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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The UK is dangerously close to breaking apart - there's one way to fix it

We must rethink our whole constitutional settlement. 

When the then-Labour leader John Smith set up a report on social justice for what would be the incoming government in 1997, he said we must stop wasting our most precious resource – "the extraordinary skills and talents of ordinary people".

It is one of our party’s greatest tragedies that he never had the chance to see that vision put into practice. 

At the time, it was clear that while our values of equality, solidarity and tolerance endured, the solutions we needed were not the same as those when Labour was last in power in the 1970s, and neither were they to be found in the policies of opposition from the 1980s. 

The Commission on Social Justice described a UK transformed by three revolutions:

  • an economic revolution brought about by increasing globalisation, innovation and a changing labour market
  • a social revolution that had seen the role of women in society transformed, the traditional family model change, inequality ingrained and relationships between people in our communities strained
  • a political revolution that challenged the centralisation of power, demanded more individual control and accepted a different role for government in society.

Two decades on, these three revolutions could equally be applied to the UK, and Scotland, today. 

Our economy, society and our politics have been transformed even further, but there is absolutely no consensus – no agreement – about the direction our country should take. 

What that has led to, in my view, is a society more dangerously divided than at any point in our recent history. 

The public reject the status quo but there is no settled will about the direction we should take. 

And instead of grappling with the complex messages that people are sending us, and trying to find the solutions in the shades of grey, politicians of all parties are attached to solutions that are black or white, dividing us further. 

Anyone in Labour, or any party, who claims that we can sit on the margins and wait for politics to “settle down” will rightly be consigned to history. 

The future shape of the UK, how we govern ourselves and how our economy and society should develop, is now the single biggest political question we face. 

Politics driven by nationalism and identity, which were for so long mostly confined to Scotland, have now taken their place firmly in the mainstream of all UK politics. 

Continuing to pull our country in these directions risks breaking the United Kingdom once and for all. 

I believe we need to reaffirm our belief in the UK for the 21st century. 

Over time, political power has become concentrated in too few hands. Power and wealth hoarded in one corner of our United Kingdom has not worked for the vast majority of people. 

That is why the time has come for the rest of the UK to follow where Scotland led in the 1980s and 1990s and establish a People’s Constitutional Convention to re-establish the UK for a new age. 

The convention should bring together groups to deliberate on the future of our country and propose a way forward that strengthens the UK and establishes a new political settlement for the whole of our country. 

After more than 300 years, it is time for a new Act of Union to safeguard our family of nations for generations to come.

This would mean a radical reshaping of our country along federal lines where every component part of the United Kingdom – Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions – take more responsibility for what happens in their own communities, but where we still maintain the protection of being part of a greater whole as the UK. 

The United Kingdom provides the redistribution of wealth that defines our entire Labour movement, and it provides the protection for public finance in Scotland that comes from being part of something larger, something good, and something worth fighting for. 

Kezia Dugdale is the leader of the Scottish Labour party.