Can the memory of Lincoln still unite a nation?

With Spielberg’s eagerly awaited film Lincoln set to hit cinema screens, Dani Garavelli explores an American legacy undiminished by flaws and contradictions

With Spielberg’s eagerly awaited film Lincoln set to hit cinema screens, Dani Garavelli explores an American legacy undiminished by flaws and contradictions

EVERY year millions of people make the pilgrimage to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. They wander through the Greek Doric temple, ponder on the powerful brevity of the Gettysburg Address and marvel at the huge marble figure of the 16th US president, who gazes inscrutably over the reflecting pool and towards the Washington Monument.

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Some come because the memorial is an iconic focal point for so much of US history – from the civil war to African-American contralto Marian Anderson’s defiant performance in 1939 (after she was banned from singing to an integrated audience by the Daughters of the American Revolution) to Martin Luther King’s era-defining “I have a Dream” speech. But most come because – regardless of their politics – they want to pay homage to the man who saved the Union and abolished slavery. Clutching their maps and their cameras, they are a physical testament to the enduring impact Abraham Lincoln has on the American psyche.

In part, this is because Lincoln – the first president to be assassinated – has the ability to be all things to all men. To conservatives, he is a capitalist – a vigorous supporter of the free market who backed rail expansion (as a prairie lawyer, he often fought the rail companies’ corner against the ­common man); to liberals, he is a defender of human rights. The great unifier, he has been eulogised by the communists who joined the Abraham Lincoln brigade in the fight against the fascist Spanish government in the 1930s and by the instigator of the anti-communist witchhunts, Senator Joseph McCarthy.

The factions competing to claim him as their own may ­offer differing interpretations of his ideas, but most agree on this: Lincoln was a great rhetorician and a highly skilled politician. Notwithstanding the efforts of some revisionists to recast him as a racist, Lincoln is always ranked in the top three US presidents in polls. And if he sometimes loses the top spot to Franklin D Roosevelt, that’s less a reflection of his shortcomings than an acknowledgement that his assassination robbed him of the chance to be tested in peace as well as war.

Such is the potency of the Lincoln myth that he has been used to lend credibility to many a subsequent presidency. When George Bush was leader, the emergency powers Lincoln had invoked during the Civil War (such as the suspension of habeas corpus which allowed him to arrest and detain thousands of suspected secessionists) were cited in defence of the Military Commissions Act 2006, used to the same effect in the War Against Terror. For his part, Barack Obama has actively invited comparisons with the Civil War president. Another self-made man who began his political career in ­Illinois, Obama launched his first presidential campaign from the steps of the State Capitol in Springfield – where Lincoln made his famous House Divided speech – and swore his oath on Lincoln’s ­bible. A fan of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book on Lincoln, Team Of Rivals, he admired the former president’s ability to recognise his fiercest opponents’ strengths and bring them on board after his election. Just as Lincoln appointed William Seward – his defeated rival for the presidential nomination – Secretary of State (a decision that was to pay off for him as Seward became an indispensable member of his coalition) so Obama appointed Hillary Clinton to the same position.

Now Steven Spielberg’s film, Lincoln, which is based on Kearns Goodwin’s book and which dominated the Oscar nominations last week – means his presidency is being scrutinised once more. As Daniel Day-Lewis brings his character to life on the big screen, the question is again being asked: Who was Lincoln, and how much did he actually care about the rights of the slaves whose freedom he secured?

Unlike the directors of previous movies, Spielberg has chosen not to try to tell Lincoln’s life story, but to focus on his efforts to push through the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery, as the Civil War drew to a close. Far from presenting the president as a beacon of morality, it examines the grubby horse-trading, compromises and ethical sleights of hand that were necessary to push this controversial piece of legislation through. More morally complex than its predecessors, it portrays Lincoln as a man of contradictions, a pragmatist, who knew how get things done. One of the accusations that is often levelled at Lincoln is that – though he opposed slavery, both in principle and because it adversely affected “free trade on free soil” – his top priority was to save the Union after the 10 southern states seceded.

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Two years after the Civil War began, he wrote: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.” But then Lincoln was the leader of a very shaky coalition which included radical Republicans, who wanted to see slavery abolished, and War Democrats, who didn’t, and he had to tread cautiously so as to keep all factions on board.

By the end, however, his views had changed. “He came to believe the huge killing of the Civil War could only be justified if it had a moral purpose – if slavery was abolished,” says Iwan Morgan, professor of US studies at the Institute of the Americas at University College London.

