Lincoln: the Film, the Man

Lincoln , Stephen Spielberg’s latest offering, hit US cinemas in October 2012 and opened in Britain in Jan 2013. From the outset, Hollywood was gearing up to declare it an epic – and at 2 ½ hours, it is certainly long. Early in the award season, it earned a ‘best actor’ Golden Globe for Daniel Day Lewis, and was nominated for a crop of Oscars.

In the event, Spielberg failed to secure the best director award, and lost the best picture award to Argot – an anti-Iranian ‘ patriotic tub-thumper’ that also fits well with the current US imperial agenda, of subverting sovereign governments in the Middle East. Lewis did however receive an Oscar – his third ‘best actor’ title – for his portrayal of Lincoln. This was recognition for his personal talents, no doubt, but also recognition of the propaganda value of Lincoln, the movie, perpetuating as it does, one of the great myths of American Freedom – that Lincoln freed the slaves.

We are asked to recognise this great act of liberation as the benevolent crusade of an equally great, wise and altruistic father of modern America, who goes so far as to quote Euclid in alluding his deeply held belief in the equality, we are led to infer, of black and white. ” Two things which are equal to the same thing must also be equal to each other.

But its no accident that we are being treated to a dramatisation of this, one of the great founding myths of American ‘democracy’, from which the US colossus draws its ‘moral right’ to enforce its cultural, economic and military domination of the world – precisely as the US population reels under the effects of economic crisis, and wavers in its support for colonial campaigns against ‘lesser’ nations.

We note, in passing, that the storyteller is the same Spielberg whose great narrative of WW2 was not a moving portrayal of the heroic and crushing blow dealt to Nazism by the self-sacrificing Soviet people and Red Army – incidentally saving not only socialism, but civilisation, democracy, Europe, tens of millions of Slavs and several million Jews, as well as ushering in a period of universal upsurge in individual freedom and colonial liberation. Rather, he was inspired by the benevolence of a German capitalist – one Herr Schindler – who, although engaged in profiteering from wehrmacht war contracts, warm-heartedly saved several hundred of his Jewish slave-labourers – by not quite working them to death! Likewise, our criticism of Lincoln, the movie, rests not so much on what’s included, as what is omitted from the narrative.

The American Civil War and Slavery – battle lines

The film runs its course in 1864-5, the final year of the American Civil War. Abraham Lincoln has been re-elected to his second term as US President by a landslide majority and the drama revolves around his legislative campaign to enact the 13th amendment to the US constitution – to abolish Slavery – and its interplay with the politics of an all-consuming Civil War.

The opening scene is perhaps the most evocative. Lincoln sits at night, under the awning of an elevated platform and discusses the fortunes of the Union with soldiers shipping out to one of the last major battles of the Civil War; the Union assault on Wilmington, North Carolina.

Wilmington was the last great naval port of the confederacy to fall, completing the naval blockade of the South and isolating the confederacy from its conservative supporters in Europe – notably, the British ruling class, whose Lancashire cotton mills had derived eighty percent of their raw cotton from the slave-holding southern states. [We note in passing, that British cotton workers, by contrast, despite enduring famine in the war years, were firmly with the Union, and for abolition, and held tempestuous meetings inviting abolitionist firebrands to speak.]

The powerful Northern Union, by contrast, led by the USA’s foremost industrial capitalists, had developed its industry to a point were the skill required of its working class could no longer be furnished by the forced labour of slaves, and its manufacturers were already presenting themselves on the international market as competitors to British capital.

Freedom for whom?

Lincoln is depicted expressing his admiration of the courage of the (116th US) coloured infantry to a mild mannered black private, Harold Green, and a straight-talking corporal, Ira Clarke.

The latter raises his objection to the discriminatory conditions of the coloured troops, their unequal pay for the first two years of fighting, from which – unlike their white comrades in arms – they also had to buy their own uniforms, and the fact that there are no coloured officers. ” I am aware of that, Corporal Clark,” replies Lincoln.

