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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It’s obvious why Thais can’t resist our English footballers. But they want our schools, too

The only explanation is . . . our footer must be great and exciting to watch.

At Bangkok airport, sitting in the Club lounge, as I am a toff, I spotted a copy of Thailand Tatler, a publication I did not know existed. Flicking through, I came across a whole page advert announcing that RUGBY SCHOOL IS COMING TO THAILAND.

In September, Rugby will open a prep and pre-prep department, and then, in 2018, full boarding for ages up to 17. How exciting – yet another English public school sets up a satellite in Thailand.

But I was confused. Just as I was confused all week by the Thai passion for our football.

How has it happened that English public schools and English football have become so popular in Thailand? There is no colonial or historical connection between the UK and Thailand. English is not the Thais’ first language, unlike in other parts of the world such as India and Hong Kong. Usually that explains the continuation of British traditions, culture and games long after independence.

When I go to foreign parts, I always take a large wodge of Beatles and football postcards. I find deprived persons all over the world are jolly grateful for these modern versions of shiny beads – and it saves tipping the hotel staff. No young Thai locals were interested in my Beatles bits, but boy, my footer rubbish had them frothing.

I took a stash of seven-year-old postcards of Andy Carroll in his Newcastle strip, part of a set given away free in Barclays banks when they sponsored the Premier League. I assumed no one in Thailand would know who the hell Andy Carroll was, but blow me, every hotel waiter and taxi driver recognised him, knew about his various clubs and endless injuries. And they all seemed to watch every Premiership game live.

I have long been cynical about the boasts that our Prem League is the most watched, the most popular in the world, with 200 countries taking our TV coverage every week. I was once in Turkey and went into the hotel lounge to watch the live footer. It was chocka with Turks watching a local game, shouting and screaming. When it finished, the lounge emptied: yet the next game was our FA Cup live. So I watched it on my own. Ever since, I’ve suspected that while Sky might sell rights everywhere, it doesn’t mean many other folk are watching.

But in Thailand I could see their passion, though most of them have no experience of England. So the only explanation is . . . our footer must be great and exciting to watch. Hurrah for us.

Explaining the passion for English public schools is a bit harder. At present in Thailand, there are about 14 boarding schools based on the English public-school system.

Rugby is only the latest arrival. Harrow has had a sister school there since 1998. So do Shrewsbury, Bromsgrove and Dulwich College (recently renamed British International School, Phuket).

But then I met Anthony Lark, the general manager of the beautiful resort where I was staying in the north of the island. He’s Australian, been out there for thirty years, married to a Thai. All three of his sons went to the Phuket school when it was still Dulwich International College.

His explanations for the popularity of all these British-style schools included the fact that Thailand is the gateway to Asia, easy to get to from India and China; that it’s relatively safe; economically prosperous, with lots of rich people; and, of course, it’s stunningly beautiful, with lovely weather.

There are 200,000 British expats in Thailand but they are in the minority in most of these British-style public schools – only about 20 per cent of the intake. Most pupils are the children of Thais, or from the surrounding nations.

Many of the teachers, though, are from English-speaking nations. Anthony estimated there must be about five thousand of them, so the schools must provide a lot of work. And presumably a lot of income. And, of course, pride.

Well, I found my little chest swelling at the thought that two of our oldest national institutions should be so awfully popular, so awfully far away from home . . . 

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 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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