The recent Lincoln biopic by Steven Spielberg, with its masterful performance by Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role, has raised to a new level interest in the process whereby slaves achieved freedom during the Civil War. The film focuses on the events of January 1865, when Republican efforts led to passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution formally abolishing slavery throughout the United States. In the film Lincoln is anxious to get this passed as soon as possible, fearing that his 1863 Emancipation Proclamation might be overturned in the courts and convinced that the war would be concluded within the next month or two. Should members from southern states be readmitted to Congress he is rightly concerned that the body will not pass the amendment. Accordingly, Lincoln presses for passage of the amendment before the end of January, ensuring that freedmen could not be re-enslaved.
The unfolding of this drama is mesmerizing, and although we all know how it ends there are numerous twists and turns in the process of getting to the 13th amendment’s passage. One of the highlights of the film is Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones, returning home from Congress after the successful vote, taking the original document to show there. I won’t go any further with this description since it is one of the truly stellar moments of the film.
What I wanted to comment on, however, was not the film but the interpretation over time of the interplay between Lincoln, the various factions of Republican party, and the remaining Democrats in Congress in seeking racial justice. There has been considerable debate over the years of how best to situate Lincoln and his efforts on behalf of emancipation. There is no question that Lincoln and all members of the Republican party of the 1850s and 1860s opposed slavery and sought its end. The aggressiveness of that abolition, the method to be undertaken, whether or not slave owners would be compensated or not, and a host of other tactical issues might yield different positions but all Republicans opposed slavery.
At some level, it might be appropriate to conclude that Abraham Lincoln was essentially a moderate in this arena. In spite of his very real personal antipathy toward slavery, Lincoln moderated in his public statements because he could not afford to compromise his questionable popular base of support as president. As Lincoln wrote to newspaper editor Horace Greeley on August 22, 1862:
As to the policy I “seem to be pursuing” as you say, I have not meant to leave any one in doubt. I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.
Lincoln recognized that his administration’s ability to hold the nation together in the wake of southern secession was dependent upon his walking a narrow path of acceptability to a coalition of factions with sometimes divergent beliefs upon the slavery issue, that without enough support his position as president would be undermined and he would never be able to accomplish anything worthwhile. In spite of personal desires, it was a question for Lincoln of first things first.
At the same time, within a few short months Lincoln had taken action to end slavery as a war measure. As he said in his Second Annual Message to Congress on December 1, 1862: “Without slavery the rebellion could never have existed; without slavery it could not continue.” His decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation was at least in part a response to this situation.
For many interpreters, Lincoln was essentially a pragmatist. He moved when the time was “right” and not before. We might celebrate this caution or condemn it, depending on our perspective. Lincoln’s hesitancy placed him at odds with radicals in Congress, led by Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner, who argued for a ruthless prosecution of the war and a punishment of the South for its rebellion. They established a Committee on the Conduct of the War that pressed Lincoln daily about the aggressive prosecution of the war and punishment of the South.
The radicals were committed to the immediate ending of slavery, and to make it an early war aim. Thaddeus Stevens stated the case for the war as being prosecuted to end slavery in January 1862: “The occasion is forced upon us, and the invitation presented to strike the chains from four million of human beings,…to extinguish slavery on this whole continent; to wipe out, so far as we are concerned, the most hateful and infernal blot that has ever disgraced the escutcheon of man; to write a page in the history of the world whose brightness shall eclipse all the records of heroes and of sages.”
Lincoln refused to take such an aggressive and controversial approach. Not until nearly two years into the war did he issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which transformed the Civil War from an effort to preserve the union into a moral crusade to end slavery in the United States. This played into a larger national narrative about the United States being founded on a set of moral precepts in which all are created equal that had been somehow subverted through slavery. One might appropriately ask, how much less vigorous might the Union army have been had it not become the instrument of abolition and the quest for racial justice?
But was Lincoln really a moderate, or more of a radical than he has traditionally been given credit for? I like the book by Hans L. Trefousse, The Radical Republicans (Alfred A. Knopf, 1969), which argues that the radicals, with whom Lincoln jousted throughout the war were really Lincoln’s vanguard for racial justice. They served as lightning rods for the antislavery agenda that Lincoln and all members of his party sought. Having been elected to Congress from districts supportive of their aggressive abolitionism, the radicals served as “blocking backs” for Lincoln and made it possible for him to move out on the ending of slavery more readily than he would have been able to do otherwise; indeed by the fall of 1862 the path toward emancipation was clear.
This is an interpretation that is more in keeping with recent trends in the historiography of the Civil War. Based on Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, this film is quite reflective of the interpretation of Lincoln as far-thinking political strategist who mobilized the radical wing of his party to achieve his end of emancipation for all slaves for all time. We don’t see a lot of divergence over objectives by Lincoln and the radicals in Congress in this film, only over tactics and timing.
What do you think? How should we interpret the ending of slavery in the United States? This new Steven Spielberg film give us an opportunity to reconsider the place of Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 13th Amendment in the nation’s history.