Lincoln and ‘The Abolitionists’

From the new March-April 2013 issue of News & Letters:

Lincoln and ‘The Abolitionists’

The 150th anniversary of the Civil War, and of the Emancipation Proclamation in particular, has a lot of people talking about that history and race relations today. Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln is less the cause than the effect of this surge in popular interest. Lincoln is very moving and beautifully made, with excellent acting and shrewd writing.

Tony Kushner’s screenplay is shrewd enough to dramatize a selective slice of history as a covert argument for Obama-style politics. The historic achievement of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery appears to depend largely on political chicanery, which is an endorsement of Obama’s pragmatism and moderation. Radicals are portrayed as Lincoln’s enemies, which is more true of the 2013 Obama than of the 1865 Lincoln. Aside from leading Radical Republican Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, Abolitionists are barely acknowledged.

A key scene involves a conversation between Lincoln and Stevens. Urging Stevens not to be so darn principled, Kushner-Spielberg’s Lincoln asks him, “If in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp…What’s the use of knowing True North?” This motivates what is, from the movie’s point of view, the high point for Stevens: his grudging decision to equivocate on the floor of the House about his views on racial equality. In other words, what is to be celebrated is a pragmatic compromise of principles.

PRINCIPLES AND SLAVERY’S ABOLITION

In truth, it was the uncompromising, principled radicalism of the Abolitionist movement—and the revolts and resistance of slaves and free Blacks on whose shoulders the movement stood—that made Civil War and the abolition of slavery inevitable, and transformed Lincoln from a moderate politician into the instrument of emancipation.

Lincoln himself acknowledged this near the end of his life: “I have only been an instrument. The logic and moral power of [William Lloyd] Garrison and the anti-slavery people of the country and the army have done all.”

That quotation is mentioned in this year’s documentary “The Abolitionists” on PBS’s American Experience. It goes much further than Lincoln by showing how decisive the Abolitionist movement was in the country’s history. Exploding the mainstream narrative of Abolitionists as a deranged fringe, it shows that the Abolitionists had a tremendous effect on U.S. politics and on attitudes in the North, while stirring up violent reaction in both North and South.

WHERE ARE THE WOMEN?

Even this three-part documentary, however, has its limitations. While it takes up Angelina Grimke’s groundbreaking advocacy of women’s rights, it mentions neither Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, nor the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention on women’s rights, which grew out of Abolitionism. Nothing is said of the new divide that arose within the movement after the 13th Amendment was passed, when even Frederick Douglass opposed the call by women like Truth and Tubman to include women’s right to vote in the Constitutional amendments being pushed.

The full depth of the Abolitionists is best captured by Raya Dunayevskaya’s American Civilization on Trial (emphases in the original):

“The movement renounced all traditional politics, considering all political parties of the day as ‘corrupt.’ They were inter-racial and in a slave society preached and practiced Negro equality. They were distinguished as well for inspiring, aligning with and fighting for equality of women in an age when the women had neither the right to the ballot nor to property nor to divorce. They were internationalists, covering Europe with their message, and bringing back to this country the message of the Irish Freedom Fighters.

“They sought no rewards of any kind, fighting for the pure idea….

“These New England Abolitionists added a new dimension to the word intellectual, for these were intellectuals, whose intellectual, social and political creativity was the expression of precise social forces. They gloried in being ‘the means’ by which a direct social movement expressed itself, the movement of slaves and free Negroes for total freedom.”

In many ways, it seems that today’s historians are still catching up with this brilliant pamphlet that was published 50 years ago, which so profoundly captured the truth of American history precisely because it is rooted not only in exhaustive research but in Marx’s Humanist philosophy of freedom.

–Franklin Dmitryev

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