Directed by Steven Spielberg
The other evening I viewed an interesting film, Lincoln directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role. The film shows one side to Lincoln and concentrates on his effort to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution that outlaws slavery.
The strong parts of the film consist of the determined effort Lincoln made in getting this Amendment passed through Congress. Even when the Confederacy was effectively defeated in the Civil War, there were enough votes in congress that might have blocked the passage of this amendment. The core opposition to the abolition of slavery came from the Democratic Party. This is the same political party that President Barrack Obama represents.
Clearly Lincoln did play a heroic role with respect to the defeat of the Confederacy. At the beginning of the war, many of Lincoln’s advisers argued that a deal could be reached with the enemy that would make the war a relatively short conflict. Lincoln had a better understanding of the sentiment in the country and knew that only a complete defeat of the slave owners would end this conflict.
The problem with this film is that it gives a heroic picture of Lincoln without looking at the historical context to the events of the film. The film portrays Lincoln as opposing slavery primarily because he is appalled at how black people were treated by this institution. This may be true, but there were other issues that Lincoln had to deal with.
Why did the Civil War happen?
We can begin the narrative of the Civil War with what happened in the state of Kansas. Growing cotton in the slave states destroyed the soil and prompted slave owners to move west in search of new lands. Kansas was one of the states where the slave owners attempted to take political control.
However, homesteaders from the east also wanted to settle in Kansas. Initially the slave owners won a referendum and took control of the state government. This state of affairs provoked a war between the slave owners and the homesteaders. The Republican Party became a political force because it organized support for the homesteaders of Kansas. Eventually these homesteaders prevailed and the slave owners of Kansas were repressed.
The events of Kansas demonstrated how the interests of slave owners were different, not only from the interests of slaves, but also antagonistic to workers and even to the owners of capitalist enterprises. The slaveocracy wanted to move west to establish slave plantations. Homesteaders wanted this same land to set up small farms. Workers in the east also supported the homesteaders because they liked the idea that they had the option of moving west.
The slave owners needed thoroughly repressive governments that made their top priority to enslave human beings and apprehend escaped slaves. The governments of the north wanted skilled workers who toiled for wages. They also wanted manufacturing enterprises that would build all kinds of commodities for a profit. These were some of the irreconcilable differences that led to the Civil War.
However, before the election of Lincoln, politicians who accepted the institution of chattel slavery effectively controlled the government. The election of Lincoln changed this, and this change was something the slave owners would not tolerate. This is why the Confederacy seceded from the Union and this act sparked the Civil War that had been brewing for decades.
When we look at the opposed priorities of the Union and the Confederacy, we can see why the government needed to pass the Thirteenth Amendment and abolish chattel slavery. Abraham Lincoln was not part of the abolitionist movement that consistently organized to abolish slavery. He compromised his opposition to slavery when he favored continuing this horrendous institution in the border-states.
What might have happened if there was a compromise with slavery?
From today’s perspective we can say that there was a possibility that a compromise might have been reached with the slave owners. We do not know what the outcome might have been if this would have been the case. Certainly there might have been many possible outcomes.
What we do know is the history of Latin America. There, large landowners did maintain control of the government. This meant that the nations of Latin America became relatively underdeveloped, dominated economically and politically by foreign powers, and ruled for many years by repressive military dictatorships. This could have been one of the possible outcomes in the United States had a compromise been reached with the slave owners during the Civil War.
The other side to Lincoln
While we can applaud the actions of Lincoln in the Civil War, we can also judge his actions with respect to Native Americans to be reprehensible. One of Lincoln’s first actions as President was to order the executions of 38 members of the Santee nation who lived in what is now the state of Minnesota.
The Santee signed a treaty with the U.S. government that was supposed to guarantee them enough food so they would be able to live. The U.S. representative charged with allocating this food told the Santee that if they wanted food they could “eat grass.” Since this was a violation of the treaty, which is an act of war, the Santee did what they needed to do so their people would avoid starvation. Many settlers died because of this war.
Instead of understanding why the Santee engaged in an armed rebellion, Lincoln treated them as common criminals and ordered the largest mass execution in the history of the United States.
After Lincoln’s assassination, two of Lincoln’s generals, and his closest advisers carried out a genocidal war against Native Americans. These generals were Phillip Henry Sheridan, and William Tecumseh Sherman. General Sheridan made the infamous statement that “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Sherman and Sheridan did their best to make this statement a reality.
Lessons we can learn from the Civil War
While the abolition of slavery in the United States was an immensely progressive act, this marked the end of any progressive politics that would be advanced by the United States government. Reconstruction governments came into being after the Civil War. These governments were some of the most democratic in the history of the United States. They advanced literacy for former slaves and full rights for everyone including women and Native Americans.
The federal government under the Republican President of Rutherford B. Hayes made a deal to withdraw federal troops from the former confederate states. This action effectively handed power to the terrorist organization of the Ku Klux Klan. The Supreme Court then effectively denied Black people citizenship rights in the United States in their decision Plessey vs. Fergusson.
This history demonstrates why Karl Marx was both an ardent supporter of Lincoln’s actions in the Civil War, as well as an ardent critic of the political economic system of capitalism. Marx argued that the price of labor is the price required to sustain workers at a minimum level.
Today many workers are learning that we can loose everything when employers eliminate the jobs we work at. However, workers are in a much better position to advance and defend our interests than people who lived under chattel slavery .
All progress for working people after the Civil war came because of pressure that emanated from workers. Woman’s suffrage, labor, civil rights, and anti-war movements would force the government to abandon policies they had advanced in the past.
These movements all had international ramifications. Since capitalism has always been an international system, workers and farmers need to defend the interests of workers all over the world.
Abraham Lincoln did have opinions that many of his supporters today would object to. Clearly he believed that the only way for slavery to be eliminated was with the force of arms. The Civil War ended the rule of slave owners in the United States.
As Malcolm X once said that the interests of Black people need to be advanced by, “any means necessary.” Malcolm quoted Patrick Henry when he said: “Give me liberty or give me death.”
This is the revolutionary heritage that workers and farmers have today. When we look at the Civil War from this perspective, there is good reason to be optimistic about the future.