It’s good that you are aware of it, but what do you propose to do about it?” He asks. “Now that white people have accustomed themselves to seeing negro men with guns fighting on their behalf, and now that they can tolerate negro soldiers getting equal pay, maybe in a few years they can abide idea of negro lieutenants and captains; in 50 years maybe a negro colonel; and in 100 years the vote ?”

His prognosticating was, tragically, over-optimistic. Despite the great sacrifices of America’s black population, and their signal, even decisive contribution to the Union’s victory, their reward was to be ephemeral and illusory. 100 years later, the South remained immersed in black poverty bordering on peonage, political disenfranchisement, and social segregation enforced by ‘Jim Crow’ laws and a compliant federal supreme court. Despite an emerging civil rights movement, in 1964 the racist legacy of slavery was patently in full force, and arguably exerts its influence until the present – notwithstanding the recent election of a black man to the White House. The reasons for this become apparent when one examines the conduct and motivations of the warring parties, North and South.

The northern elite wanted economic expansion – free land, free labour, a free market, a high protective tariff for manufacturers, a bank of the United States. The slave interests opposed all that; they saw Lincoln and the republicans as making continuation of their pleasant and prosperous way of life impossible in the future.” [1]

Free , that is, for exploitation by the moneyed capitalist elite. ” But un-heroic as bourgeois society is, it nevertheless took heroism, sacrifice, terror, civil war and the battles of nations to bring it into being .” [2]

Lincoln’s discourse with these historically anonymous soldiers, is interrupted by young white soldiers, who gush like groupies around the unassuming, but deeply confident Lincoln, telling him they were present at the Gettysburg Address and reciting it, verbatim:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal …” [Thus far, the declaration of independence]

Lincoln: That’s good. Thank you.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war

Lincoln: Thank you.

We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is …”

The bugle calls the soldiers to fall in, and as they ship out, the coloured corporal finishes his lines:

That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth .”

Thus Spielberg sets the scene, and consciously or not, strikingly illustrates the different meaning of those often quoted words to so deeply divided a society, built as it was (and is) from top to bottom on the edifice of exploitation: of wage labour by Union capital on the one hand and on the other, by the Confederacy’s savage enslavement and exploitation of African-Americans by a ‘southern’ plutocracy of slave-planters.

After this fleeting allusion, however, little mention is made in Spielberg’s film of the political role that Afro-Americans played in winning their liberty, or indeed of fighting the civil war to a victorious conclusion.

By the Civil War’s end 178,958 African Americans – one fifth of black male adults under 45, a tenth of the Union army – had proven their courage in 449 engagements and 39 major battles, earning 22 Medals of Honor. Another 29,511 constituted a fourth of the (integrated!) Union Navy. And Black volunteers enlisted when the Confederacy had no reserves, faced mounting desertions, frontline casualties and bread riots at home. As early as August 1864, Lincoln had written that without his African American soldiers he would have been ‘compelled to abandon the war in three weeks’ .”[3]

Although the civil war was triggered by Lincoln’s election, he made it quite clear that his prime motivation was to save the territorial integrity of the US – North and South, within a single Union – at any cost. Indeed he regarded the entire conflict from this legal standpoint, never recognising the legitimacy of southern secession.

Though he spoke in his electoral campaign (albeit abstractly, and inconsistently) about his moral repugnance for slavery, Lincoln was married to a large slave-owner’s daughter and, like the majority of white Americans, did not believe in the equality of black and white. In his 1860 inaugural address, he frankly admitted: ” I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.

And further, answering a letter in the New York Tribune in 1862, with the civil war already raging: ” My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save the Union by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the coloured race, I do because it helps to save this Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help save the Union … I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty, and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men, everywhere, could be free [1]

Lincoln presides over a Republican party split between abolitionist radicals and conservatives. The radicals are exemplified and led by Thaddeus Stevens (played ably by Tommy Lee Jones), who in the film cohabits with his black ‘housekeeper’ – as close an institution to inter-racial marriage as could be conceived in America at that time.

Stevens, one of history’s most maligned figures, had the power to infuriate and a tongue that reduced political foes to quivering self-doubt. On two occasions he had to fend off knife-wielding fellow Congressmen. In 1863 Jubal Early detoured his Confederate cavalry from Gettysburg so they could burn down his iron foundry in Chambersburg .

