The opening scene of Steven Spielberg’s cinemythic portrait of the sixteenth president features President Abraham Lincoln seated on a stage, half cloaked in darkness, and observing the Union forces he is sending into battle. It’s an apt metaphor for the man himself—both visible and obscure, inside the tempest yet somehow above the fray. Lincoln was released in early November, just in time to shape our discussions of January 1, 2013, the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Yet with its themes of redemption and sacrifice, Spielberg’s film could seem less suited for an anniversary celebration than an annual one. Here is a vision of a lone man, tested by betrayal, besieged by enemies whom he regards without malice, a man who is killed for his convictions only to be resurrected as a moral exemplar. Spielberg’s Lincoln is perhaps less fitted to January 1st than it is to the holiday that precedes it by a week.
In fairness, this narrative of Lincoln’s Civil War, equal parts cavalry and Calvary, did not originate with Spielberg. The legend of the Great Emancipator began even as Lincoln lay dying in a boardinghouse across from Ford’s Theater that night in April 1865. (In the same way that JFK’s mythic standing as a civil rights stalwart was born at Dealey Plaza in November 1963.) In the wake of his assassination, Lincoln the controversial and beleaguered president was remade into Lincoln the Savior, an American Christ-figure who carried the nation’s sins. Pulling off this transformation, this historical alchemy, has required that we as a nation redact the messier parts of Lincoln’s story in favor of an untainted, morally unconflicted commander in chief who was untouched by the biases of the day and unyielding in his opposition to slavery. We have little use for tainted Christs. Through Lincoln the Union was “saved” in more than one sense of the word.
History is malleable. There is always the temptation to remake the past in the contours that are most comforting to us. In a nation tasked with reconciling its democratic ideals with the reality of slavery, Lincoln has become a Rorschach test of sorts. What we see when we look at him says as much about ourselves as it does about him. And what we see, or choose to see, most often is a figure of unimpeachable moral standing who allows Americans to gaze at ourselves in the mirror of history and smile. If the half-life for this kind of unblemished heroism is limited—we’ve grown more cynical across the board—it has remained resonant enough for our politicians today to profit from their association with it. The signal achievement of Spielberg’s Lincoln is the renovation of that vision of Lincoln, a makeover for a nation that had elected its first black president to a second term just three days before the film hit theaters.
In 2007 Barack Obama announced his presidential candidacy in Springfield, Illinois, deliberately conjuring comparisons to that other lanky lawyer who spent time in the state legislature there. There is no shortage of politicians claiming an affinity with Lincoln—George W. Bush saw himself as a Lincolnesque figure when he was prosecuting the war on terror—but rarely have the parallels been as apparent as they are with Obama. The candidate played up that angle, visiting the Lincoln Memorial just before his inauguration, carrying a well-thumbed copy of Team of Rivals on the campaign trail, slipping sly riffs on Lincoln’s second inaugural address into his own first one, and taking the oath of office on the Lincoln Bible.
Beyond the obvious, though, lies a deeper theme between Obama and Lincoln: the identities of both men are inextricably bound to questions of both disunity and progress in this country. It’s worth recalling that Obama’s rise to prominence was a product of his 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention, in which he offered a compelling, if Photoshopped, vision of a United States where there are no red states or blue states, where neither race nor religion nor ideology can undermine national unity. Obama walked onto that stage an obscure state legislator; he left it a virtual avatar of American reconciliation, the most obvious brand of which was racial. Implicit within his subsequent campaign, particularly after the flashpoint of controversy over Jeremiah Wright’s sermons, was the possibility of amnesty for the past. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Obama’s “More Perfect Union” speech in Philadelphia in March 2008. Delivered at a time when the campaign was virtually hemorrhaging hope, the speech was a deft manipulation of the very human aspiration to break with the messy past, to be reborn in an untainted present.
In the wake of the release of Spielberg’s Lincoln it was common to see pundits remark with amazement on the enduring public fascination with the sixteenth president. The biopic grossed $84 million by the beginning of December—a grand haul for a historical drama with no special effects and an ending we’ve known since grade school. But viewed from another angle, the question becomes not why we are still intrigued by Lincoln but how we could not be. His life contains epic themes: genius, war, personal loss, a narrative arc in which a barely schooled young man goes on to produce some of the most elegant prose in the American canon and a role in ending the wretchedness of slavery. The capacity of his life to inspire and intrigue is rivaled only by its capacity to exonerate. It is this last element that takes center stage in Spielberg’s film. The director’s artistic choice to focus on the last four months of the president’s life is simultaneously a choice to focus on his finest hour and to not focus on the troubled, torturous path he traveled to get there. There is no Frederick Douglass here goading the president toward the more humanitarian position, no whites rioting at the prospect of being drafted to fight for Negro freedom.
