Lincoln: Images of History


“Remembrance for a great man is this.
The newsies are pitching pennies.
And on the copper disk is the man’s face.
Dead lover of boys, what do you ask for now?”

(“In a Back Alley,” Carl Sandburg, ca 1910-12)

What was Sandburg getting at here?  The “copper disk,” the ubiquitous Lincoln penny, was first issued in 1909, the centenary of Lincoln’s birth. He was the first president to appear on a U.S. coin.

A news photo shows an eager line waiting to get the new coin at the Sub-Treasury in New York City. The line-up is mostly composed of working-class boys. Maybe they were “newsies.” Clearly, these are not coin collectors, in the usual sense. “Newsboys and others, taking advantage of the interest in the new coin, obtained them in hundred lots and found customers at from 2 for 5c to 25c each,”it was reported in August 1909. What did Lincoln mean to them? Or to Sandburg?

Sandburg’s poetic fragment was bundled into his early collection, “Chicago Poems,” about social rebels and working-class life. Many of the short pieces were written while he was serving as secretary to the Socialist mayor of Milwaukee, Emil Seidel. Sandburg distills into his four lines the not entirely original, but still insightful thought that that historical personages are often, as Lenin said about Marx, “convert(ed) … into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the “consolation” of the oppressed classes.”

Abraham Lincoln here is reduced to a tiny image impressed into a bit of metal, says Sandburg, something for the proletarian newsboys to gamble with in a newspaper alley, waiting for the papers to be printed and bundled and tossed out to them for sale in the streets. Maybe Sandburg caught an echo of a poem Lincoln often recited:

“Oh! why should the spirit of mortal be proud?
Like a swift-fleeting meteor, a fast-flying cloud
A flash of the lightning, a break of the wave
He passeth from life to his rest in the grave”

Sandburg, the artist, was playing with a momentary impression. For Lincoln, the verse above was spoken so often as to seem talismanic to his those close to him.

“Mr. Lincoln,” his wife Mary said, “had no hope, and no faith, in the usual acceptation of those words.” John T. Stuart, who was his first law partner, said: “Lincoln was an avowed and open Infidel. He went further against Christian belief than any man I ever heard. He always denied that Jesus was the Christ of God.” Judge David Davis, who traveled on the 8th Judicial Circuit with Lincoln, stated that “Lincoln had absolutely no faith in the Christian sense of the term.” Lincoln’s religious views, or lack of them, do not figure intothe film “Lincoln.”

Sandburg certainly knew that Abraham Lincoln had not been reduced, in 1909, to an obscure image on the lowest denomination of legal tender. He was well informed enough to write a novel and a six-volume biography of Lincoln.

Lincoln has been a giant, in the sense of historical memory, since the day he was murdered at Ford’s Theater, and for some time before that. That’s why movies are made about him. Spielberg’s “Lincoln” was reportedly due to an epiphanic reading of “Team of Rivals” (2006), by Doris Kearns Goodwin, which is centered on Lincoln’s relations with his cabinet members, subtitled “The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.” Eventually, the idea of constructing the film around the struggle to ratify the13th Amendment to the Constitution emerged. Certainly, the approaching 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, made effective on Jan. 1, 1863 must have pointed in that direction.

Around the time Sandburg was composing his verse, the planning and construction of the iconic Lincoln Memorial was underway, with a 20-foot-tall statue of Lincoln, seated at its center, and, probably without intent, made of marble from North Georgia, a Union stronghold during the Civil War. Already, in the 1920s, the even more iconic Mount Rushmore monument was in production on a hill known to the Lakota people as “The Six Grandfathers,” inserted into the sacred Black Hills of their ancestors. And what other president has had an automobile named after him, and a perennially popular children’s game?

Spielberg’s and Daniel Day-Lewis’ depiction of Abraham Lincoln is probably as close as anyone will get to the living Lincoln in a long, long time, if ever. It’s obvious that a multitude of Lincoln’s personal and physical characteristics, as well as dialogue buried in memoirs, dairies and reminiscences were teased out and entered into the characterization presented on screen. Lincoln has narrow shoulders, he walks bent over with his hands behind his back, he laughs at his own stories, he smiles easily, he puts his legs up on a nearby chair, he tells scatological stories (one).

It happens that the story Lincoln relates, involving a visit by Revolutionary hero Ethan Allen to England after the close of the war, is attested to as one he did tell. It’s a funny story, but here is passed over without notice the conversion of a Revolutionary hero “to a harmless icon.” Everybody has heard of the exploits of the Green Mountain Boys, but who knows that Ethan Allen was a vigorous disbeliever in Christianity, and in 1785 wrote and published “Reason, the Only Oracle of Man,” described as an “unbridled attack against the Bible, established churches, and the powers of the priesthood.” Lincoln, a life-long Freethinker and Deist, probably knew.