The real Stevens stood with abolitionists and pledged to “fight against slavery until Hell freezes over and then continue the battle on the ice.” He defended fugitive slaves in court, used his home as an Underground Railroad station, and was a staunch egalitarian. He also practiced what he preached: he worked with African Americans, had an African American common law wife, and asked to be buried in Lancaster’s only integrated cemetery. He and Senator Charles Sumner led Congress’s effort to free slaves, grant them equal pay as soldiers, and pass the 13th Amendment. In 1867 Stevens, father of the 14th Amendment, died short of his life’s goal: a democratic South ruled not by a planter elite but former slave and poor white voters owning “40 acres and a mule .” [3]

This latter demand was to become one of the Black Panther Party’s key “10 point program” demands: reparations for the enslavement, exploitation and long suffering black population of America. It is the kind of demand that cannot be granted by monopoly capitalism, and one that, rooted in American history, had profound and revolutionary resonance.

The Bostonian conservative wing of republicanism, by contrast, grow weary of the war, wishing above all things, to secure peace – and frankly care not a jot about the abolition of slavery. Indeed many openly assert their belief in white supremacy and the god-given nature of Negro enslavement. They urge Lincoln, in the latter days of the war, and prior to the passage of the 13th amendment, to invite a high profile confederate delegation to Washington to negotiate peace – on the basis of the preservation both of the southern plantocracy and their mode of production – capitalist slavery.

The film faithfully depicts Lincoln walking a tightrope between these two factions, determined to secure the passage of the amendment in the House of Representatives, using the means at his disposal – his own divided party, in addition to which he needs to secure 20 opposition ‘democrat’ votes.

By Lincoln’s own admission, the war was not about slavery – but about economic supremacy. His aim was to consolidate US production on the new and more profitable capitalist lines, winning the internal market for US manufacturers, and guaranteeing the huge territory of the USA as a base from which to project the country’s growing economic and military power. A decisive victory over the south was paramount.

But wars cannot be fought without willing troops. Many working-class white troops were deeply disaffected by conscription (and angry with the wealthy elite, who avoided it by the simple expedient of a $300 cash fee,) and antipathetic to the plight of their black countrymen.

But the zeal with which freed slaves and abolitionists joined the Union cause was shifting the whole landscape of struggle. The war propelled events by its own internal logic, and despite Lincoln’s will, and the endemic racism of the majority of the American people, the increasingly powerful voice and actions of the abolitionists, and above all, the clear demands and interests of the black population – slave and freeman – forced Lincoln from this delicate balancing act, towards eventual advocacy of the 13th amendment.

William Loren Katz, lecturer at New York University, and scholar of African American History, points out, in his brilliant review of the film, that Once ‘Lincoln’ concentrates on the 13th Amendment, important details beg for inclusion but, unfortunately, are absent. Senator Charles Sumner is mentioned once and Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony – who led campaigns to win over the public’s hearts and minds – do not appear. Only Lincoln is left standing . . . the sole hero.

“Also missing is the vital, rarely revealed, back-story. For two years Lincoln struggled only ‘to save the Union.’ Not only did he refuse to challenge slavery, but he also ordered Union officers to deny a haven to runaway slave families whose members had fled to Union lines.

“Then the ground beneath the President shifted. The sight of U.S. troops triggered slave stampedes to freedom, rebuking the planters’ myth of the happy, loyal, slave and igniting clashes between soldiers in Union camps and the Confederate officers who arrived to brutally reclaim runaways. Indeed, the Black urge for liberty turned the Confederacy’s greatest asset into its worst nightmare: an enemy within. ‘To see a black face was to find a true heart,’ reported Union soldiers caught behind enemy lines.”

No wonder that socialists and progressives – abolitionists and socialists, from near and far, including Karl Marx and the International Working-Men’s Association – rejoiced in the Union’s cause. Here was real movement, real progress. Notwithstanding the clear differences between Marx, whose bold words ” Labour in the white skin cannot be free if in the black it is branded“, contrasted so sharply with the reticent statements of Lincoln – it was clear that events on the ground were outstripping Lincoln’s modest position on slavery.