On the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, we see unwitting testimony to our ongoing racial quagmire in the reductive ways we discuss the author of that document and the reasons for slavery’s end. We speak volumes about our impasses in the glib, self-congratulatory way we discuss the election of the president most ostensibly tied to Lincoln’s legacy.
It’s important to note that Spielberg’s film about the death of slavery all but ignores the Proclamation. That choice allowed the director—and his audience—to avoid both Lincoln’s support for the mass colonization of free blacks and also the fact that the now-hallowed Proclamation left nearly a million slaves in chains. It also made unnecessary any discussion of the uncomfortable truth that the Proclamation was devised in part as a war measure to ensure the loyalties of border states and deprive the Confederacy of its labor force, while leaving open the question of the South getting those very slaves back, should they return to the Union.
Instead, Spielberg’s Lincoln centers on the comparatively clean moral lines surrounding the Thirteenth Amendment. But like a great deal of the popular ideas about Lincoln, the film confuses the president’s strategic ideas with his moral ones, and in so doing shifts the landscape toward redemption. At issue here are not just Lincoln’s actions, but the context for those actions and the motives behind them. The film highlights that Lincoln, in fighting for a constitutional amendment, freed four million enslaved blacks, as well as untold generations yet to be born. The film does not highlight that by 1865, Lincoln would have known very well that permanently ending slavery would also deprive the readmitted Southern states of the labor force that had allowed it to nearly tear the country in half. The amendment was no less strategically motivated than the Proclamation had been. Arguing that the end of the war gave Lincoln leeway to strike the blow against slavery he’d patiently waited for overlooks the fact that Congress had attempted to pass the amendment in the previous session—when the outcome of the war was far less certain. After the amendment passed Lincoln referred to it as a “king’s cure for all the evils,” but in his annual address given months earlier, in December 1864, he spoke of it as a prerogative of preserving the nation:
In a great national crisis like ours, unanimity of action among those seeking a common end is very desirable, almost indispensable. And yet no approach to such unanimity is attainable unless some deference shall be paid to the will of the majority simply because it is the will of the majority. In this case the common end is the maintenance of the Union, and among the means to secure the end such will, through the election, is more clearly declared in favor of such Constitutional amendment. (Emphasis added.)
The strategic and moral benefits of Lincoln’s actions are not mutually exclusive, but the need for a redemption figure makes us behave as if they are. The fact that black freedom occurred because a particular set of national interests aligned with ending slavery doesn’t diminish the moral importance of it. Indeed, the moral high ground here is that Lincoln, unlike millions of Americans in both the South and the North, was able to recognize that slavery was not more important than the Union itself. This seems somehow insufficient to the definition of heroism today, but it shouldn’t. The by-product of our modern, mythical Lincoln is that he allows us to shift our gaze to one American who ended slavery rather than the millions who perpetuated and defended it. By lionizing Lincoln, we are able to concentrate on the death of an evil institution rather than its ongoing legacy. The paradox is that Lincoln’s death enabled later generations to impatiently wonder when black people would cease fixating on slavery and just get over it.
When Obama cast himself in the mold of Lincoln in 2007, he could not have known how deeply he would find himself mired in the metaphor. As a recent Pew Study revealed, our country is more divided along partisan lines today than at any point since they’ve been conducting studies. Basic demographic divisions—gender, race, ethnicity, religion, and class—do not predict differences in values more than they have in the past. Men and women, whites, blacks, and Hispanics, the highly religious and the less religious, and those with more and less education differ in many respects, but those differences have not grown in recent years, and for the most part they pale in comparison to the overwhelming partisan divide we see today. This is only partly because of the growth of cable news programs offering relentless blue-versus-red commentary and a la carte current events. It’s also because party identity has become a stand-in for all the other distinctions the study explained.
That chasm is the stepchild of the sectionalism of Lincoln’s era. Today, we are another House Divided, though the lines are now drawn more haphazardly. And this is where Obama and Lincoln part ways. In future feature films about the current era, it won’t be the details of the president’s life that will be redacted, but the details of our own. More specifically, it will be the details of those Americans who greeted Obama’s reelection with secession petitions; those who reacted to the 2008 election by organizing themselves and parading racially inflammatory banners in the nation’s capital; those who sought solace from demagogues and billionaire conspiracy theorists who demanded that a sitting president prove his own citizenship.