Still, even here, Lincoln is considerably cleaned up from what can be clearly deduced from the plethora of sources about him. Although Day-Lewis deliberately pitches his character’s voice in an upper register tenor, and uses a mild form of Lincoln’s upper South accent (he says “cheerman” instead of “chairman,” and, occasionally, “ain’t”), the most often stated impression of Lincoln’s voice was that was not just “tenor,” but “shrill, high pitched, raw.”

Lincoln’s stories, the ones that were deemed unrecordable, even in private reminiscences, were pretty raw, according to the heavily expurgated accounts of his friends and acquaintances. One that did slip through was related by Henry Clay Whitney, an Illinois lawyer who frequently appeared in court with Lincoln.

Whitney remembered the appearance of “one SH Busey, an adverse witness, [who] tried to create the impression that he was a great ladies man. Lincoln went for him in his speech thus, ‘Here is Busey—he pretends to be a great heart smasher—does wonderful things with the girls—but I’ll venture that he never entered his flesh [i.e., had intercourse] but once and that was when he fell down and stuck in finger in his [ass],’” spoken “right out in open court,” Whitney said, still, decades later, somewhat amazed at what he had witnessed.

Spielberg’s “Lincoln” spans January to April 1865. At its center is the struggle to get a 2/3 vote in the House of Representatives adopting the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, outlawing slavery forever. The Amendment had failed to pass the House when first introduced in April 1864, although it was approved by the Senate, and was moved for reconsideration in January 1865. To become effective, the amendment then had to be approved by ¾ of the state legislatures. Under the circumstances prevailing at the time, it was clear that the major hurdle was winning in the House of Representatives, in a forum that had already rejected it. If successful, it was generally believed approval by the states would follow quickly, which it did, before the end of the year 1865.

Following a struggle over a fiercely contested piece of legislation, from introduction to eventual approval as the votes are counted one by one, provides a nice dramatic setting, organically building to an exuberant climax and emotional release of tension. In the film “Amazing Grace” (2006), the parliamentary battle to pass a bill banning the British slave trade mounts to a similar crescendo, as William Wilberforce finally obtains enough votes to prevail.

Spielberg didn’t direct “Amazing Grace,” but he did direct “Amistad,” another film concerned with a powerful event related to the enslavement of Africans in the 19th century—the capture of the slave ship La Amistad by its kidnapped passengers.

Both these films by Spielberg are magnificently staged and photographed, and powerfully acted. And in both of them, the final and decisive arenas of action depicted are the institutions of white people—John Quincy Adam’s defense of the rebel African captive, Cinque, before the Supreme Court in 1841, and the vote in the House of Representatives on Jan. 31, 1865.

There are appearances by people of African descent in “Lincoln” (not many, almost cameos), but they are clearly inserted as surrogates for major pieces of history. Early in the film, Lincoln has a colloquy with two Black soldiers, who pause as Black and white troops are passing in formation by the White House on the way to war. One of the two is quite assertive, articulating some of the main grievances of the colored soldiers: Unequal pay with white troops, no Black officers. Lincoln is cordial but noncommittal.

The scene ends with the less assertive Black soldier reciting the Gettysburg address, and a white soldier joining in. Whether this strikes the viewer as ludicrous or moving, it is obviously an expository device to acknowledge, very briefly, the presence of Black troops and their grievances.

Later in the film, actually Jan. 29, 1865, three members of a Confederate delegation travel secretly north to meet with Lincoln to discuss possible terms of peace. One of them is Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, who Lincoln knew well when they both were in Congress in the 1840s. “Alec,” he calls him. As the three commissioners step out of their curtained carriage, they see assembled, for the first time, a regiment of African American troops. Their stunned reactions are palpable—this is the new order.

When the day arrives for the vote in the House of Representatives, the film depicts a large contingent of African Americans entering and seating themselves in the gallery. There is a visible reaction by the (all white) Representatives on the floor, another brief expository moment. Also present together in the gallery are Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Lincoln’s African American dressmaker, and Mrs. Lincoln.

At another point, Lincoln has a brief conversation on the White House steps with Keckley, the most extended appearance in the film by a person of African descent. He addresses her as “Mrs. Keckley.” At that time in history (and later), a typical white person, especially one of Southern extraction, who wanted to address a mature African American woman with a modicum of decency would have probably called her “Auntie,” or “Aunt Elizabeth.” So the filmmakers seek to make a subtle point here. But Keckley, in her memoir, says Lincoln always addressed her as “Madame Elizabeth.”

“My friend Douglass!”

