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November 20, 2012

Equality under the law, but not "complete racial Equality" " A review of the Movie Lincoln

By Herbert Calhoun

A review of the movie "Lincoln" with commentaries from the reviewer.


As we have come to expect from Steven Spielberg, he has again "mined" U.S. history for enough nuggets to produce a clever, nuanced, well put together, and patriotic feel-good legend of a movie. Everyone, including those who do not strictly believe in his version of Lincoln's life, will still find this movie to be an enjoyable, thought-provoking experience.

And while many have already claimed that "Spielberg's Lincoln" is loosely based on Doris Kerns-Goodwin's book "A team of rivals," (presumably simply because she was a consultant to the movie), I disagree that the "Spielberg Lincoln" is "Kerns-Goodwin's Lincoln." Her book, the reader may recall, was mainly about the interplay between Lincoln and those he eventually selected as cabinet members during his first term as President. This movie on the other hand, is mostly about how Lincoln -- a solitary, pensive, agonized, corn-pone gentle giant who loved his family and his mentally challenged wife, with the weight of a nation on his shoulders, but one who just happened to have been the sharpest legal mind in the land -- managed to get the Thirteenth Amendment passed despite being outnumbered in the House by a coalition of racist Southern Democrats and a collection of weak-kneed but equally racists Northern Republicans. The main thrust of the movie is about how he and the Majority Leader of the House, Thaddeus Stevens, cajoled, bullied and even bribed those who opposed him into eventually supporting the amendment. And while there are unavoidable similarities between Spielberg's movie and Kerns-Goodwin's book, especially regarding the events surrounding the Civil War, for the most part, the movie is based on Spielberg's own research rather than on Goodwin's book.

One of the two seminal events in Spielberg's version of events is one that involved the House Majority Leader Thaddeus Stevens, who was put on the spot in the dock of the House when he was required to choose between admitting that the Thirteen Amendment would actually recognize blacks as being "racially equal to whites;" or would recognize them as still remaining mental and social inferiors to whites. In a dramatically tense moment, pregnant with the kind of tension and electricity only to be found in racist nations, Stevens capitulated to the racist sentiment and repeated several times that it would not mean that blacks were racial equals, but that they would only be recognized as "equals under the law."  

This finesse, a fine point that has a rich pedigree in American social life, and which has lived on in perpetuity proved to be the "political wiggle room" that racists on both sides of the aisle needed in order to support the amendment. After it was passed in late January 1865, Stevens tried to cover his moral nakedness with the rationalization that under the circumstances he would have said or done anything to get the Amendment passed?   

However, in retrospect, and with nearly a century and a half of hindsight, comparing Steven's decision with race relations today in contemporary U.S. culture, we can easily see that the U.S. has moved more in the direction of the 1865 racist manifesto of blacks remaining "equal before the law," than in the direction of making America a more perfect nation, in which complete racial equality would be achieved. As but one testament to the consequences of this sad fact, one of our most esteemed educators and leaders, Andrew Hatcher recently said that if you want to know which babies in any hospital nursery in the U.S. will be successful, all you need know about them is the color of their skins and their zip codes.

In a society based on complete racial equality, this could never happen.

Regarding Spielberg's research on Lincoln's life and Lincoln's supposed obsession with getting the Thirteenth Amendment passed, while I am by no means an expert on Lincoln, I have read and reviewed at least four books on Lincoln and have yet to see a version that suggests that Lincoln had such an obsession. Yet, I am unprepared to declare Spielberg's version of events pure fiction, since in any case, I tend to give full reign to an artist's right to aesthetic license. It seems to me that his rendition, whether mostly true or not, lies well within the parameters of such license.

As but one book that stands in stark contrast to Spielberg's version of Lincoln's obsession, is Lerone Bennett's "Force into Glory." And here Bennett's title says about all that needs to be said: Bennett believed that Lincoln was dragged, kicking and screaming by the Radical Republicans into getting the job of ending slavery done. And more to the point, he also believed that Lincoln was little more than a dyed-in-the-wool old school Kentucky bred white supremacist. And on this last point, there is a great deal of support among respected Lincoln biographers that Lincoln's attitude on race was at the very least, less than enlightened. In point of fact, none of them failed to emphasize that Lincoln was an open white supremacist. And he never admitted to believing in social and economic equality for blacks. Throughout his life and sprinkled across his writings, Lincoln remained a strong supporter of the colonization movement (a euphemism for sending all blacks back to Africa). Which for those who might doubt this of the man most revered for ending slavery, they will find the evidence clear enough in of all places the Emancipation Proclamation itself, which has a reference to colonization enshrined in the text!

The second seminal moment in the movie was when Lincoln gave about a ten-minute soliloquy to his staff explaining why two years earlier he had insisted on the Emancipation Proclamation as a first step down the path to ending slavery. He said that he had planned it out that way despite its legal fragility and its mostly symbolic character, because he knew it would pave the way for the real deal, the Thirteenth Amendment. 

As part of his explanation, Lincoln trembled at the legal precariousness his presidency actually represented. Given that the South was in fact no longer a legal part of the United States, he knew well that he existed out on a legal cliff with no return routes. There he even admitted that in the legal "no man's land" he found himself in, his claims to legal authority were hollow and crafted  mostly  through fiat.   In fact as a lawyer, Lincoln knew well that he had no legal authority at all except that which he invented and abrogated unto himself. In this powerfully charged late night soliloquy, Lincoln went on to point out that that is why the Emancipation Proclamation was a necessity: It alone began the slippery slope that he knew would inevitably lead to the Thirteenth Amendment and to an end of slavery for all time.

This in my view was the high point of the movie, as it was a clear, passionate, show-stopping explanation right from the horse's mouth. That single admission brought home to the viewer the transparent complexity, the weight, and the importance of having to have exactly the right strategy to end slavery forever. And even if this is not exactly how history actually played itself out, it is still a beautiful and plausible legend. Somehow, I still hope Spielberg's version is true.

Finally, as a point of clarification, the Emancipation Proclamation, as many still erroneously believe, did not free anyone. It proclaimed that slaves in Southern districts who gave up resistance would be free. However, since the North had no jurisdiction over those districts, the Proclamation was essentially a "dead letter" upon arrival. Thus, charitably, the Emancipation Proclamation was at best a combination Machiavellian political/military tactic with multiple purposes: First it was a "hail Mary pass," designed to hold the border states in check so that they would not enter the war on the side of the Confederacy. Second, and at best, it could undermine the South's social and military infra-structure by encouraging slaves to bolt the plantations and join the war on the side of the North. Third, and at worse, it would have no effect at all. But finally, it served to quiet down the restless Radical Republicans who were chomping at the bit for Lincoln to abolish slavery altogether. What a way to present U.S. history. Five Stars.

Submitters Bio:

Retired Foreign Service Officer and past Manager of Political and Military Affairs at the US Department of State. For a brief time an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Denver and the University of Washington at Seattle. A graduate of the National War College and a Phd from the University of Southern California.