In the 1930s the United States government commissioned large numbers of artists as a way of giving them work during the New Deal writes Liam Mac Uaid. If Obama were running a similar programme it would probably give us something that resembles Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln. It must have kept a lot of people in work for quite a while and it is a very impressive example of mainstream cinema as ideological myth making. It’s also a very impressive film.
All the reports you’ve read about Daniel Day-Lewis’ central performance are true. He dominates the film and the two and a half hours fly by. What he does on screen transcends acting making him certain to harvest every award an actor can win, and justifiably so.
The dramatic axis of the film is Lincoln scrabbling in the dirt to win enough votes to force through an amendment in Congress to make slavery unconstitutional. He had to placate a Congressional left which wanted immediate equality for blacks and whites, including the vote, and a right which would settle for a negotiated truce with the Confederacy.
What the film doesn’t really convey is how reluctant a revolutionary Abraham Lincoln was. One can plausibly argue that his desire for a compromise with the rulers of the slave states made possible more than a century of racist oppression, Jim Crow laws and the ongoing discrimination faced by Black citizens of the United States. The historical Lincoln was a late but welcome convert to the emancipation of the slaves. He may have had the profound revulsion to slavery that’s referred to in the film but he only issued his Emancipation Proclamation in the middle of 1862 and this was driven by military necessity and under pressure from his generals. Before that he’d floated the idea of compensating slave owners for the loss of their “property” and freeing only literate slaves. He also advocated sending slaves back to Africa. But as the Civil War progressed he was pushed to take increasingly radical measures.
The film opens with a black regiment pummelling a Confederate unit in revenge for an earlier massacre of prisoners. It’s worth bearing in mind every time you see a Confederate bumper sticker or flag sported by a particularly dim country and western fan or watch Gone With the Wind that it was the emblem
of the most aggressively racist state that existed before Nazi Germany. While you get a sense of the importance of the black regiments in demoralising the Confederates there is no mention of what what W.E.B. DuBois called the “general strike” of slaves who were deserting the plantations. Once behind northern lines they were liberated so that they could play no further economic role in the slave states. This contributed much more to the collapse of slavery than the debates and vote in Congress. In fact some plantations which had been deserted by their owners were taken over by slaves. To a great extent the Thirteenth Amendment, on which the film hangs, was just the law makers yielding to the class struggle in the southern states.
While it’s true that the film gives a liberal Democratic reading of a revolutionary period in American history it also does a great service in pushing Thaddeus Stevens into the spotlight with a wonderful performance by Tommy Lee Jones. He is still despised by Southern racists for advocating a much more thoroughgoing Reconstruction after the war. He wanted to destroy the power of the old ruling class and hand much of their land over to the freed slaves. For anyone of an ultra-leftist bent his justification for his tactical compromise in Congress on the amendment should prove instructive. He was a more consistently radical figure than Lincoln, choosing to be buried in a cemetery mainly used by Black people. His final act was to have a revolutionary slogan carved on his tombstone: “I repose in this quiet and secluded spot, not from any natural preference for solitude; but finding other cemeteries limited as to race, by charter rules, I have chosen this that I might illustrate in my death the principles which I advocated through a long life, equality of man before the Creator”. Lincoln never managed to go quite that far.