The actions of slaves began to dismantle the plantation system. The Confederacy was left without the thousands of slave labourers upon whose backs the agricultural oligarchy had rested. Abolitionist agitators used this news to broadcast a louder wake-up call to white northerners. Meanwhile, Lincoln’s officers reported ‘contrabands’ in their camps wanted to help as nurses, cooks, servants, construction workers, launderers, and blacksmiths. Some were eager to serve as spies and soldiers. This news also reached a war-weary northern public fearful they would find the names of their drafted fathers, brothers and uncles in the weekly Union casualty lists.

The most dramatic changes came first in the West. In the Indian Territory, only months after Fort Sumter, 10,000 African Americans, Native people and some southern whites battled Confederate armies. Survivors then fought their way to Kansas, where the young men among them joined unofficial Union units. Commanding those units were abolitionist officers who had gained military training a few years before riding with John Brown in Kansas. In the West, a multicultural Union army fought a type of war Lincoln had not ordered: They liberated enslaved people in Missouri .” (ibid.)

The fact is that the slave-holding south had been a fortified military encampment throughout its slave-owning history. “In 1831 [20 years before the outbreak of the civil war], Virginia was an armed and garrisoned state… With a total population of 1,211,405, the state of Virginia was able to field a militia force of 101,488 men, including cavalry, artillery, grenadiers, riflemen, and light infantry! It is an astonishing commentary on the state of the public mind of the time. During a period when neither the State or the nation faced any sort of external threat, we find that Virginia felt the need to maintain a security force roughly ten percent of the total number of its inhabitants: black and white, male and female, slave and free! [4]

The threat, of course, necessitating so massive an apparatus of state repression, was the internal contradiction between exploited and exploiter, and the ever-present spectre of slave revolt, which periodically shook southern white ‘society’. The extent of the militarisation reflected the extreme violence of the slaveholders’ repressive and coercive methods, and the implicit recognition of the barely-latent anger and just desire for retribution embodied in every slave. The civil war furnished, at last, the opportunity for the mass of enslaved African Americans to act out their long cherished desires to attain freedom; and the strength of their conviction made them powerful foes – and powerful friends.

In the words of Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery at 15 and became one of the most famous conductors of the underground railroad – leading escaped slaves to freedom in the north: ” There was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other; for no man should take me alive. I should fight for liberty as long as my strength lasted .

William Katz furnishes further examples: “The Deep South faced new problems. In May 1862 in Charleston, South Carolina enslaved seaman Robert Smalls was thinking that his Confederate battleship, Planter, ‘might be of some use to Uncle Abe.’ One night, after the white officers had left, Smalls and his enslaved crew led their families aboard, sailed out of Charleston harbor and surrendered to the Union fleet. Smalls became Captain of the Planter, now a ship of the U.S. Navy. In light of fast-moving events white people began to reconsider their assumptions.

“In 1862, Congress took note of the runaways’offers of help and abolitionist pressure with two Confiscation Acts. These laws opened the door to emancipation and the service of black troops. Finally, President Lincoln acted. As a ‘military necessity,’ he announced, ‘We must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued.’ On January 1, 1863 Abraham Lincoln became ‘the Great Emancipator’ – by performing one of history’s great catch-ups. Four months later he admitted as much: ‘I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.'”

This, in fact, is an admirable expression of the greatness of the man – that he was prepared to recognise and champion the moving spirit of the time, and enact its demands though they were not his own.

However, ” after the first scene, the only people of color who appear are pleasant, taciturn servants. Gloria Reuben plays Mrs. Lincoln’s quiet, subdued servant, Elizabeth Keckley. The real Mrs. Keckley purchased her freedom, that of her son and sent the son to college (he volunteered and died in battle). She was an accomplished seamstress who served the households of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee before the Lincoln White House, where she became a confidant of Mrs. Lincoln. She also organized the Contraband Relief Society that aided thousands of wartime runaways with donations from the Lincolns, prominent whites and free African Americans. In 1867 she published her Memoir.

