Too Long In Lincoln’s Shadow


Unhappy is the land that needs a hero – Bertolt Brecht

Abraham Lincoln is one of those touchstone historical figures who we seem to have to reinvent every generation. I'm not sure, though, if any of these inventions have served progressives well. I'm not questioning Lincoln's greatness (the objections raised against him are mostly specious); rather I'm questioning how much inspiration we can draw from him for today's political struggles. I think the legacy of the Great Emancipator poses a conundrum for progressives, I'm even tempted to say a trap. Maybe one of the problems of the American left is that it has lived too long in Lincoln's shadow.

First a look at the latest Lincoln invention. It comes in an A-list Hollywood production with a no-frills title directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Tony Kushner of Angels in America fame. It's an enjoyable movie to watch, the acting is excellent, the storyline has inspirational uplift – pretty much guaranteed with anything to do with Lincoln (or by Spielberg) – and it all looks and sounds authentic and convincing. The question is, why this Lincoln now?

The Civil War does not exactly lack for dramatic possibilities, yet the movie makes an odd choice, focusing on a legislative battle –Lincoln's efforts to get a constitutional amendment through Congress to abolish slavery in January of 1865 – rather than on the war itself. This casts Lincoln primarily as a political strategist and manager: we see him maneuvering among the various factions, both inside his party and in Congress, making deals, compromising, cajoling, gathering support however he can, including with the lure of patronage. This is not the high school history figure of Father Abraham intoning the Gettysburg Address (though that speech does make an appearance). This is meant to be a more 'realistic' Lincoln, the portrait of a pragmatic politician, Lincoln as horse-trader.

Not that Spielberg and Kushner intend this in any negative sense. On the contrary, their idea is that horse-trading is itself a kind of heroism. And that's where the tie-in to the present comes in. Talking on National Public Radio after the movie came out in November, Kushner said he found it was valuable for him in working on the script “to look at the Obama years through a Lincoln lens.” This is because “I think Obama is a great president and I feel that there is immense potential now for rebuilding a real progressive democracy in this country after a great deal of damage has been done to it.” One of the obstacles in Obama's way, however, is “an impatience on the part of very good, very progressive people with the kind of compromising, the kind of horse-trading that is necessary.”Great politicians like Lincoln (and presumably Obama too) are good at deal-making “because that's in fact what politics is. It's not about purity, it's about compromise and strategy and making things actually happen in real time on this earth as opposed to a metaphysical realm.” In the movie Lincoln exemplifies this getting-things-done pragmatism, while by way of contrast there is the Radical Republican congressman Thaddeus Stevens, a good person who has to learn to forgo his metaphysical purity to achieve a great purpose.i

Which is all a bit puzzling. You would think, from what Kushner says, that the Obama years have been crowded with a lot of latter-day Thaddeus Stevenses, i.e. progressive 'purists' besieging the “great” man in the White House. If there are such people inside the administration or in Congress, they have done an awfully good job of hiding themselves for the last four years. It is true that outside the corridors of power there has been widespread disillusionment with Obama, and no doubt this is what Spielberg and Kushner had in mind. Many progressives thought they were voting for a new FDR in 2008, only to get Bill Clinton redux, and without even Clinton's canniness. Obama's idea of horse-trading often seems to be to give away the horse in exchange for a knuckle sandwich.

