but also the particular role that Lincoln played:

He has no initiative, no idealistic impetus, no cothurnus, no historical trappings. He gives his most important actions always the most commonplace form...Nothing is simpler than to show that Lincoln's principal political actions contain much that is aesthetically repulsive, logically inadequate, farcical in form and politically contradictory...

But Lincoln's place in the history of the United States and of mankind will, nevertheless, be next to that of Washington! Nowadays, when the insignificant struts about melodramatically on this side of the Atlantic, is it of no significance at all that the significant is clothed in everyday dress in the new world?

Lincoln deserves to be celebrated not because he was a great abolitionist thinker or organizer, but because of the specific historical role he played as the political leader of Northern ruling class when its conflict with the slave power came to a head. Whatever his other flaws, Lincoln didn't shrink or retreat from that role, but rose to the challenge at each link in the chain of events.

I'M SURE some of the hesitation to embrace Lincoln has to do with viewing the Civil War through the lens of 20th- and 21st-century U.S. politics. 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?

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.

That doesn't mean we ignore Lincoln's limitations or downright backwardness. While the record is pretty clear that Lincoln was personally repulsed by slavery, it's also clear that he held racist ideas. In an 1858 debate, for instance, two years before he won the White House, Lincoln denied that he supported "the social and political equality of the white and Black races," saying, "I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race."

I think there's good evidence that these ideas were re-forged because of Lincoln's participation in a struggle that changed history, and the movie suggests as much. But I also think it's a good thing that Lincoln doesn't turn sugar-coat him.

When he has a chance at the end of the film, after all his machinations to pass the 13th Amendment, to express his views about equality and what he hopes for the future relationship between whites and Blacks, his response is awkward and tentative. "I expect we'll get used to each other," he concludes.

Instead, the emotional power of the moment comes through in the reaction of Stevens, who absconds with the original of the amendment for a special celebration--it's the scene that's most likely to bring tears to your eyes.

But as for Lincoln's political, rather than personal, transformation, it's unmistakable. In his first inaugural address in 1861, Lincoln said he had no wish to "interfere with the institution of slavery." By his second inaugural, he declared--in a speech repeated at the end of Lincoln:

Fondly do we hope--fervently do we pray--that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled up by the bondman's 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so it must be said, "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

Spielberg and Kushner's movie certainly brings a new immediacy to those words. Their case comes down to this: Lincoln had the opportunity to end one of the bloodiest wars known to that point, but with the prospects for justice--as he understood it--still uncertain. Lincoln chose to endure war in order to persevere in the pursuit of justice.

That's at least worth making a movie about.

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