Today we remember Lincoln as a great redeemer – and that should give Obama hope

Time for the 44th president to prove he can be the heir to the 16th.

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a spectacular movie – “less a biopic than a political thriller, a civics lesson . . . alive with moral energy”, in the words of the New York Times review. Sitting in a preview screening in Soho Square, I cried. I couldn’t help it: the story of how Lincoln pushed the Thirteenth Amendment through a divided House of Representatives in the space of just four months, thereby abolishing the institution of slavery for ever, only to be assassinated, was too moving and melodramatic for even this cynical writer to bear.

The film presents Lincoln as an eloquent and noble commander-in-chief, an intensely moral man and a champion of black America. In this sense, there is nothing new in Spielberg’s depiction of “Honest Abe”. Lincoln has long been considered the greatest ever leader of the United States; he is the Great Emancipator, Preserver of the Union, Redeemer President.

Spielberg joins a long line of Lincoln sanctifiers such as Leo Tolstoy, who breathlessly declared that “the greatness of Napoleon, Caesar or Washington is only moonlight by the sun of Lincoln”. His film is based in part on the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography (or hagiography?) Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

But is the Hollywood take on Lincoln – emancipator of the slaves, assuager of America’s racist past – the whole story? In a scathing letter to the Daily Telegraph on 12 January, the LSE historian Alan Sked wrote: “Abraham Lincoln was a racist who . . . had no intention of freeing slaves who freed themselves by fleeing to Unionist lines . . . Until the day he died, Lincoln’s ideal solution to the problem of blacks was to ‘colonise’ them back to Africa or the tropics.”

Back in 1978, the late left-wing historian Howard Zinn published his bestselling People’s History of the United States, which claimed that Lincoln “set out to fight the slave states in 1861, not to end slavery, but to retain [their] enormous national territory and market and resources”. Zinn quotes Lincoln at a debate in 1858, before he became president: “I am not, nor ever have been, in favour of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races . . . nor ever have been in favour of making voters or jurors of Negroes.” In the same year, Lincoln referred to “the superior position assigned to the white race”. (Zinn, incidentally, was building on the work of the African-American writer Lerone Bennet, who wrote a seminal article for Ebony magazine in 1968 entitled: “Was Abraham Lincoln a white supremacist?”.)

To be fair, the film makes clear that Lincoln was not an abolitionist; that role goes to the radical Pennsylvania congressman Thaddeus Stevens – played beautifully by a bombastic and bewigged Tommy Lee Jones. (Dear 20th Century Fox, please can we have a sequel to Lincoln called Thaddeus?)

Spielberg, however, glosses over Lincoln’s earlier, more odious views; the moist-eyed viewer comes away with an image of him as only a lifelong foe of racists and bigots.

So how do you square these two Lincolns, the Great Racist v the Great Emancipator? First, to hold Lincoln to the standards of the 20th or 21st centuries is absurd and unjust; indeed, the slave-turned-statesman Frederick Douglass, speaking only a decade after Lincoln’s death, conceded that the president may have “seemed tardy, cold, dull and indifferent” on abolishing slavery but, “measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical”.

Second, as the progressive Columbia University historian Eric Foner has argued, over the course of the civil war Lincoln “displayed a remarkable capacity for moral and political growth”. He may not have begun the conflict as an abolitionist but he ended it as one.

Indeed, as Lincoln wrote in April 1864, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” And in his last public speech, in April 1865, he called publicly for (limited) black suffrage – the first time, in Foner’s words, “an American president had endorsed any political rights for blacks”.

On the subject of “moral and political growth”, it is difficult in this, the week of Barack Obama’s inauguration, to avoid comparisons between these two presidents. Obama, like Lincoln, is a tall, skinny lawyer who served in the Illinois state legislature and ended up in the White House in part thanks to his awe-inspiring oratory. The 44th president of the United States sees himself as the heir to the 16th: Obama kicked off his first presidential campaign in 2007 in Lincoln’s home town of Springfield, Illinois, on the weekend of Lincoln’s birthday.

Last November, Obama held a screening of Lincoln at the White House and told Time: “Part of what Lincoln teaches us is that to pursue the highest ideals and a deeply moral cause requires you . . . get your hands dirty.”

