Communist Party of Australia

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Issue #1585      March 13, 2013

Film review by Peter Mac


Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been fully convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction

Thirteenth amendment to the US Constitution

Steven Spielberg’s film concerns Abraham Lincoln’s campaign to gain congressional approval for the 13th amendment to the United States constitution, which abolished slavery but went within a whisker of rejection by Congress in the last month of the Civil War.

Sally Field as Mary Lincoln, Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln.

The film’s strength lies in its meticulously-detailed examination of that month. However, it lacks attention to the previous period, examination of which casts Lincoln and the wartime Union government in a different light compared with the film.

Slavery was brought to northern America by Britain. The colonists threw off British rule in the War of Independence, but slavery was retained as a central element in the US Constitution.

The southern states remained predominantly agricultural and dependent on slavery. In contrast, slave labour was inappropriate for the north’s burgeoning secondary industries, which required a literate, numerate and mobile workforce, free to sell its labour.

Slavery was rejected in some northern states, and a deep antagonism developed between them and the south. The northern industrialists viewed the southern black workers as a highly valuable potential source of labour unjustifiably held captive by the southern governments.

The southerners in turn hated the northern states, which provided a refuge for escaping slaves. When a slave escaped the slave owner lost not only a worker who could be subjected to maximum exploitation but also a highly valuable commodity, since slaves themselves could be bought and sold.

A failed slave rebellion led by emancipist John Brown in November 1857 caused deep alarm in the south. In late 1860 Lincoln, who had expressed anti-slavery views, was elected president, bringing the north/south antagonism to boiling point.

At that stage there were 33 states in the United States, with Tennessee about to join, However, on December 20, 1860 South Carolina seceded from the union, followed by six other southern (confederate) states. On April 12, 1861 the war began with an attack by confederate artillery on Union forces in Fort Sumner in Charleston Harbour. In the following weeks another four southern states seceded from the Union.

The war policy of the Union government was complicated by the fact that five slave-owning states had remained loyal to the union. These states, which now provided a border between the southern confederacy and the northern states, were crucial to Lincoln’s campaign.

As the film explains, Lincoln knew that if slavery was abolished as soon as war started, the border states would immediately secede, the union would lose the war and slavery would become the dominant socio-economic form of the entire nation.

Lincoln was determined to keep the border states onside and reunite the union. In his March 1861 inaugural speech he appealed to the southern states to seek peace, but in vain.

He also told the border states that slavery could remain where it existed. However, this promise was virtually impossible to keep after black workers deserted the border state plantations and joined the Union army in the first major battlefield. They were welcomed by many of the officers, and union troops passively resisted orders to return them to their owners.

In July 1862 Congress forced Lincoln’s hand by declaring that all slaves whose owners had supported the rebellion would be freed, and also by authorising the recruitment of black escapees into military service.

In August 1862 Lincoln stated: “If I could save the union without freeing any slave I would do it. If I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”

Nevertheless, that month he was forced to decree that slaves in territory taken from the confederacy would be set free, a position formalised in his Emancipation Proclamation five months later.

Lincoln knew that the Proclamation was only applicable under martial law and that if slavery was to be abolished the Constitution had to be amended. The possibility of the border states seceding diminished as the Confederate forces began to crumble, but Lincoln was still eager to appease the border states, and in December 1862 he unsuccessfully proposed an amendment to the constitution to postpone the abolition of slavery until 1900.

However, the course of the war, and particularly the participation of the black soldiers in it, was demonstrating unequivocally that reunification could not be achieved without emancipation.

Once again Lincoln’s hand was forced, when the Senate passed the 13th Amendment bill to abolish slavery in April 1864. But the bill still required approval by an absolute majority in Congress.

If a vote on the bill was deferred until after the war, its acceptance would depend on the southern states, who would vote against it, and the Amendment would be lost.

With the surrender of the south imminent, Lincoln and his supporters decided to attempt to get the Amendment passed before the end of January 1865. They calculated they were 20 votes short of an absolute majority in Congress, so they subjected a number of congressmen to intimidation, blackmail, bribery, and/or appeals to their better nature, in order to win their vote.

In the meantime Lincoln secretly invited the Confederacy to send a delegation to Washington to discuss armistice terms. It was a big mistake. Many congressmen opposed the Amendment. Its support by others was paper-thin, and after four years of slaughter they wanted a rapid finish to the war, even if that meant making major concessions over emancipation.

As rumours spread that a delegation had arrived in Washington, Congress erupted with demands for an indefinite deferral of the Amendment vote, in order to expedite armistice negotiations. Lincoln therefore arranged for the delegation to be delayed en route, and then wrote a carefully-worded note to Congress denying that the delegation was in Washington.

The subsequent debate and voting on the Amendment make fascinating viewing in Spielberg’s film. The Amendment did not grant the slaves equality, as they and the Congress emancipists demanded. Nevertheless it constituted a qualitative leap in US politics because it outlawed slavery, that most horrible institutionalised violation of human rights.

Daniel Day Lewis certainly deserves his best actor Academy Award as Lincoln. There were other terrific performances, including Sally Field as Mary Lincoln, and Tommy Lee Jones, who relished his role and was perfectly cast as the irascible, loud-mouthed but fiercely-committed emancipist, Thaddeus Stevens.

This film is well worth seeing.

Reference: Geoffrey C Ward, Ric Burns, Ken Burns, The Civil War.   

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