Workers Vanguard No. 1015
11 January 2013
Civil War, Not Compromise, Smashed Slavery
A Review by Jacob Zorn
Lincoln—Steven Spielberg’s new movie based on a screenplay by Tony Kushner—begins with a battle scene that highlights the bravery of black soldiers, some 200,000 of whom fought in the Civil War. Two of them are seen talking to President Lincoln and criticizing the Union Army’s racist policies, paying blacks less than whites and preventing them from advancing to officers. One of the soldiers wonders whether blacks will have the vote in a hundred years. This sequence hints at the crucial role played by black soldiers in the armed struggle that broke the slave power in the South, but the film then entirely switches gears.
The movie’s plot reduces the abolition of slavery to so many parliamentary maneuvers by the wise and clever Lincoln to get the House of Representatives in early 1865 to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery. In the process, it distorts the significance of the Amendment and the role of the abolitionists, who were the main force, then and for decades before, pushing for an end to slavery.
To its credit, Lincoln is forthright that the Civil War was about slavery and does depict Lincoln, with all his contradictions and strengths, as devoted to not just winning the war but smashing the Southern slavocracy. The movie is based in part on a chapter in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2005). While other historians—particularly James McPherson, who wrote the classic Battle Cry of Freedom (1988), and Eric Foner—present a deeper understanding of the social and political forces at work in the Civil War, Goodwin’s book underscores Lincoln’s political genius and canny leadership in leading the North to victory.
The opening scene is done in a manner to wrongly suggest that racial oppression is a relic of the past long since overcome. The not-too-thinly-disguised goal of the movie is to laud President Obama and to underline how he, supposedly like Lincoln, should seek “bipartisan” compromises with adversaries. By extension, his left critics are expected to give the president a break. When interviewed on NPR, Kushner gushed about what a great president Barack Obama is and what a “blessing” it was to see “the Obama years through a Lincoln lens.” Kushner then rhapsodized about the virtues of compromise and horse trading. This message was not lost on most of the bourgeois commentary on the film—as shown in the L.A. Times (28 November 2012) headline: “Gov. Jerry Brown Could Learn a Lesson From ‘Lincoln’.”
Lincoln is not without entertainment value, with its excellent acting by Daniel Day-Lewis (as Lincoln) and Tommy Lee Jones (as Pennsylvania Republican Congressman and abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens). If the only problem of the movie was simply the narrow focus of its plot, it could be partly alleviated by watching it in conjunction with the superb movie Glory. An inspiring portrayal of the black soldiers in the Massachusetts 54th regiment, Glory gives a sense of what was required for Union victory in a way that Lincoln does not.
But the main weakness of Lincoln is that in trying to show the Lincoln years through the Obama lens the movie distorts history. Barack Obama is Commander-in-Chief of a capitalist system long into its imperialist epoch of decay. The Civil War was the last great progressive act of the American bourgeoisie. To further the consolidation of industrial capitalism, when the exploitation of free labor represented an historical advance, the North was compelled to destroy the system of chattel slavery in the South. Today racist U.S. imperialism continues to carry out what has been more than a century of pillage and war across the globe, brutally exploiting labor at home and abroad while qualitatively arresting wider social and economic development. The American capitalist rulers are the main enemy of the world’s working people and oppressed.
It will serve some good if Lincoln piques interest in the Civil War among its viewers. But it must be understood that the movie obscures the fact that only a social revolution could have uprooted slavery, smashing everything that stood in its way. By the same token, it will take a socialist revolution by the proletariat and its allies to eradicate capitalist wage slavery.
The Thirteenth Amendment
The Thirteenth Amendment, which had its origins in a petition campaign by anti-slavery women suffragettes in early 1864, states: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The Thirteenth Amendment codified the end of slavery. Lincoln’s insistence that his generals fight to crush the opposing Confederate armies, and not his search for “bipartisanship,” paved the way for the passage of the Amendment.
In July 1862, as slaves were fleeing Southern plantations and seeking freedom behind Union Army lines, Congress authorized the “confiscation”—i.e., emancipation—of Confederates’ slaves. In January 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which he had drafted the previous September. It declared that slaves in Confederate-controlled areas “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” With the Proclamation, the war openly became a social revolution to emancipate an oppressed class, the chattel slaves, and destroy an oppressor class, the slave masters. The Emancipation Proclamation also sanctioned the recruitment of black soldiers, such as those Lincoln visited in the first scene of the movie.