“During January 1865 Lincoln welcomed some dynamic African Americans to the White House but they do not appear on screen. Among them were Martin R. Delany, whom he characterized as ‘a most extraordinary and intelligent man’ and had him appointed a Major, the highest-ranking Black Union officer. Today, Delany is considered the father of Black Nationalism. Three times the President met with ‘my good friend Douglass.’ History knows him as Frederick Douglass: runaway slave, noted speaker, author and editor, an early champion of women’s rights, and the foremost recruiter of African American troops. Lincoln regarded Douglass as one of his chief advisors and told him ‘there’s no man’s opinion I value more than yours.’ Some scholars consider Douglass the greatest American reformer of the 19th century. ” (ibid.)

Douglass’ omission from the film is perhaps understandable, when one reflects on his life’s work, championing the interests of the downtrodden and oppressed masses. In 1852, he gave a most stirring and poignant challenge to America’s ruling class in his Independence Day Address:

What to the American slave is the Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery ; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy – a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation of the earth guilty of practises more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour .

Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practises of this nation, and you will say with me that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival !” [5]

Looking at the origins of US imperialism, we can see whence came its current abuses. Not the stuff of self-serving Hollywood legend.

By overlooking the contributions of Keckley, Delany, Douglass and millions of others who helped end human bondage and win the war, Spielberg makes a white Congress and President the sole creators of history. This is not the evidence provided by the Civil War, nor is it the way Lincoln understood his march to freedom and victory .

Early on, Abraham Lincoln was a frontier lawyer who told ‘darkey stories’ and a Senate candidate who endorsed white supremacy. As President, he returned runaways to their owners and hoped freed slaves would leave the country. He rejected the reasoning of white and African American activists and resented their harsh language.

Later on, he began to listen, learn and change. And much to his credit, he never retreated from any advanced position he had previously taken. When he finally, finally advocated the right of black veterans and educated men of color to vote, he became the first modern President.

Sadly, this ‘Honest Abe,’ along with many known and unknown African Americans and their white allies, failed to make the movie’s final cut. Yet as runaways, soldiers and anti-slavery agitators they helped determine the course of a war, shaped public opinion, pressed Congress to pass laws and Constitutional Amendments, and altered the thinking and actions of America’s greatest icon. ” (ibid.)

Lincoln’s great work apparently accomplished, the film ends with his assassination, that familiar tool of the Modern American state. And again, we must reflect on why this film was brought to us now? The fact is that the US needs to paint itself as a great benefactor, democrat and liberator, to save its own conscience as much as to prop up its great national myth which is rapidly losing all global currency, as the dollar does likewise.

The briefest glance at American history, told in any objective measure, shows it in a very different light. Howard Zinn’s excellent People’s history of the United States illustrates only too clearly how Europe’s entire history in the Americas originated in genocide most foul, was built up and perpetuated by another genocide – slavery – and that slavery itself was abolished only in order to further extend the power and privilege of America’s monopoly capitalist elite on a new and grander, global scale.[1] It is that same monopoly capitalist class that is behind the lion’s share of global exploitation, propping up corrupt and undemocratic states that will serve its interests, while destabilising and subverting democratic nations that refuse its hegemony.

As for the liberated African American slaves themselves, a brief respite period of ‘Black Reconstruction’ followed the civil war, in which some freed slaves were able to break the shackles of their penury, gain access to limited parcels of land and a certain degree of political freedom. But congressional policy, approved by Lincoln, was to return the confiscated property of southern rebels to their confederate heirs.

Ex-slave Thomas Hall told the Federal Writers Project: ” Lincoln got the praise for freeing us, but did he do it? He gave us freedom without the chance to live to ourselves and we still had to depend on the southern white man for work, food, and clothing, and he held us out of necessity and want in a state of servitude but little better than slavery [1]

Certain states permitted black voting and a handful of southern black congressmen and senators were elected, but after a brief period lasting perhaps two decades, the rights of Afro-Americans were rolled back, as the northern and southern elites once again allied themselves, under the leadership of the northern industrialists. The lasting legacy of slavery was to be the enduring poverty of the majority of African Americans, and their preponderance among the lowest layers of the exploited working class.