As for rebuilding a progressive democracy, it's hard to see evidence for that when the gap between the haves and have-nots is wider than ever. Nor does the continuing operation of Gitmo or the holding of 'kill list' meetings in the White House every Tuesday exactly betoken a Lincolnian “new birth of freedom.” Most progressives voted for Obama a second time only because they felt that the other guy would have been worse, but this can hardly be taken as a sign of a thriving democracy. Meanwhile the country is more deeply divided politically than it's been since the Civil War and the forces of reaction are becoming more extreme and vitriolic. You would think that at such a moment we have more need of Lincoln the visionary than Lincoln the horse-trader. But that's just why a conservative like New York Times columnist David Brooks likes the Spielberg film – because it shifts attention away from what he calls “the Gettysburg phase” of Lincoln's career. In that phase “a leader expresses grand ideas. This, frankly, is relatively easy. Lots of people embrace grand ideals or all-explaining ideologies. But satisfied with that they become morally infantile. They refuse to compromise, insult their opponents and isolate themselves on the perch of their own solipsism.”ii

Expressing grand ideas is “relatively easy” – who knew? Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, Tom Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King – is this a list of the “morally infantile”? Brooks is writing off the role of idealism in politics, and sadly the new Lincoln film gives him licence to do that. But there would never have been a 13th amendment had it not been for the idealism of the Abolitionists, metaphysical purists of the first order, who created a climate of opinion in which slavery came to be seen for the moral abomination that it was. Without that climate of opinion Lincoln would never have been elected, the Civil War wouldn't have been fought (or it would have been lost) and the horse-traders in Congress would have been haggling over how much slavery, not how to abolish it.

Idealism isn't some solipsistic exercise in feeling morally superior; rather it is an indispensable factor in shaping the direction of politics, especially at critical junctures of history. Historian Richard Hofstadter called the idealist – he was speaking of the great Abolitionist agitator Wendell Phillips – “a crisis thinker” because “he thinks in terms of the ultimate potentialities of social conflicts rather than the immediate compromises by which they are softened. His moral judgments are made from the standpoint of absolute values, with which the mass of men cannot comfortably live.” Relegated to the margins in normal times, the idealist turns from a pariah to a prophet in a social crisis when thinking “in terms of ultimate potentialities” suddenly seems to correspond to the way things really are and offers the only road out of the impasse brought about by the horse-traders of mainstream politics.iii

But rarely have progressives had less of a sense of “ultimate potentialities” than they do now. There is broad agreement about what we are against but almost none about what we are for. This gives the enemies of progress an immense advantage. “The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity” goes a famous line by the poet Yeats, and it captures well the predicament of progressive politics in our time. Pragmatism we have had all too much of – what else were the Clinton years if not one long exercise in pragmatic politics? Horse-trading, lesser-evilism, triangulation –all the stock-in-trade of this kind of politics – abounded, and the upshot of it all was a steady shift to the right (e.g. “the end of welfare in our time”, bank deregulation that brought us subprime mortgages) which paved the way for the most reactionary regime in recent history, the Bush Administration. Obama is treading the same path, and it isn't hard to see a similar outcome a few years down the road. The crying need now is not for more pragmatism but for more idealism, the very thing the new Lincoln film discounts.

All that being said, I'm not sure how useful any version of Lincoln would be to inspiring a new birth of idealism. As I said earlier, this isn't about questioning his greatness; most who do resort to the anachronism of applying 21st century standards to a 19thcentury figure (especially in relation to his views on race), which is a myopic and useless way of looking at history. Of course in official American political culture Lincoln is a saint, but there is plenty of serious scholarship on Lincoln that isn't hagiography (historians Eric Foner and James McPherson come to mind) and yet the portrayal of Lincoln in such accounts is actually more impressive than the schoolbook myths since these are credible and nuanced judgements, and yet they end up affirming Lincoln's stature rather than diminishing it. Indeed my argument hinges on this point: I think Lincoln truly was a remarkable figure, but that doesn't make him any less problematic as a role model for contemporary progressive politics.

Let me explain what I mean by comparing how a couple of Big Historical Events operate in our collective consciousness. The French Revolution happened seven decades before the American Civil War. When you think about the Revolution, probably the first thing that comes to mind is the storming of the Bastille. But when you think of the Civil War, probably the first thing that comes to mind is Lincoln. He dominates his slice of history to an unprecedented degree, far more than, say, Washington does the American Revolution. Even in the pantheon of American heroes he stands out. No other president comes close to the kind of adulation Lincoln receives, and you see this expressed in the various presidential memorials in Washington DC: Washington's and Jefferson's are monuments of respect but the Lincoln memorial elicits a catch-in-your-throat reverence. It is the highest shrine of the secular religion of Americanism.

