Jan 7, 2013
The movie Lincoln tells the story of how Abraham Lincoln and his allies got a recalcitrant U.S. Congress to ratify the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery in 1865, just before the end of the Civil War. The movie shows the disgusting racism of the vast majority of the Congressmen, even of many who eventually supported the amendment. And it shows the backroom deals and cajoling needed to get it passed.
There are some telling moments in the story, for example, when the leader of the Radical Republicans, Thaddeus Stevens, tells Lincoln that slavery and racism have broken the moral compass of the white people of the United States. And we get a small glimpse of the horrible slaughter produced by the Civil War.
But this movie largely ignores the question of why Lincoln and the majority of the Northern ruling class decided they needed to free the slaves.
The North was fighting to prevent an independent South from tying itself to England as a semi-colony. The emerging Northern capitalists would be hamstrung by losing Southern cotton and Southern markets to English capitalists.
As the war dragged on, it became strategically obvious that all slaves had to be freed – both to take labor power away from the South’s economy, and to add men to the Union army.
Slaves had already been running away in huge numbers to Northern lines, demanding guns to fight their former masters. Throughout the South, on plantation after plantation, slaves ran away or outright refused to work. The movie briefly shows black soldiers, and they are treated with respect. But the movie ignores the power that black men and women exercised, as the laboring class of the South, to help determine their own fate.
The Civil War effectively was the Second American Revolution, destroying slavery, the heart of the social and economic system of the South. Four million slaves got their freedom, costing their “owners” about one hundred billion dollars in today’s money. The plantation economy was no longer to be a brake on the development of U.S. industrial capitalism.
Lincoln, a radical Republican, personified the interests of the developing Northern capitalist class. Their Civil War gave slaves the opening to struggle and win their freedom for themselves.
Regardless of the larger economic reasons for the war, and whatever its limitations, the Second American Revolution, led by Lincoln, did eliminate slavery as a system – even if it did not eliminate the racism associated with the development of capitalism itself. This Hollywood movie is worth seeing for the partial version it shows of that story.