The heralded “Age of Obama” began with a sugar high of postracialism, but four years later the number of whites subscribing to explicitly racist ideas about blacks had increased, not diminished. The vision of a black person executing the duties of the nation’s highest office was supposed to become mundane; we were supposed to take his identity for granted. Somewhere there was a little-voiced hope among black people that his simple existence as president would be a daily brief for our collective humanity, that we would be taken to be every bit as ordinary as the man occupying the Oval Office. At points in the last four years, it seemed as if we could live in a poetic moment, as if our founding documents could be taken at face value. But the numbers tell us it’s not true. Many Americans have reacted to the promise of the Obama era as a threat, as a harbinger of the devaluing currency of whiteness. The problem is not that these people want to take their country back, it’s that they were loathe to share it in the first place. The recalcitrant racism of the Obama era will be as vexing to the story of American virtue as Lincoln’s racial failings were to those of his era. Lincoln was not as flawless as we’ve been told, and we are not as virtuous as we’ve begun to tell ourselves.
To be clear, though, something in the nation has changed. At no point prior to 2008 could a presidential aspiration have been so effectively yoked to this yearning for a clear racial conscience. But beneath the high-blown, premature rhetoric of postracialism lies the less inspirational fact that those changes were as much about math as they were about morality. Depending on your perspective, we have either reached a point of racial maturity that facilitated the election of an African American president or we’ve reached a point where a supermajority of black voters, a large majority of Latino and Asian ones, and a minority of white people are capable of winning a presidential election. Again, these ideas need not be mutually exclusive, but the need for clean lines and easy redemption makes us behave as if they are.
Lincoln’s apotheosis inspired self-congratulation among whites and a backlash of doubt and outright disdain among blacks. Among many African Americans, a justifiable skepticism of Lincoln as the original Friend of the Negro has morphed into a broader dismissal of him altogether. But however conservative and incrementalist his policies seemed to them, and to many of us today, they were still far too radical for John Wilkes Booth and the millions who sympathized with him. Lincoln’s death is further evidence that men who are ahead of their times have a tendency to die at the hands of men who are behind them. It is also proof that the simple sentiment that the Union was more important than slavery was, in its own right, radical. However far Lincoln was from advocating racial equality, his second inaugural address stands as a monument of national conscience:
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bond-men’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”
Indeed, the real problem is not that the nation has so consistently sought balm for its racial wounds, and drafted Lincoln—and Obama—for those purposes; it’s the belief that we could be absolved from the past so cheaply. No Lincoln, not even an unfailingly moral one who was killed in service of a righteous cause, could serve as an antidote for ills that persisted, and continue to persist, for a century and a half after his demise. We find ourselves now in circumstances where actual elements of racial progress are jeopardized precisely because we’ve smugly accepted the idea of ourselves as racially progressive.
The Thirteenth Amendment states that “[n]either 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.” We are a nation in which a black president holds office while more than half a million duly convicted black men populate the prisons and county and municipal jails hold hundreds of thousands more. The symbolic ideal of postracialism masks a Supreme Court that may undermine affirmative action in higher education and the preclearance clause of the Voting Rights Act. Our most recent election saw both unprecedented black turnout and efforts at black voter suppression that resound with echoes of bad history. Black unemployment, even among the college educated, remains vastly higher than it is for whites. (Among the more hideous hypocrisies of the recent election was Mitt Romney’s cynical appeals to black Americans, pointing out that blacks have suffered disproportionately in the Obama economy. The black president, we were to believe, is now also responsible for racism in the labor market.)
Obama himself was wise to these contrasts as far back as 2008, when he gave the speech in Philadelphia that saved his political career.
[W]ords on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part—through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk—to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.
The election of an African American president is a watershed in our history. But the takeaway is that what we do during these moments is somehow smaller than what we do between them, that our heroes are no better than we are, nor do they need to be. Harriet Tubman is often cited as saying she could have freed more blacks if only she’d been able to convince them they were slaves. In our own era, the only impediment to realizing the creed of “We Shall Overcome” is the narcotic belief that we already have.
Click here to read more from our Jan/Feb 2013 cover package “Race, History, and Obama’s Second Term.”