The problem with Obama has been that, on a host of first-term issues, ranging from the deficit and financial reform to climate change and gun control, he didn’t merely fail to fight dirty – he didn’t put up a fight at all. Yet the president has kicked off his second term with a much more aggressive stance on gun control after the Newtown massacre, and refusing, on the economy, to be blackmailed by Republicans over the “fiscal cliff”. Obama has also nominated the arch-realist and Iran dove Chuck Hagel to be his defence secretary in the teeth of strong opposition from the pro-Israel lobby.

“We are still capable of great things, big things,” his senior adviser Valerie Jarrett told CNN on the day of the inauguration. As Lincoln showed with the Thirteenth Amendment, it takes only a matter of months to wipe the slate clean and earn a place in the pantheon of great American leaders. America – and the world – are waiting, Mr President.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and political director at the Huffington Post, where this article is crossposted.

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After Chavez

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All the Premiership teams are competing to see who’s got the biggest stadium

It’s not just a financial, but a macho thing – the big clubs want to show off that they have a whopper.

Here in NW5, where we live noisily and fashionably, we are roughly equidistant from Arsenal and Spurs. We bought the house in 1963 for £5,000, which I mention constantly, to make everyone in the street pig sick. Back in 1963, we lived quietly and unfashionably; in fact, we could easily have been living in Loughton, Essex. Now it’s all changed. As have White Hart Lane and Highbury.

Both grounds are a few metres further away from us than they once were, or they will be when White Hart Lane is finished. The new stadium is a few metres to the north, while the Emirates is a few metres to the east.

Why am I saying metres? Like all football fans, I say a near-miss on goal was inches wide, a slow striker is a yard off his pace, and a ball player can turn on a sixpence. That’s more like it.

White Hart Lane, when finished, will hold 61,000 – a thousand more than the Emirates, har har. Meanwhile, Man City is still expanding, and will also hold about 60,000 by the time Pep Guardiola is into his stride. Chelsea will be next, when they get themselves sorted. So will Liverpool.

Man United’s Old Trafford can now hold over 75,000. Fair makes you proud to be alive at this time and enjoying the wonders of the Prem.

Then, of course, we have the New Wembley, architecturally wonderful, striking and stunning, a beacon of beauty for miles around. As they all are, these brave new stadiums. (No one says “stadia” in real life.)

The old stadiums, built between the wars, many of them by the Scottish architect Archibald Leitch (1865-1939), were also seen as wonders of the time, and all of them held far more than their modern counterparts. The record crowd at White Hart Lane was in 1938, when 75,038 came to see Spurs play Sunderland. Arsenal’s record at Highbury was also against Sunderland – in 1935, with 73,295. Wembley, which today can hold 90,000, had an official figure of 126,000 for the first Cup Final in 1923, but the true figure was at least 150,000, because so many broke in.

Back in 1901, when the Cup Final was held at Crystal Palace between Spurs and Sheffield United, there was a crowd of 110,820. Looking at old photos of the Crystal Palace finals, a lot of the ground seems to have been a grassy mound. Hard to believe fans could see.

Between the wars, thanks to Leitch, big clubs did have proper covered stands. Most fans stood on huge open concrete terraces, which remained till the 1990s. There were metal barriers, which were supposed to hold back sudden surges, but rarely did, so if you were caught in a surge, you were swept away or you fell over. Kids were hoisted over the adults’ heads and plonked at the front.

Getting refreshments was almost impossible, unless you caught the eye of a peanut seller who’d lob you a paper bag of Percy Dalton’s. Getting out for a pee was just as hard. You often came home with the back of your trousers soaked.

I used to be an expert on crowds as a lad. Rubbish on identifying a Spitfire from a Hurricane, but shit hot on match gates at Hampden Park and Ibrox. Answer: well over 100,000. Today’s new stadiums will never hold as many, but will cost trillions more. The money is coming from the £8bn that the Prem is getting from TV for three years.

You’d imagine that, with all this money flooding in, the clubs would be kinder to their fans, but no, they’re lashing out, and not just on new stadiums, but players and wages, directors and agents. Hence, so they say, they are having to put up ticket prices, causing protest campaigns at Arsenal and Liverpool. Arsène at Arsenal has admitted that he couldn’t afford to buy while the Emirates was being built. Pochettino is saying much the same at Spurs.

It’s not just a financial, but a macho thing – the big clubs want to show off that they have a whopper. In the end, only rich fans will be able to attend these supergrounds. Chelsea plans to have a private swimming pool under each new box, plus a wine cellar. Just like our street, really . . . 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle