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

Getty
Show Hide image

What can we learn from Liam Fox's book? (Or, at least, from the first chapter)

How Liam Fox helps us face the new era, using orcs, Socrates and his knowledge of general medicine.

It’s a weird and wacky world, people, and we reach for political theory as a way of understanding the myriad linkages – ideological, emotional – between collectives of all sorts and individuals. Reach for political theory, and more importantly political history, for surely it can only be through an understanding of history that we can hope to reach into the shaken-up snow-globe and make sure the itty-bitty little snowman doesn’t get blown to buggery by the winds of change? For profundities such as the above I am indebted, latterly, to Dr Liam Fox, the erstwhile defence minister and currently Theresa May’s International Trade supremo – latterly because I’m primarily indebted to civil servants in his new bailiwick who have revealed to Private Eye that Dr Fox has insisted that they buy his 2013 globalisation excursus, Rising Tides: Facing the Challenges of a New Era, if they want to do just that.

The Eye snarked that Dr Fox’s book had sold just 1,876 copies thus far, but in fact that’s a perfectly respectable sale for a title by a contemporary politician. Ask the residents of Southmoor in Essex how they feel about instantly remaindered political books – half the village disappeared last year into a sinkhole that opened up when thousands of copies of On a Clear Day by David Blunkett, which had been buried in an adjacent landfill, reached a critical point of putrefaction. Some might describe this as ironic, others as justice. Anyway, inspired by Dr Fox’s self-conviction, and wanting to know what we can expect from the man who will be guiding our destiny as a trading nation through the savage cross-currents in the coming years, I hied me to the Amazon cloud reader to read the free sample.

Some might say this was the act of a hack who cares naught for the intellectual property of other writers, and is not prepared to put in the hard work required to understand the full compass of Dr Fox’s thinking, but my view is that the man himself will sympathise with my raw intellectual hunger. So pithily apodeictic (though simultaneously lyrical) is his own writing, that I came away from the free sample richer, wiser, and well equipped to advance his ideas to New Statesman readers – for which I believe both he, and you, will be grateful.

So, I mentioned history earlier, but let the man himself tell you how important it is to him, and us. “I am not one of those who believes that history repeats itself in the most literal sense,” Dr Fox writes, “but I do believe that the types of problems we face are repeated in time and realm.” True, it’s hard to think which “those” he might be thinking of, beyond the character of Phil Connors in Groundhog Day, but otherwise I think this is positively seer-like stuff.

Dr Fox’s use of the slightly archaic “realm” in the above may have given you pause for thought. Masterful prose writer that he is, he is softening his readers up for what comes next: a quotation from that great chronicler of humankind’s history, J R R Tolkien. And this, if I interpret it rightly, suggests that when trying to understand the motivation of jihadists, our best guide is the psychology of, um, orcs. But the history of Middle Earth alone cannot supply wisdom – neither for concerned citizens nor for the elves who lead them. For that, we require additional professional expertise, and Dr Fox is once again our man. Like the great Socrates, upon whose method he has undoubtedly based his own, Dr Fox teases out the technê of statecraft by analogy with his own illustrious medical career, in which: “The first task was to gather all the data possible about the patient and their complaint.”

Yes! How true this is. It makes me think of a hypothetical patient (or politician) whose complaint is that although he once held one of the high offices of state – one that requires of its incumbent great probity and discretion – he nonetheless attended many important meetings accompanied by an adviser who had no security clearance, and who had extensive links to lobbyists for defence contractors. Further, it makes me hypothesise that this patient (or politician), set up a “charity” to fund the activities of this “adviser”, which in turn had to shut down because of a mephitic odour, which – were I to have Dr Fox’s training – I’d probably diagnose as symptomatic of rot. It’s true that Dr Fox cautions his readers to “skip over any detail which seems excessive”, but then again: “I believe history brings some context to the subjects covered, something I think is often missed in contemporary debate.” Yes; and if it were the case that the same hypothetical patient had overclaimed the most expenses of any Tory frontbencher – including the rent on a flat used by the aforementioned special adviser – well, that would seem to provide some context for understanding how he’d function were he, once more, to hold a high office of state.

These, it seems, are the sorts of things being missed by contemporary debate. It’s as if the result of the EU referendum in June hit some sort of hard reset in the British political system: everything was turned off and turned on again, and in the process we have indeed forgotten our history, and so, like Phil Connors, we are doomed to repeat it. Thank the Lord for Dr Fox, whose civil servants will by now have absorbed their new boss’s forensic credo. When he was a general practitioner, having dealt with his own patients’ history and placed their symptoms in the right context: “The third task was to determine the course of treatment in the light of best accepted practice and the most up-to-date information available.”

Hear, hear! Given that the most up-to-date information available is that our hypothetical patient-cum-politician is still mired in the rising tide of his own bullshit, the most advisable course of treatment would appear to be euthanasia. After all, Dr Fox isn’t one of those who believes that history literally repeats itself – so a second resignation is out of the question. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump