Culture Show Abraham Lincoln Special

LeftCentral Review

© Image US National Archives Photostream

It was Abraham Lincoln`s birthday last week, the Culture Show celebrated with Steven Spielberg, Daniel Day Lewis and assortment of special guests. The Show was not a trailer for the film though the last ten minutes descended into a movie promotion. Spielberg pointing out this is the first film about Lincoln for over seventy-years. Henry Fonda who played Lincoln in the 1930s compared the assassinated President to Jesus Christ and Lincoln`s assassination on Good Friday helped secure political sainthood. However, the broadcast was no hagiography, examining Lincoln from a variety of historical perspectives, encompassing both orthodox and revisionist views. Lincoln was forensically scrutinised and Bonnie Greer one of the guests, outlined that his legacy is a complex nuanced one, while she reasonably affirmed that Lincoln was the greatest President. Greer made a significant contribution, speaking about her own background, pointing out that for people of her generation (and her parents); Lincoln was viewed as the Liberator of the enslaved. This orthodox view has been critiqued by those who consider Lincoln a white supremacist, given that he supported the plan to remove African-Americans through a colonisation programme. Those who share this interpretation of history, according to Bonnie Greer, argue that Lincoln freed the slaves because it was just a deal to get what he wanted. 

Justin Webb suggested we should examine Lincoln in the context of the time. And there is always a temptation to look back on the past with rose tinted, social democrat bifocals. So while this is good advice it`s worth noting that Lincoln had plenty of critics at the time, take the controversy around the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which transformed the Civil War into a moral crusade. The Proclamation had obvious flaws and is described by Webb as a war measure. Political ally William Seaward went further arguing that it failed to emancipate those people held as slaves in areas that the North controlled. The Times (of London) reported that, “the principle is not that a human being cannot justly own another, but that he cannot own him unless he is loyal to the USA.”  Also it wasn’t highlighted that Lincoln had an ulterior motive for issuing his Proclamation. Britain at the time was supporting the South with warships, most notably a battleship called the `Alabama` – which helped devastate Northern shipping and the personnel on these ships were British. After Lincoln made his Proclamation, the British Government was forced to withdraw support thus aiding a Northern victory.

Steven Spielberg sitting with Daniel Day-Lewis, made it clear that he believed that the Civil War was initiated to save democracy, at stake was the end of the experiment in democracy while Day-Lewis chimed that Lincoln had an almost mystical belief in the Union and what it might be. Spielberg made his observation fully aware of the profound flaws in the American system, which he eloquently outlined. Slavery became a political football, ignored by the Founding Fathers and proceeding generations, until Lincoln initiated a process to settle the issue. One might also argue that the flaws in the American system are so profound that to call it democratic, is to misinterpret the word `democracy` the list of democratic woes vast. Women denied the vote (until the nineteenth amendment, although some states allowed it). The constitution determined that African-Americans were three-fifths human and the Founding Fathers so suspicious of majority rule that they constructed a form of government effectively designed to inhibit democratic governance. This is a democratic experiment that created the Missouri Compromise (1820) and the Dredd Scot Case (1857). The latter judgment concluding that slaves were not citizens and had no rights in law. The judgement also allowed an extension of slavery throughout the union. It was this potential extension of slavery which upset Lincoln and the Republicans not slavery per se. Of course the Kansas-Nebraska Act 1854 and popular sovereignty ultimately rekindled the issue. As Hofstadter illustrates Lincoln did not even oppose the Fugitive Slave Law in marked contrast to contemporaries such as Wendell Phillips, who justified the use of force to resist this heinous legislation. And the democratic experiment hardly did much to enhance the rights and dignity of Native Americans both before and after the Civil War.

After the Civil War, the Supreme Court held onto its power and despite the Radical Reconstructionist measure of the fourteenth amendment, designed to introduce `equal protection`, the Supreme Court concocted the notion of `separate but equal`. The USA did not become a democracy until the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The Whig view of USA history as proposed by Spielberg illustrates a trajectory from Lincoln to Kennedy (although to be fair, Spielberg implied that the march to democracy was an unfinished journey). When JFK campaigned for office in 1960 he promised to sign an executive order, eliminating discrimination in public housing. He failed to do so, not wishing to upset his Dixicrat colleagues. This led to the `Ink for Jack` Campaign.  When JFK finally began focusing on Civil Rights both he and Robert Kennedy (Attorney General) viewed the issue as a criminal justice issue viewing the Freedom Rides and sit-ins as a breach of public order. JFK bestrode the world stage pontificating about democracy and the need to liberate Eastern Europe from Communism, while ignoring what was happening in the South. This point was not lost on his Communist opponents who used the Civil Rights issue to embarrass the USA, which is why JFK acted to solve it.

As Bonnie Greer made clear at the end of the show, real progress has been made alongside an African-American president, we`ve had two African-American Foreign Secretaries, African-Americans as Attorney General, Mayors and Governors this is all accepted now. However, African-Americans are still massively disadvantaged by comparison to their white counterparts in terms of a host of social/economic variables, telling us much about the continuing flaws in the USA democratic experiment.


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