In other words Lincoln's legacy is a powerful narrative about a great man making history. Spielberg's Lincoln adds yet more lustre to Lincoln's halo. Indeed so tight is the film's focus on the great man that virtually everyone else recedes into the background. The African-American characters in the film (as one history professor rightly complained on the op-ed pages of The New York Times)“do almost nothing but passively wait for white men to liberate them.” The millions of soldiers – white and black – who did the fighting and dying that made the abolition of slavery possible don't get much better treatment. Though there have been other attempts to present a more balanced approach (best known, perhaps, is the Ken Burns PBS documentary series on the Civil War that relied heavily on soldiers' letters), Lincoln is still the overwhelming image that looms over this history. The effort of a progressive historian like the late Howard Zinn to shove Lincoln off center-stageand make room for “the people” is ultimately not that convincing.

The truth is that the people played a supporting role in the great drama of the Civil War – not just in the history books or the movies but in reality. The Lincoln legend is an exaggeration but not a fabrication. It is true there was considerably more involvement of ordinary people, black and white, in the struggle against the Confederacy than a movie like Spielberg's Lincoln portrays. But to make out that the Civil War was a grassroots struggle for freedom is not true. The only time the grassroots intervened independently was John Brown's abortive uprising in 1859, and though his martyrdom galvanized anti-slavery sentiment in the North, that sentiment wasn't channelled into mass action but into the election of Lincoln. From then on the history of the Civil War is far more about top-down military action than grassroots mobilization. Not that the grassroots vanish: they make their presence felt in some extraordinary ways, as with the 200,000 African-Americans, mostly ex-slaves, who enlist voluntarily in the Union Army after the Emancipation Proclamation, providing manpower that was essential to winning the war at a time when recruitment among whites was in serious decline. But even this inspiring example conforms to the basic pattern that the only way the people could impact events was through their support for the government and the Union army. Many historians have pointed out that the 1864 election was remarkable: Lincoln won it largely by getting a big majority of the soldier vote, even though his opponent, a popular ex-general, was for brokering a peace with the Confederates to end the war quickly. Lincoln was committed to defeating the South, which meant that by voting for him the Union soldiers were voting for months, maybe years, more of dying. This vote, as much as heroics on the battlefield, was an act of political courage by everyday people in support of freedom. But once the ballots were cast, the soldiers, as it were, exit stage left: though they go on living the war, it is Lincoln who goes back to running it. Indeed from that point on the Civil War saga is all Lincoln: the passage of the 13th amendment, the Second Inaugural Address, the final defeat of the Confederacy and the assassination.

There's a certain irony to how all this turned out that Lincoln would probably have appreciated. He actually touches on the issue in his most famous speech, the Gettysburg Address. What most of us remember (from when we had to memorize it in school) are the stirring phrases– “a new birth of freedom” and that mantra of democracy, “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” But Lincoln made another point which doesn't get much attention: “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here” – the 'they' being the soldiers who died at Gettysburg. This is the sort of thing you would expect a political leader to say when dedicating a battlefield cemetery, but there's no reason to doubt Lincoln's sincerity, since he couldn't have known how famous his speech would become. As it turned out, while the battle hasn't been forgotten, it's the speech that the world has taken much greater note of. “Four score and seven years ago” is instantly recognizable while Little Round Top or Pickett's Charge don't mean much to anyone who isn't an American history buff. This might seem unfair – that mere words should count for more than the sacrifice of thousands of lives – but the speech deserves its fame: it articulates with eloquent simplicity the great political purpose for all that sacrifice. But this in turn only underscores how much it was Lincoln who shaped and defined,

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