Lincoln Against the Radicals

Lincoln is not a movie about Reconstruction, of course; it’s a movie about old white men in beards and wigs heroically working together to save grateful black people.

Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s Lincoln is about Obama, we are told, or don’t need to be told. It is about the triumph of a political compromiser, and it argues that radical change comes about by triangulation, by back-room deals, and by a willingness to forego ideological purity. Kushner has said this quite explicitly, not only likening his Lincoln to Obama, but arguing that there are general principles to be drawn from it; “too much impatience can make it impossible for anything to happen,” he said, in response to Chris Hayes’ question about whether the movie favors moderates over radicals. It is, in short, a barely veiled argument that radicals should get in line, be patient, be realistic.

It does this in several ways. First and foremost, it uses a realist aesthetic to make it seem like a compromising cynicism is realistic. Form becomes content: it shows us the world as it “really” is by adding in the grit and grain and grime that demonstrate that the image has not being airbrushed, cleaned up, or glossed over, and this artificial lack of artifice signifies as reality. This is why people who know nothing about Baltimore or the drug trade are quick and confident in praising the “realism” of a show like The Wire. They don’t mean “accuracy,” because that’s not something most people could judge; they mean un-glamorized, un-romanticized, dark. Spielberg’s Lincoln accomplishes the same trick, making its claim to “realism” seem plausible by showing us a Washington, DC that is dirty, small, dark, cold, unpleasant, and corrupt. Our field of view is claustrophobic and drab; we are shown a political arena without sentiment or nostalgic glow. That’s how we know we’re seeing the “real” thing.

But, of course, we’re not. We’re just seeing a movie whose claim to objective accuracy is no less artificial than the filters by which an Instagram takes on the nostalgic glow of a past that was never as overexposed and warm as it has become in retrospect. And when we take “gritty” for “realism,” another kind of “realism” gets quietly implied and imposed: the capitalist realism by which ideals become impossible and the only way things can get done is through compromise and strategic surrender. Anti-romanticism is all the more ideological because it pretends to have no ideology, to be the “plain truth” that demonstrates the falsity of romantic visions. And this movie is anti-romantic because, to be blunt, it is anti-revolutionary. In this movie, “things happen” through patience and compromise, not through steadfast idealistic struggle.

When Lincoln sets about abolishing slavery — out of the goodness of his heart, essentially — his first adversaries turn out to be the radical abolitionists, in whose number the movie is careful not to place the great emancipator. Before anything can happen, in other words, the first order of business is to steamroll men of principle like Thaddeus Stevens and James Ashley into doing what Lincoln wants them to do. Stevens is too wildly idealistic and unrealistic to be allowed to speak his mind; he isn’t quite a caricature — if only because Tommie Lee Jones brings too much gravitas to the part — but he’s the uncle everyone is embarrassed of, even if they love him too much to say so. He’s not a leader, he’s a liability, one whose shining heroic moment will be when he keeps silent about what he really believes. And James Ashley is portrayed as too cowardly and weak to even bring the amendment to a vote (while casting David Costabile for the part speaks volumes for what kind of a role they think it is). The two radical abolitionists in the film, in other words, cannot be trusted to take charge of a radical project like the abolition of slaves. A radical and revolutionary change must be placed in the hands of a compromising moderate.

Now, I’m not questioning this movie on the grounds of historical accuracy, because if you wanted historical accuracy, you wouldn’t see this movie at all. You might go read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, for example, and then you might notice that the entire story that Kushner and Spielberg tell is contained in pages 686–689, a sum total of three pages out of a 900-page book about Lincoln’s presidency. Or you might read a book on Reconstruction — Eric Foner’s long book or his short book, for example — and discover that the Thirteenth Amendment was not the culmination but was barely the prologue to a political struggle that went on for many decades. Or read Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861–1867, which shows how (as Corey Robin puts it), “students and scholars have come to a completely different view of how emancipation happened”:

The Destruction of Slavery [the first essay in the book] explicates the process by which slavery collapsed under the pressure of federal arms and the slaves’ determination to place their own liberty on the wartime agenda. In documenting the transformation of a war for the Union into a war against slavery, it shifts the focus from the halls of power in Washington and Richmond to the plantations, farms, and battlefields of the South and demonstrates how slaves accomplished their own liberation and shaped the destiny of a nation . . .

Emphasizing the agency of slaves and former slaves does not simply alter the cast of characters in the drama of emancipation, displacing old villains and enthroning new heroes. Abraham Lincoln and the Radical Republicans do not play less significant parts once slaves gain an active role in their own liberation, but they do play different ones. Focusing on events beyond Washington and outside formally constituted political bodies does not excise politics from the study of the past. Rather, it reveals that social history is not history with the politics left out, but that all history is — and must be — political. The politics of emancipation in the countryside and the towns of the South makes more comprehensible the politics of emancipation inside the capitol and the presidential mansion.