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By today’s standards, Lincoln was not an obvious choice for a presidential candidate; he was not good-looking and his voice, by all accounts, was high-pitched and nasal not deep and stentorian. He could be moody and suffered from bouts of severe depression. His family life was troubled and shaded with tragedy. With his wife Mary he had four children, only two of whom ­survived him. Mary, though often vivacious, suffered from mental illness, possibly bipolar ­disorder, and would sometimes embarrass him with her outbursts.

But he was a good raconteur, he enjoyed a joke, using ­humour to ease conflict and cement friendships, and he possessed a humility and generosity of spirit which made him reach out even to those who had wronged him. More­over he had a flair for words and a formidable intelligence which impressed everyone he came into contact with.

In the wake of the north’s victory and the reunification of the country, and particularly in the wake of his assassination at Ford’s Theatre by actor John Wilkes Booth, his stature grew. His death prompted a national outpouring of grief the likes of which had never been seen in the US before, and within 20 years he had achieved near mythic status by those in the north and south alike.

For almost 100 years, Lincoln was held in high esteem by the African-American population too. The NAACP (The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) was founded on the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth and in response to a race riot in his home town of Springfield, Illinois. And Martin Luther King saw in Lincoln –for all his flaws – a man as devoted to the cause of equality as any in the 19th century.

Yet even before King’s assassination, the mood had already begun to change. In 1960, Malcolm X said he believed Lincoln had deceived and tricked African-Americans. And then, in 1968, author Lerone Bennett wrote an essay in which he suggested the image of Lincoln as a champion of African- Americans was a pernicious falsehood perpetuated by white America.

Though former slave and ­social reformer Frederick Douglass, once said of Lincoln, “In his company I was never once reminded of my humble social origin nor my unpopular colour,” Bennett portrayed him as a racist who frequently used the N-word and who wanted to send the newly emancipated slaves back to Africa or to specially created colonies.

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He was particularly scathing about Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which abolished slavery only in those states which had seceded and were not under Union control and so, in effect, freed no one.

There is little doubt that Lincoln did use racist language but, says Professor Morgan, who also edited the book Presidents In The Movies: American History And Politics On Screen, it is important to contextualise. “On that colonisation project, Lincoln wasn’t proposing to get rid of everybody, but he was wondering what on earth would happen to four million emancipated slaves, would they all go north because he knew the south’s economy would be in tatters – what should be done with them?

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“And yes, you can find Lincoln talking about n****** lots of times, but you have to balance it up. This was a man of his time. I think he was always opposed to slavery. He didn’t necessarily believe in racial equality, but he did come to recognise that African-Americans had to be granted full ­legal and political citizenship rights.”

Morgan also points out that – though, in theory, the Emancipation Act didn’t free anyone – it did have a very significant impact. The realisation that if the north won they would be free led many slaves to run away and join the Union ­armies, while those who ­remained formed a kind of ­resistance.

Lincoln’s standing in American history has been artificially inflated, some would argue, by his assassination, which took place five days after commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia Robert E Lee’s surrender. With plans for reconstruction at their earliest stage, Lincoln had expressed his desire for a largely retribution-free process with those southerners prepared to swear allegiance to the Union and accept the new laws on slavery pardoned. In order to do so he would have had to keep the gung-ho radicals on the Republican party under control.

With his death, however, any hopes of real equality faded. His successor Andrew Jackson was a former slave owner. By the late 1870s, the north had effectively abandoned the blacks in the south. Segregation under the Jim Crow Laws had been introduced and, though the 14th and 15th amendment – which made it illegal to discriminate against or deny the vote to African -Americans, had been passed, loopholes were quickly found.

But would Lincoln have fared any better? “I think he would have great difficulty holding his political coalition together because he would have had to walk a middle line between those who wanted a very radical reconstruction of the south those who wanted a most minimal reconstruction and that would have left many people dissatisfied,” Morgan says.

No amount of admitting Lincoln’s limitations, however, is likely to dislodge Lincoln from his place in the popular affection. Any lingering doubts about Lincoln’s legitimacy as a hero were in any case largely expunged by Obama’s decision to draw on ideas first expressed by Lincoln about renewal, continuity and national unity during his first inaugural address in 2009.

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Spielberg’s film will no doubt offer a new perspective when it hits UK cinemas on January 25, but it is Obama who has so far given us the most convincing explanation as to why – despite his flaws and contradictions – Lincoln continues to inspire. “I am fully aware of his limited views on race,” he said in a Time Magazine essay in 2005, “But in the midst of slavery’s dark storm and the complexities of governing a house divided, he somehow kept his moral compass pointed firm and true.” «

Twitter: @DaniGaravelli1

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