In 1868, just 3 years after the end of the civil war, Georgia voted to expel all its Negro members from the state legislature. Henry MacNeal Turner, an elected member, spoke powerfully against the rising tide of renewed racism in the south, and the proposed expulsion: ” I wish the members of this house to understand the position that I take. I hold that I am a member of this body. Therefore, sir, I shall neither fawn or cringe before any party, nor stoop to beg them for my rights… I am here to demand my rights, and to hurl thunderbolts at the men who would dare to cross the threshold of my manhood…

Why sir, though we are not white, we have accomplished much. We have pioneered civilisation here; we have built up your country; we have worked in your fields, and garnered your harvests, for two hundred and fifty years! And what do we ask in return? Do we ask you for compensation for the sweat our fathers bore you – for the tears you have caused, and the hearts you have broken, and the lives you have curtailed, and the blood you have spilled? Do we ask retaliation? We ask it not .We are willing to let the dead past bury its dead; but we ask you now for our RIGHTS!” [1]

The words are a powerful expression of the profound justice of the cause of the oppressed, and a foretaste of the sentiments expressed by the civil rights movement. They particularly call to mind Paul Robeson’s testimony given before the House Committee for Un-American Affairs.

Ultimately, the descendants of the Fairfaxes of Virginia, with their millions of acres of land, and large capitalist farms, proved more powerful and natural allies for the monopoly capitalists of the north than the freed slaves. They won the withdrawal of Confederate troops from the south and legal concessions allowing them to roll out social apartheid.

America’s southern black population were economically forced into peonage in the south for the very same former slave-holding, exploiting class, often on the same plantations and with scarcely any improvement in their conditions. The racist southern plantocracy organised the Ku Klux Klan to subordinate the black population, enlisting poor whites as their foot-soldiers, and in so doing binding the poor whites also to their exploiting masters, as Harry Stanley and Malcolm X would later point out.

W E B Du Bois wrote of that time that ” God wept, but that mattered little to an unbelieving age; what mattered most was that the world wept and is still weeping and blind with tears and blood. For there began to rise in America in 1876 a new capitalism, and a new enslavement of labour .”

And regarding emerging US imperialism: ” Home labour in cultured lands, appeased and misled by a ballot whose power the dictatorship of vast capital strictly curtailed, was bribed by high wage and political office to unite in an exploitation of white, yellow, brown and black labour, in lesser lands “. [6]

Frederick Douglass, dedicated the Freedmen’s Monument in Memory of Abraham Lincoln at Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C. on April 14, 1876 with frank criticism, but over-riding praise for the greatness of the deed facilitated by Lincoln.

It must be admitted, truth compels me to admit, even here in the presence of the monument we have erected to his memory, Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man .

He was pre-eminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men. He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country. In all his education and feeling he was an American of the Americans. He came into the Presidential chair upon one principle alone, namely, opposition to the extension of slavery. His arguments in furtherance of this policy had their motive and mainspring in his patriotic devotion to the interests of his own race. To protect, defend, and perpetuate slavery in the states where it existed Abraham Lincoln was not less ready than any other President to draw the sword of the nation. He was ready to execute all the supposed guarantees of the United States Constitution in favor of the slave system anywhere inside the slave states. He was willing to pursue, recapture, and send back the fugitive slave to his master, and to suppress a slave rising for liberty, though his guilty master were already in arms against the Government…

“But while Abraham Lincoln saved for you a country, he delivered us from a bondage, according to Jefferson, one hour of which was worse than ages of the oppression your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose.