Kate Masur’s NYT op-ed on the movie makes this same point, that what was going on outside of the smoky back rooms and kitchen conversations (and away from the battlefields) was the driving force for the social transformation which was already occurring but which would continue for decades.

In short, if you widen your field of view, you will discover that W. E. B. Du Bois argued a century ago — and as the historical scholarship has increasingly come to agree — that slavery was already all but dead by the time Lincoln got around to declaring himself an abolitionist, far less because the North gave slaves their legal freedom than because they had already effectively taken it, because it had become the new status quo that would have required force to dislodge. At the end of the Civil War, with the South defeated, the choice for the north was not to end slavery or leave it; the choice was to ratify the fact that it was already dead or to re-impose it by military force.

In short, the idea that the white north “gave” freedom to the slaves draws from and reinforces an attractively simple and flattering myth, one which formed around the old historiography of the period like a noose cutting off oxygen to the brain: the myth that black slaves were rendered passive by their condition, and that — absent an outside force interrupting their state of un-freedom — they would simply have continued, as slaves, indefinitely. It’s only in this narrative that freedom can be a thing which is given to them: because they are essentially passive and inert, they require someone else — say, a great emancipator — to step in and raise them up.

W. E. B. Du Bois was already chipping away at this myth in 1909, but when scholars in the post–Civil Rights era started taking him and his 1935 Black Reconstruction seriously, the historiographic mainstream turned this myth on its head. Slaves were not and could not be “given” their freedom because they had always had it: it had required a great deal of violent force and political work to keep them enslaved, and when that force was removed — as the South collapsed politically and militarily — they began to act like the human beings they always already were, organizing, moving, and seizing their destinies in their own hands. At this point, the game was up; just as the institution of slavery had always depended on substantial governmental enforcement and support, it would have taken a substantial amount of violent force to re-impose it, a concerted project to re-establish slavery that no one in the north had any particular stomach for. At the end of the Civil War, to put it simply, the North had a simple choice: re-imposing slavery by force or accept the new reality. They chose the latter.

If you read these books, however, you’d gain a sense of perspective that the film works to make impossible. Spielberg and Kushner are interested in a kind of scrupulous (almost farcical) accuracy about things that do not matter, while working very hard to place everything else that was going on in the period — and everything else Lincoln was responding to — off camera. “The nation’s capital was transformed by the migration of fugitive slaves from the South during the war, but you’d never know it from this film,” as Kate Masur points out, and Lincoln’s own servants were leaders and organizers in this community, something of which Lincoln simply could not have been unaware. But the film makes a point of not showing any of this: while the vast majority of the movie takes place in cramped and smoky rooms, even the exterior shots (usually of conversations in moving wagons) show us very little of what was going on in the streets and neighborhoods of Washington (much less what was going on in the South). Which is to say: they give us the illusion of perspective without giving us its substance. They show you the elephant’s tail quite accurately, and then they declare, on that basis, that the entire beast is a snake.

In the big picture, the Thirteenth Amendment, on its own, just isn’t that important, and much of the forced suspense of the movie — will they pass it? — comes from an artificial sense that more is at stake in a single congressional bill than there actually was. As Eric Foner pointed out when he was asked about the movie, if it hadn’t passed when it did, Lincoln had pledged to call Congress into special session in March; “[a]nd there, the Republicans had a two-thirds majority and would ratify in a minute . . . It’s not this giant crisis in the way that the film’s portraying it.” This is important because the small picture is not the big picture in miniature, and taking it to be — taking the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to be nineteenth centuries democratic turning point, as this movie clearly does — will cause us to subordinate the big picture to the small picture. For Foner,

The emancipation of the slaves is a long, complicated, historical process. It’s not the work of one man, no matter how great he was . . . It was not Lincoln who originated the 13th Amendment, it was the Abolitionist movement. It’s only in the middle of 1864 that Lincoln changes his mind and decides he’s in favor of this amendment . . . It’s not a question of being wrong, it’s just inadequate. It gives you the impression that the ratification of the 13th Amendment ends slavery — and that’s wrong. Slavery is already dying at that moment.

This big-picture perspective is carefully absent, displaced by an obsessive focus on political minutia, a claustrophilic aesthetic, and the usual hagiography of Lincoln. One can only imagine what a very different movie this would be if it had taken Foner’s The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery as its main source text. But while we can agree or disagree with that choice, the one thing we can’t do is pretend that it wasn’t a choice. And to put it quite bluntly, I think the filmmakers made this choice because they wanted to make a polemical point about moderation over radicalism, and I think they picked the story they wanted to tell because it seems to support that position. And yet the historical story they tell only supports that claim if you very selectively frame out most of the context around it, and so they do. And passing a single bill in Congress only comes to seem to represent the broader field of social change and progress — “things” getting “done” — if we ignore the big picture.