Some historically informed viewers have asked themselves, “Where is Frederick Douglass?” Douglass visited Lincoln at least three times, including one visit that falls within the time span of the film. Seeking to attend the post-inaugural reception at the White House, Douglass was initially turned away by the doorkeepers because of his color. Someone got word to Lincoln that Douglass was present and he was admitted.

Douglass remembered Lincoln, who was “standing like a mountain pine high above the others, in his grand simplicity and home-like beauty.” Lincoln demonstratively greeted him, “Here comes my friend Douglass!” Taking him by the hand, Lincoln said, “I am glad to see you. I saw you in the crowd today, listening to my inaugural address. How did you like it? … You must stop a little, Douglass; there is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours. I want to know what you think of it.”

“Mr. Lincoln,” Douglass said, “that was a sacred effort.” Douglass was known for saying exactly what he thought. But the scene was left on the cutting room floor, or more accurately, never filmed.

The adoption of the 13th Amendment by the House codified the effective consensus of the rulers of the Union that the destruction of the slave system—the expropriation without compensation of the $2 billion of invested capital embodied in the persons of four million human beings—was the necessary and only acceptable outcome of the war. In and of itself this was a revolutionary act. It was not negotiated, it was unequivocal and it was guaranteed by military force. It was, as has been said, the Second American Revolution.

“A revolution,” Frederick Engels said, “is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by the means of rifles, bayonet, and cannon.” Or, as Lincoln said to a visiting delegation of preachers, “Friends, I agree with you in Providence, but I believe in the Providence of the most men, the largest purse, and the longest cannon.”

And a revolution has its own logic. “A revolution,” Peter Kropotkin wrote in his history of the French Revolution, “is a swift overthrow, in a few years, of institutions which have taken centuries to root in the soil, and seem so fixed and immovable that even the most ardent reformers hardly dare attack them in their writings. It is the fall, the crumbling away in a brief period, of all that up to that time composed the essence of social, religious, political and economic life in a nation.”

The chief agent, director, and organizer of the passage of the Amendment by the House was Abraham Lincoln, utilizing every prerogative and advantage accruing to him as president. One of the contributions to authentic history that “Lincoln” does make is that it shows this. The depiction of this maneuvering, cajoling, bribing, and threatening is probably the most entertaining interlude in an otherwise pretty somber “Lincoln,” with a cast of characters passing across the screen from weasely Copperhead Democrats to surreptitious Dickensian henchmen and veteran political manipulators—notably the Secretary of State, William Seward.

Most striking, to me, at least, is the scene where Lincoln relentlessly demands action and more action of his knavish squadron as the vote is getting down to the wire, and, rising up to what seems like several inches above his actual 6’4” span, tells them, “I am president of the United States, clothed with great power. The abolition of slavery by constitutional provision settles the fate, for all coming time, not only of the millions now in bondage, but of unborn millions to come—a measure of such importance that those two votes must be procured. I leave it to you to determine how it shall be done; but remember that I am president of the United States, clothed with immense power, and I expect you to procure those votes” (emphasis in the film). Go get them, whatever it takes. This, at least, is what Massachusetts Congressman John B. Alley remembered he said, and Kushner’s script follows Alley’s account almost word for word.

The drama is intensified as the votes are counted on Jan. 31. It was known the Republicans, the majority of the House, would vote yes. But ratification required a 2/3 vote. The necessity was to bring over affirmative votes from the pro-slavery Democrats. Finally the Amendment is adopted—by five votes. There is wild cheering, and the artillery booms in Washington in celebration. This actually happened.

Life among the “Scrubs”

From his earliest youth, Lincoln was a fascinating and magnetic figure to those close to him. He was an organic natural leader of those around him. Lincoln was the wittiest, most entertaining, good-natured of them, a voracious reader with a total of three months formal education, and a person respected for his integrity and moral character.

When Lincoln volunteered for service in the Illinois militia during the brutal ethnic cleansing of the Blackhawk War of 1832, he was unanimously elected captain of his company. He was always physically the strongest—meeting him for the first time in the White House, William Russell, correspondent for the London Times, remembered a “sinewy, muscular yellow neck” and a head covered with a “thatch of wild republican hair.” When Gideon Welles, the Secretary of the Navy, viewed him on his deathbed across from Ford’s Theater, he was struck by Lincoln’s powerful arms, exposed as his clothing lay in disarray, and by the fact that Lincoln’s body was too long for the bed.

Lincoln chopped his own firewood and did other manual labor up until he left Springfield for Washington in 1861 at age 52. His origins in extreme poverty, of course, have been told so often as to exist seemingly only as parody of 19th century sentimentalism. But only at a distance. “I belonged,” Lincoln said, “to what they call down South the ‘Scrubs;’ people who do not own land and slaves are nobody down there.” He once said there wasn’t much to tell about his life, other than “the short and simple annals of the poor.”

