Today We Remember Lincoln as a Great Redeemer-And That Should Give Obama Hope
Hasan, Mehdi, New Statesman (1996)
Steven Spielberg's Lincoln is a spectacular movie--"less a biopic than a political thriller, a civics lesson ... alive with moral energy", in the words of the New York Times review. Sitting in a preview screening in Soho Square, I cried. I couldn't help it: the story of how Lincoln pushed the Thirteenth Amendment through a divided House of Representatives in the space of just four months, thereby abolishing the institution of slavery for ever, only to be assassinated, was too moving and melodramatic for even this cynical writer to bear.
The film presents Lincoln as an eloquent and noble commander-in-chief, an intensely moral man and a champion of black America. In this sense, there is nothing new in Spiel-berg's depiction of "Honest Abe". Lincoln has long been considered the greatest ever leader of the United States; he is the Great Emancipator, Preserver of the Union, Redeemer President.
Spielberg joins a long line of Lincoln sanctifiers such as Leo Tolstoy, who breathlessly declared that "the greatness of Napoleon, Caesar or Washington is only moonlight by the sun of Lincoln". His film is based in part on the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography (or hagiography?) Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.
But is the Hollywood take on Lincoln--emancipator of the slaves, assuager of America's racist past--the whole story? In a scathing letter to the Daily Telegraph on 12 January, the LSE historian Alan Sked wrote: "Abraham Lincoln was a racist who ... had no intention of freeing slaves who freed themselves by fleeing to Unionist lines ... Until the day he died, Lincoln's ideal solution to the problem of blacks was to 'colonise' them back to Africa or the tropics."
Back in 1978, the late left-wing historian Howard Zinn published his bestselling People's History of the United States, which claimed that Lincoln "set out to fight the slave states in 1861, not to end slavery, but to retain [their] enormous national territory and market and resources". Zinn quotes Lincoln at a debate in i88, before he became president: "I am not, nor ever have been, in favour of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of rhe white and black races.... nor ever have been in favour of making voters or jurors of Negroes." In the same year, Lincoln referred to "the superior position assigned to the white race". (Zinn, incidentally, was building on the work of the African-American writer Lerone Bennet, who wrote a seminal article for Ebony magazine in 1968 entitled: "Was Abraham Lincoln a white supremacist?".)
To be fair, the film makes clear that Lincoln was not an abolitionist; that role goes to the radical Pennsylvania congressman Thaddeus Stevens--played beautifully by a bombastic and bewigged Tommy Lee Jones. (Dear 20th Century Fox, please can we have a sequel to Lincoln called Thaddeus?)
Spielberg, however, glosses over Lincoln's earlier, more odious views; the moist-eyed viewer comes away with an image of him as only a lifelong foe of racists and bigots. …