After all, getting the radicals in line is important in the political arena because it allows moderates like Lincoln or Obama to operate through consensus. We therefore see Lincoln pragmatically compromising with conservative republicans (giving them negotiations with the confederacy) while ignoring and sidelining the left (because they have no choice but to follow him). But that consensus is built on respect for the status quo. And if true political change happens when a bunch of old white men in beards make deals in smoke-filled back rooms, then we can hardly be surprised that the black men and women will watch mutely from the balcony. As in To Kill a Mockingbird, they will applaud the hero in the foreground, a folksy white lawyer, but they will not have a vote or voice of their own. Black “voices” will appear only as tokenistic sops to political correctness, because we have categorically ruled out the existence of black political action from the start. And so, we will take for granted the question we have begged, that politics only happens in the arena of politics, and since only people who could vote (white people) could intervene in the latter, then it seems reasonable to believe that black people had no effect on the politics of slavery and emancipation (except insofar as they inspired the people who mattered).

The trouble is, though, for me to make this point, one must call on all the sources and accounts and stories that the movie has scrupulously not included. If you’ve read Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction, for example, and you watch this movie and tell to people they should read Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction, you won’t win many arguments; until someone has read Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction (or some version of it), they will have literally no idea what they are missing.

So let me talk a bit about what the movie does show, instead of focusing on what it doesn’t. The film’s treatment of Thaddeus Stevens is perhaps the most revelatory, and the clearest demonstration of how the movie disdains and diminishes the importance of principled radicalism. The character that Tommie Lee Jones plays is a fire and brimstone radical who wants to occupy the South militarily, who wants to enforce black freedom at bayonet point, and who want to extract from wealthy southerners some of the wealth they had extracted from their slaves and set up freed slaves on their own farms. He would give them the forty acres and a mule, in short, and if Lincoln is Obama, then Stevens is a little bit like what the Tea Party thinks Obama to be: a socialist bent on revenge and wild wealth redistribution.

When people on the right declare that Obama is an anti-colonial socialist, leftists often sigh, wistfully; “If only!” This movie nods its head soberly. “Yes,” it says, “Redistributing wealth to slaves from their former owners sounds good in practice, but we need to be realistic; it wouldn’t work in practice.” That’s why this movie needs to domesticate Stevens, why things only “get done” when the impatient Stevens is convinced to shut up and get in line, to stop demanding that black people get the vote and accept that “giving” them freedom was enough. Lincoln wins the argument with Stevens — in their dramatic kitchen conference — when he points out that if Stevens had gotten his way, all would have been lost. Stevens’ impatience would have doomed the war effort, and on this basis, Stevens is won over to Lincoln’s cautious quest for consensus.

After Lincoln was dead, however, progressive politics would be driven by radicals and freedmen, and it was in this period that substantive emancipation was first achieved. On the one hand, the period of Radical Reconstruction — roughly 1867 to the early 1870s — was called that because congressional radicals like Thaddeus Stevens were actually in charge of Reconstruction and did many of the things which the movie portrays as being Stevens’ wild and impatient radicalism. But while military governors (and Southern Unionists) helped the genie first get out of the bottle, black organizations and practical politics were the genie’s active demonstration that it had no plan to go back in without a fight, nor did it. It would take decades of fierce political warfare, mass racist violence, and a popular (white) backlash against radical reconstruction before blacks would be put back in their place.

It was in this context that a new narrative of the Civil War and reconstruction began to emerge and became mainstream, in which Lincoln was the great reconciler and in which his death was a great tragedy because it left vindictive radicals like Stevens in charge. This is how The Birth of a Nation portrays the aftermath of the Civil War, for example:

Though a Southerner, Griffith (like Dixon) admired Lincoln for his magnanimity and believed that if he had not been murdered, Reconstruction generally (and the radical Reconstruction after 1867 in particular) would not have happened. With the war over, Griffith depicts a confrontation between Lincoln and Austin Stoneman, the leader of the radicals. Stoneman protests Lincoln’s policy of clemency for the South, insisting that “their leaders must be hanged and their states treated as conquered provinces.” (The “conquered provinces” phrase was actually used by Thaddeus Stevens, the radical congressional leader on whom Stoneman’s fictional character was based.) But Lincoln lives up to the spirit of his second inaugural on March 4, 1865 (“with malice toward none; with charity for all”) and tells Stoneman he will deal with the seceded states “as though they had never been away.” Encouraged by this liberal attitude on the part of the president, the South begins rebuilding itself (shots 529–35), but this process is interrupted by Lincoln’s death.