The revolutionary aspect of the war was resisted by many Northerners, especially those in the Democratic Party, which was the party that ran the slave South. These Northern Democrats—the so-called “Copperheads”—were antiwar and opposed abolition. In the movie, their main spokesman is Democratic Congressman Fernando Wood, a former mayor of New York City. The clash of the two parties came to a head in the election of 1864, when the Democrats ran General George B. McClellan—whom Lincoln had fired as the commanding general of the Union Army because he refused to fight to win the war. Meanwhile, with Ulysses S. Grant in charge, the tide of the war had begun to decisively turn, and the Union Army was on an offensive through the South.
In the election, the Democrats’ slogan was “The Constitution As It Is and the Union As It Was.” In other words, end the war and keep slavery. McClellan was decisively defeated, winning only New Jersey and the border states Delaware and Kentucky. Lincoln’s victory signaled support for continuing the war until the slavocracy was defeated, with the Republicans gaining enough seats in Congress to guarantee passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.
From Lincoln’s perspective, the question was not whether slavery would be abolished, but whether the Amendment would be passed by the outgoing Congress in early 1865 or the incoming Congress later that spring. This consideration was not trivial. Rather than wait for the new Republican-dominated Congress to be convened, Lincoln wanted it to pass with some Democratic support. To do so would be a show of national support for abolition and would undercut the Copperheads, making it impossible to conclude peace on any basis except abolition.
The movie shows in detail how Lincoln—mainly acting through his secretary of state, William H. Seward—manipulated, cajoled, flattered and bribed various Democrats to support the Amendment. In the end, he obtained enough support from “lame duck” Democratic Congressmen to get it passed. Rather than the culmination of the Civil War, the drama in Congress represented a sideshow—albeit an important one—to the abolition of slavery. Eric Foner stressed in a letter to the New York Times (26 November 2012) about the movie: “Even as the House debated, [Union general] Sherman’s army was marching into South Carolina, and slaves were sacking plantation homes and seizing land. Slavery died on the ground, not just in the White House and the House of Representatives.”
The viewer would not know from the movie that to become law, amendments must be ratified by three-fourths of the states. When this happened in December 1865, it was because the North had militarily defeated the Confederacy. Among the states that ratified the Thirteenth Amendment were several in the South. James McPherson captured the real lesson of its adoption when he wrote: “Without the Civil War there would have been no confiscation act, no Emancipation Proclamation, no Thirteenth Amendment (not to mention the Fourteenth and the Fifteenth), certainly no self-emancipation, and almost certainly no end of slavery for several more decades at least” (Drawn with the Sword, 1997).
The Abolitionists and Radical Republicans
Radical abolitionism, the first interracial political movement in the United States, had pointed out decades before the Civil War that the slave system could not be reformed but had to be destroyed. At the time, mainstream politicians either essentially ignored slavery (the Whig Party) or supported it (the Democratic Party). For their bravery, the abolitionists were attacked, denounced and belittled.
The more farsighted elements of the capitalist class in the North eventually coalesced into the Republican Party. At the time of the 1860 presidential election, the Republican Party was not an abolitionist party, and Lincoln, its candidate, wanted only to limit slavery from expanding into the West. But both the slavocracy and Republicans understood that if slavery were prevented from expanding, it could not survive, in large part because its agricultural methods demanded ever more virgin soil. Lincoln’s victory prompted the Southern states to secede, provoking the Civil War. From its outset, the abolitionists understood that slavery was the central issue. Former slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass insisted that it was futile to “separate the freedom of the slave from the victory of the government.” He declared: “War for the destruction of liberty must be met with war for the destruction of slavery.”
This was underlined by Karl Marx, who from London agitated among British workers in support of the North. In “The Civil War in the United States” (October 1861), Marx stressed: “The present struggle between the South and North is, therefore, nothing but a struggle between two social systems, the system of slavery and the system of free labour. The struggle has broken out because the two systems can no longer live peacefully side by side on the North American continent. It can only be ended by the victory of one system or the other.” Criticizing Lincoln’s early wavering on emancipation, Marx declared, “Events themselves drive to the promulgation of the decisive slogan—emancipation of the slaves.”