“Fellow-citizens, ours is no new-born zeal and devotion-merely a thing of this moment. The name of Abraham Lincoln was near and dear to our hearts in the darkest and most perilous hours of the Republic…

“Our faith in him was often taxed and strained to the uttermost, but it never failed. When he tarried long in the mountain; when he strangely told us that we were the cause of the war; when he still more strangely told us that we were to leave the land in which we were born; when he refused to employ our arms in defense of the Union; when, after accepting our services as colored soldiers, he refused to retaliate our murder and torture as colored prisoners; when he told us he would save the Union if he could with slavery; when he revoked the Proclamation of Emancipation of General Fremont; when he refused to remove the popular commander of the Army of the Potomac, in the days of its inaction and defeat, who was more zealous in his efforts to protect slavery than to suppress rebellion; when we saw all this, and more, we were at times grieved, stunned, and greatly bewildered; but our hearts believed while they ached and bled…

We came to the conclusion that the hour and the man of our redemption had somehow met in the person of Abraham Lincoln. It mattered little to us what language he might employ on special occasions; it mattered little to us, when we fully knew him, whether he was swift or slow in his movements; it was enough for us that Abraham Lincoln was at the head of a great movement, and was in living and earnest sympathy with that movement, which, in the nature of things, must go on until slavery should be utterly and forever abolished in the United States

“Under his rule, and in due time, about as soon after all as the country could tolerate the strange spectacle, we saw our brave sons and brothers laying off the rags of bondage, and being clothed all over in the blue uniforms of the soldiers of the United States; under his rule we saw two hundred thousand of our dark and dusky people responding to the call of Abraham Lincoln, and with muskets on their shoulders, and eagles on their buttons, timing their high footsteps to liberty and union under the national flag; under his rule we saw the independence of the black republic of Haiti, the special object of slave-holding aversion and horror, fully recognized, and her minister, a coloured gentleman, duly received here in the city of Washington; under his rule we saw the internal slave-trade, which so long disgraced the nation, abolished, and slavery abolished in the District of Columbia; under his rule we saw for the first time the law enforced against the foreign slave trade, and the first slave-trader hanged like any other pirate or murderer; under his rule, assisted by the greatest captain of our age, and his inspiration, we saw the Confederate States, based upon the idea that our race must be slaves, and slaves forever, battered to pieces and scattered to the four winds; under his rule, and in the fullness of time, we saw Abraham Lincoln, after giving the slave-holders three months’ grace in which to save their hateful slave system, penning the immortal paper, which, though special in its language, was general in its principles and effect, making slavery forever impossible in the United States. Though we waited long, we saw all this and more.

“Can any colored man, or any white man friendly to the freedom of all men, ever forget the night which followed the first day of January, 1863, when the world was to see if Abraham Lincoln would prove to be as good as his word? I shall never forget that memorable night, when in a distant city I waited and watched at a public meeting, with three thousand others not less anxious than myself, for the word of deliverance which we have heard read today. Nor shall I ever forget the outburst of joy and thanksgiving that rent the air when the lightning brought to us the emancipation proclamation. In that happy hour we forgot all delay, and forgot all tardiness , forgot that the President had bribed the rebels to lay down their arms by a promise to withhold the bolt which would smite the slave-system with destruction; and we were thenceforward willing to allow the President all the latitude of time, phraseology, and every honourable device that statesmanship might require for the achievement of a great and beneficent measure of liberty and progress.

“I have said that President Lincoln was a white man, and shared the prejudices common to his countrymen towards the colored race… Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined. [7]

In the last analysis, only an end to all exploitation can remove humanity’s legacy of injustice; can wipe the slate clean. But all progress in the direction of emancipation will be generously remembered by history. Communists and progressives must never forget that all progress, all concessions to liberty and social justice are the fruit of struggle – and the more conscious the struggle, the swifter and greater the rewards.

In the earlier words of Douglass, speaking in 1857: ” The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of struggle… If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favour freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without ploughing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning… Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will .”[1]


[1]. Zinn H. A people’s history of the United States. Harper perennial modern classics: New York, 2003.

[2] Marx K. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Foreign Languages Press: Peking, 1978.

[3] Katz WL. Lincoln, the Movie. Portside 2012(December): Week 3.

[4] Tragle HI. The Southampton Slave Revolt of 1831. 1973.

[5] Douglass F. My Bondage and My Freedom. 1855.

[6] DuBois WEB. Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880. 1 Dec 1999.

[7] Douglass F. Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln. In. Washington:; 1876.

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