By Paul Roberts
The award of a record breaking third Oscar for best actor to Daniel Day Lewis for his title role in Spielberg’s Lincoln has drawn even more attention to the film than its epic subject matter was already attracting. Because the film focuses attention on such an enormous revolutionary class struggle it plays a progressive role. But it is a very partial reflection of the real character of the US Civil War.
The destruction of US slavery was a massive step in human emancipation. It ended one of history’s greatest crimes – the creation and results of the European slave trade. Achieving this required war between vested interests in the Southern US states on the one side, and an alliance of a number of interests on the other. The victims of slavery, Black people, made an alliance with white US small farmers, who feared the further expansion of large scale slavery, and sectors of northern US big capital that wanted to modernise the US economy through breaking the power of backward slave-based Southern cotton barons.
The brutal impact of that struggle was mainly borne by Black people themselves, millions of whom had died in slavery and who were the most determined part of the revolutionary struggle to destroy it in which hundreds of thousands died in the war.
The film focuses only on the final stages of this struggle – Lincoln’s efforts to get Congress to pass the US Constitution’s Thirteenth Amendment which formally outlawed slavery. It therefore only covers the period November 1864 to Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865.
The film opens as the Civil War is coming to an end. The North is assured of victory and the South facing final defeat. But to pass the Thirteenth Amendment in the House of Representatives required a two thirds majority, so Lincoln needed not just the votes of his party – the Republicans – but also some Democrat support.
The climax of the film is when the House votes 119 to 56 to pass the Amendment – achieving the two thirds majority by just a two vote margin.
Throughout this struggle Lincoln is depicted as the chief strategist of the Amendment campaign, challenging resistance within his own cabinet, deceiving conservative Republicans, bribing Democrats and even delaying the final peace negotiations, to achieve the vote on abolition.
This makes for a gripping narrative. But it does not capture the underlying reasons for the Civil War, and why the issue of the abolition of slavery was so central, which means looking at far more than the struggle over the thirteenth amendment in Congress.
The Civil War
The American Civil War was an immense conflict, convulsing the US for four years (1861–1865), and killing 2 per cent of its 30 million population – 6 million people in terms of the present population of the US.
Lincoln was first elected President in 1860 as a Republican – which was a new coalition that opposed the further spread of slavery, while not arguing for its abolition in the South. However, this was not acceptable to the slave-owning planters of the South, whose production methods continuously exhausted the soil, meaning they demanded the ability to expand into new territories.
This is why the Republican victory prompted such a determined response from the South, with the declaration of an independent Confederacy and the launch of a war against the North. The approach of the Southern political leadership was they would fight to the bitter end – in fact Confederate President Jefferson Davis never did surrender but was captured whilst on the run.
In contrast, initially the Northern states, dominated by big capital, were cautious and risk averse, unwilling to use revolutionary methods to destroy slavery.
The North had more than double the population – 21 million as against the South’s 9 million, 4 million of whom were slaves. Northern industry was even more dominant. It was capital intensive with superior technology, so could mass produce the most advanced weaponry.
Despite this huge superiority in resources, the North made little progress against the South in the first two years of war.
The Northern bourgeoisie wanted to defeat the South with the least radical struggle possible, so Lincoln’s initial war aims were not to directly attack slavery but limited to preservation of the union. In the fighting the North’s military leaders dithered in comparison to decisiveness from the South. Shamefully the Northern armies even initially returned ‘runaway’ slaves back to their Southern ‘owners’.
But despite the caution of the Northern industrialists, the two different systems of production – wage labour and chattel slavery – could no longer coexist. The radicalisation of the black population, and behind them their small white farmer allies, had to be utilised to secure the victory of the Northern industrialists.
By 1862 even the Northern bourgeoisie had concluded a more radical approach was necessary. Lincoln launched his Proclamation for the emancipation of the slaves, which meant that from 1863 Southern slaves escaping North would be free.
Marx wrote that this transformed the struggle from ‘the constitutional waging of war’ to ‘the revolutionary waging of war’. Marx’s writings on the class struggle in the American Civil War can be found here.
Marx had hailed the Civil War from the outset as a great bourgeois-democratic revolution, while being staunchly critical of Lincoln’s reluctance to attack slavery, arguing that the Northern struggle would have to radicalise to win by changing the basis of the war to the ending of slavery. The proclamation marked such a shift in Marx’s view.
Southern slavery was now to be destroyed both from within and without.
The proclamation encouraged slaves to desert the plantations. In the North the revolution armed the former slaves. A huge influx of Black forces joined the Northern armies – half a million former slaves took part in the military struggle. The impact was immense as African Americans were the most determined to crush the South.
The North’s military strategy became more decisive. Under its new Generals, Grant and Sherman, the Union army now burnt and destroyed anything useful to its enemy as it advanced through the South. The revolutionary energy of the black population, followed by the small white farmers (the petit bourgeois) in the central states allied with the Northern bourgeoisie, was now being utilised.
The Thirteenth Amendment
Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, that took effect in 1863, was issued under his Presidential war powers. It was therefore not permanent. The most secure way to enshrine abolition in law for after the war was to amend the US constitution.
In the film, isolated from the broader context, the implication could be drawn that this Congressional fight over the Amendment was the most pivotal part of the struggle to abolish slavery. This is false. It was the radicalisation of the struggle against the South – the key decision to frontally uproot slavery – that was the decisive moment in the struggle. The constitutional amendment was the result, not the cause, of the crushing of slavery.
Lincoln’s most important decision was that finally, after two years, he sanctioned the shift to revolutionary methods of struggle against the South, not the pushing through of the constitutional amendment – although this was of course necessary.
By having such a tight focus, the film bypasses the role played by African Americans in this struggle, and the few Black characters are just used to frame the film’s plot.
The resistance and rebellions of the slaves, alongside the Black freedom fighters such as Frederick Douglass, are not mentioned, nor the wider abolitionist movement.
Counter-revolution and reaction
When the Civil War ended, with slavery abolished, the bourgeoisie rapidly sought to halt the radicalisation in the South. The policy of ‘Radical Reconstruction’, the empowering of black people in the South, was rapidly abandoned. Reconciliation with the former Confederate leaders was pursued. And whilst slavery had been abolished, new forms of oppression of black people were introduced.
Former slaves in the South were subordinated under a new regime of violence, racism and exploitation. Southern states passed laws to secure a cheap supply of African American labour, with many imprisoned to provide convict labour. ‘Black Codes’, followed by ‘Jim Crow’ laws legalised economic, educational and social discrimination. Segregation was legalised for schools, public places and transportation. The politics of white supremacy was re-asserted.
Open segregation in the South, and covert segregation in almost all of the North continued for a century. It took another radical mobilisation, the US civil rights movement, to remove even the most blatant aspects of that segregation.
Because it will undoubtedly increase interest in this huge struggle Spielberg’s film, and Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal of Lincoln, are to be welcomed. But the film gives a very partial picture of the American Civil War. Its real dynamics and causes are not really addressed, and the scale of the struggle and sacrifice involved are not depicted. It does not even mention the US bourgeoisie’s turn to reaction after the ending of the Civil War and the defeat it inflicted on the struggle for black liberation that was emerging from the struggle against slavery.
But this is not a reactionary film. See it for a very partial understanding of this enormous struggle. Then go out and study the full story.