In the early stages of the war, Lincoln was fearful of the reaction of the four pro-Union slave border states as well as the Copperheads. The abolitionists and Radicals pushed Lincoln to grasp the need to smash slavery in order to win the war. Thaddeus Stevens declared: “It is plain that nothing approaching the present policy will subdue the rebels.”
In our article “Honor Abraham Lincoln!” (WV No. 938, 5 June 2009), which elaborates on the evolution of his views on race over the course of the Civil War, we stated:
“The American Civil War was a bourgeois revolution, and Lincoln was both bourgeois and revolutionary at the same time—with all the contradictions this implies.... Borrowing from today’s terminology, one could argue that Lincoln began as a reformist, believing that the reactionary social system in the South could be pressured into change and that the institution of slavery would eventually wither on the vine. But he underwent a radical shift when bloody experience in the crucible of war—combined with the mass flight of the slaves to the Union lines—taught him that the nation could be preserved only by means of social revolution.”
It is hard to say to whom the movie does more injustice, Lincoln or the abolitionists. Lincoln is turned into some Obama-style centrist, and the abolitionists into well-meaning people who couldn’t get the job done. Kushner in his interview with NPR condemned “impatience on the part of very good, very progressive people” as one of the main obstacles Obama faces today. In other words, like Obama, Lincoln’s virtue was that he knew that the way to get what is important is to give as well as take.
One of the most egregious aspects of the film is the lack of even a mention of Frederick Douglass, a powerful advocate for abolition and black rights. It was Douglass who not only urged Lincoln to recruit black troops, but advocated that they be treated fairly and paid the same as whites. Douglass had met and argued with Lincoln on a number of occasions, including at the reception after his second inaugural address, as Goodwin relates in the chapter of her book on the Thirteenth Amendment.
The one abolitionist who factors prominently in the movie is Thaddeus Stevens. Stevens has long been vilified, like many Radicals, as a vindictive fanatic who was likely mad. By portraying Stevens sympathetically, the movie hopefully will spur people to learn more about him and the other radical abolitionists.
Yet the film deals with Stevens one-sidedly. At one point in the movie, during a private conversation, Lincoln lectured Stevens that if matters had been left to the Radicals, emancipation would have failed: “But if I’d listened to you, I’d’ve declared every slave free the minute the first shell struck Fort Sumter; then the border states would’ve gone over to the Confederacy, the war would’ve been lost and the Union along with it, and instead of abolishing slavery, as we hope to do, in two weeks, we’d be watching helpless as infants as it spread from the American South into South America.”
There is a grain of truth to this since Lincoln the politician was mindful of public opinion and tried not to put himself too far ahead of it. But it leaves out how instrumental abolitionists like Stevens were in the fight against slavery. As Stevens’ biographer put it, “Thaddeus Stevens in the House and Charles Sumner in the Senate led the struggle against widespread apathy and fear, pushing through Congress the limited emancipation measures that prepared the nation for general emancipation and the Thirteenth Amendment” (Fawn M. Brodie, Thaddeus Stevens: Scourge of the South, 1959).
A telling example of how the movie tries to fit the abolition of slavery into the mold of compromise and bipartisanship is the dramatic tension over what Stevens would say in the House debate over the Thirteenth Amendment. Stevens was known for his saber-sharp sarcasm. In the movie, Ohio Congressman James Ashley—who sponsored the Amendment—begs Stevens to “compromise” in his advocacy of racial equality, “or you risk it all.” The movie then shows Stevens arguing with Fernando Wood on January 27, i.e., shortly before the final vote. In response to Wood’s badgering, Stevens states that he did not believe everybody was equal, but only should be treated equally before the law.
The drama of the scene is false, concocted in order to bolster the movie’s message of political conciliation. In fact, it was over three weeks before the voting when Stevens said that he advocated only “equality before the laws,” and he did so in response to Ohio Representative Samuel Cox, a Democrat who ended up voting for the Amendment. In any case, Stevens’ supposed “compromise”—civil rights for black people—was not only far ahead of most other politicians but also ahead of the actual Thirteenth Amendment.