Spielberg’s Lincoln is strikingly consistent with The Birth of a Nation’s image of Lincoln, a fact which should sound as bizarre as it is. As Eric Foner has observed, reconstruction was an “unfinished revolution” precisely because people like Stevens didn’t get their way in the long terms, because a revolution was eventually turned into reconciliation between Northern and Southern Whites and African-American freedom was abandoned.

In an interview on NPR, Tony Kushner suggests that vindictive radicals like Stevens bear some of the blame for this:

The inability to forgive and to reconcile with the South in a really decent and humane way, without any question, was one of the causes of the kind of resentment and perpetuation of alienation and bitterness that led to the quote-unquote ‘noble cause,’ and the rise of the Klan and Southern self-protection societies. The abuse of the South after they were defeated was a catastrophe, and helped lead to just unimaginable, untellable human suffering.

That’s one perspective, I suppose, the Dunning School of American historiography that Corey Robin recalls being taught in 1985 as an example of how not to do history, “a way of thinking about the past that was so benighted no one could possibly believe it anymore.”

What a radical like Thaddeus Stevens believed was that the 13th Amendment only opened the door, and that without federal support for black suffrage, and without redistributive measures to establish black economic security, few freed slaves would ever manage to walk through it. I think the end of radical reconstruction, the long Jim Crow era, and the Civil Rights movement more or less prove him right. As W. E. B. Du Bois argued in 1901, readmitting the South to the Union without federal protections for the black vote was to abandon them to their fate:

[In 1866] Not a single Southern legislature stood ready to admit a Negro, under any conditions, to the polls; not a single Southern legislature believed free Negro labor was possible without a system of restrictions that took all its freedom away; there was scarcely a white man in the South who did not honestly regard Emancipation as a crime, and its practical nullification as a duty. In such a situation, the granting of the ballot to the black man was a necessity, the very least a guilty nation could grant a wronged race, and the only method of compelling the South to accept the results of the war. Thus Negro suffrage ended a civil war by beginning a race feud.

This is why reconstruction was an “unfinished revolution” and why freedom was an un-cashed check for generations. African Americans were given the right to be paid for their labor, but even the right not to be murdered was a dead letter across much of the country: lacking economic independence or protected political franchise, black Americans would have no control over the conditions under which they labored and no say in the civil society they would continue to define by being excluded from it. As Du Bois went on, speaking in the present tense of 1901:

For this much all men know: despite compromise, war, and struggle, the Negro is not free. In the backwoods of the Gulf States, for miles and miles, he may not leave the plantation of his birth; in well-nigh the whole rural South the black farmers are peons, bound by law and custom to an economic slavery, from which the only escape is death or the penitentiary. In the most cultured sections and cities of the South the Negroes are a segregated servile caste, with restricted rights and privileges. Before the courts, both in law and custom, they stand on a different and peculiar basis. Taxation without representation is the rule of their political life. And the result of all this is, and in nature must have been, lawlessness and crime. That is the large legacy of the Freedmen’s Bureau, the work it did not do because it could not.

This was the victory of compromising moderates over radical revolutionaries. Lincoln never had the opportunity to show us what he would have done, but the verdict is certainly in on his successor, Andrew Johnson (who Stevens impeached). And as Eric Foner has argued, the failure of reconstruction wasn’t just a disaster for freed slaves: by disenfranchising a sizable segment of the South’s workers, the backlash against reconstruction helped produce the reactionary political order under which we still labor:

The removal of a significant portion of the nation’s laboring population from public life shifted the center of gravity of American politics to the right, complicating the tasks of reformers for generations to come. Long into the twentieth century, the South remained a one-party region under the control of a reactionary ruling elite who used the same violence and fraud that had helped defeat Reconstruction to stifle internal dissent. An enduring consequence of Reconstruction’s failure, the Solid South helped define the contours of American politics and weaken the prospects not simply of change in racial matters but of progressive legislation in many other realms.

Lincoln is not a movie about Reconstruction, of course; it’s a movie about old white men in beards and wigs heroically working together to save grateful black people. And that’s exactly the point: this is not a movie about the long process of reuniting the country or black freedom.

If Spielberg had made a movie about reconstruction, it would be difficult to find many heroes, certainly not any who were compromising moderates. Thaddeus Stevens would die not long after engineering the impeachment of Andrew Johnson (for working against Radical Reconstruction, essentially) and the story of black freedom after Lincoln’s death is pretty grim, for nearly a century. And this isn’t a movie about black freedom at all. Apparently, an earlier version of this film would have been based around Lincoln’s relationship with Frederick Douglass, and I’m very sorry that Spielberg instead chose to make a movie praising exactly the type of political compromises that would destroy and delay so much of what Lincoln had begun to create. But I suppose it’s easier and more fun to thank white saviors than to think about those that they left behind.