Several times in the movie, Lincoln declares that he was focused only on the task at hand—winning the war and abolishing slavery. He tells Stevens that he refuses to discuss Reconstruction after the war: “We shall oppose one another in the course of time. Now we’re working together.” Fair enough: one cannot fault a movie about Lincoln for not delving into what happened after the president’s assassination. But the movie’s refusal to even touch on what happened after the war serves a purpose. To do so would expose the folly of moderation and compromise with the pro-slavery forces.
After Vice President Andrew Johnson, a Democrat from the mountains of Tennessee, assumed the presidency following Lincoln’s death, remnants of the defeated Confederacy made it clear that, while their military defeat had forced them to accept the end of slavery, they had no intention of accepting black people as genuinely free. Southern states sent former Confederates to Congress and passed “black codes” that all but re-enslaved blacks. Meanwhile, Johnson carried out a policy of conciliating the South and was openly disdainful of black people.
Combating Johnson’s equivocal Reconstruction policy, Stevens and other Radical Republicans carried out what became known as Radical Reconstruction. Refusing to allow the Southern representatives to sit in Congress, they passed laws—overriding Johnson’s repeated vetoes—that protected the rights of former slaves, extended the life of the Freedmen’s Bureau and politically disenfranchised the former slaveowners. The Union Army was stationed in the South to enforce these laws. Meanwhile, black people were asserting their basic rights by voting, standing for office and building schools. Radical Reconstruction was the most democratic period in American history, bringing advances for poor whites, such as public education, as well.
Among the Radicals in Congress, Stevens pushed to extend Reconstruction the furthest. He advocated black suffrage, disenfranchising former Confederates and, most radical of all, seizing the former slaveholders’ plantations and redistributing them to the freedmen. In the movie, Stevens articulates this vision, telling Lincoln: “We’ll build up a land down there of free men and free women and free children and freedom.” Since Johnson tried to subvert Reconstruction at every step, Stevens helped spearhead the drive to impeach him, which failed by one vote in Spring 1868.
One of Stevens’ last acts was to campaign for the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment. That Amendment extended the rights of citizenship to everybody born in the United States, regardless of race. While Lincoln implies that it was with the Thirteenth Amendment that Stevens compromised, it was in fact over the Fourteenth. He had pushed to give black men the right to vote, but the Amendment instead reduced the number of representatives for states that denied blacks the right to vote. Stevens told Congress that he was going to vote for it “because I live among men and not among angels.” Only in 1870, with the Fifteenth Amendment, did black men gain the right to vote.
As we wrote in our 1966 document “Black and Red—Class Struggle Road to Negro Freedom” (reprinted in Marxist Bulletin No. 9, “Basic Documents of the Spartacist League”): “Capitalist and slave alike stood to gain from the suppression of the planter aristocracy but beyond that had no further common interests.” In other words, even though a section of the bourgeoisie pushed to deepen Reconstruction, as a whole the ruling class had no such interest.
For Reconstruction to have succeeded would have required what Stevens advocated: breaking up the large landed estates and actually giving blacks “40 acres and a mule.” But the promise of black freedom was betrayed when the Northern capitalists formed an alliance with the remnants of the slavocracy in order to exploit Southern resources and the freedmen. Particularly following the Paris Commune of 1871, when the proletariat seized power for two months in the city, the American bourgeoisie saw expropriation and redistribution of private property in the land as a potential threat to themselves.
After the election of 1876, the last federal troops were recalled from the South as part of a compromise between the Republicans and the Democrats. Black freedmen and poor white sharecroppers didn’t have the social weight to defend their gains. With the racist Democrats returned to power in the South, they steadily stripped away the rights that black people had won. By the end of the century, the Southern states had disenfranchised black people and instituted formal Jim Crow segregation. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments would be dead letters until the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s.
The defeat of Reconstruction was a betrayal of the promise of black equality. To this day, the Civil War remains unfinished business, with black people making up an oppressed race-color caste. They form an integral part of American society but at the same time are overwhelmingly segregated at its bottom. Although the Democrats are no longer the pro-slavery party they once were, they are no less foes of black liberation today, administering along with the Republicans the capitalist system in its death agony. The tasks of the Civil War can be finished only by smashing American capitalism through socialist revolution.