The movement of people from the Upper South across the Ohio River into free territory was more heterogeneous than usually depicted. Many of the “Scrubs,” whatever their racial views, were deeply resentful of slavery. Others, obviously a small minority, but still significant, were slaveholders who moved north to manumit their slaves. A significant and active minority, a vanguard, were conscious abolitionists. Everywhere among settlements of New Englanders there were concerted outposts of abolitionism and stations of the Underground Railroad, deeply motivated by religious ideology closely tied to human freedom—Quakers, Baptists, Moravians, Methodists, Congregationalists.

Lincoln’s long time law partner, William Herndon, who was a Freethinker, described himself as “an abolitionist since before he was born.” My great-great grandfather George W. Jones, a Scrub, was born in South Carolina in 1804, and emigrated north with his family from Kentucky about the same time the Lincolns did, proceeding in 1822 to the lead mines in present day southwest Wisconsin, part of the vast lead-bearing region centered on Galena, Ill.

Like Lincoln, he enrolled in local militia during the Blackhawk War. Whether the only blood he shed was his own, and like Lincoln’s, from attacks of mosquitoes, I don’t know. When the Civil War began, he joined the Union Army at age 58, along with his son, who had been living in south Texas. I know what they fought for, at least. In a message to his descendants, written just before he died at age 97, he told them, “Remember the words of the immortal Lincoln, ‘Labor is prior to Capital and deserving of the higher consideration.’”

Another component of the population north of the Ohio were well-heeled land speculators, well educated for the time in eastern schools. For the most part, they made up the legal cadre that Lincoln, the self-taught lawyer, associated with in Illinois. Judge David Davis was a millionaire landowner, with 10,000 acres in Iowa, besides his Illinois holdings. Davis was born to a wealthy family in Maryland and studied law at Yale before moving to Illinois in 1835. Lincoln appointed him to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1862. Lincoln’s friend and supporter Norman Judd was the original organizer of the Rock Island Railroad. (When Lincoln left for the White House in 1861, he told friends he was worth $15,000, including the value of his home in Springfield. According to one source, that would be equivalent to between $300,000 and $400,000 today.)

Lincoln’s election in 1860, apart from his personal abilities, which were considerable, expressed the rapid political emergence of the western region north of the Ohio River, and its determination to oppose the extension of slavery. Seward, from New York, widely considered the leading prospect for nomination at the 1860 Republican convention in Chicago, was sure he was going to be selected right up to the opening of the convention.

What the new region represented, Karl Marx observed, was “that a new power had arisen, the Northwest, [i.e. the new states that comprised the area of Northwest Ordinance of 1787, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan], whose population, having almost doubled between 1850 and 1860, was already pretty well equal to the white population of the slave states—a power that was not inclined either by tradition, temperament or mode of life to let itself be dragged from compromise to compromise in the manner of the old Northeastern states. The Union was still of value to the South only so far as it handed over Federal power to it as a means of carrying out a slave policy. If not, it was better to make the break now” (Die Presse, Oct 25, 1861, Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 17).

And, he wrote, this time in the New York Tribune (Nov 7, 1861), [We] “know that the Southern slaveocracy commenced the war with the declaration that the continuance of slaveocracy was no longer compatible with the continuance of the Union. … A fight for the continuance of the Union is a fight against the continuance of the slaveocracy—that in this contest the highest form of popular self-government till now realized is giving battle to the meanest and most shameless form of man’s enslaving recorded in the annals of history.”

Here Marx places the insurrection of the slaveocracy in a world-historic context, and here, I think, his thoughts are congruent with Lincoln’s, and a key to a full understanding of the enormous voluntarist human sacrifice made for the Union, by both Black and white. Lincoln expressed it once like this, to his friend James Scovell, “Of the two great efforts to enslave the human race in body and mind [not “soul,” note] the first met its grave 200 years ago under Cromwell at Marston Moor and the second at Gettysburg.” For Lincoln, and for Marx, the Civil War was, in its defense of “the highest form of popular self-government till now realized, ” preserving the precious possibility of its extension.

The 19th century was woven through with great struggles to overturn absolutism, clericalism, and suppression of the most elementary human rights. The impact of the American and French Revolutions of the late 18th century still reverberated among the masses, certainly in the United States. Foreign travelers passing though the U.S., especially in the first half of the 19th century, all noted that the common people were alive with the politics of democracy, vigilant and assertive of their rights as free citizens (limited to white men), and inspired by a concept of a worldwide revolution against tyranny, monarchy, and priestly superstition. Hundreds of thousands were immigrants and refugees from the revolutions of Europe.

“The war,” Lincoln said, “cannot be successful unless all the parties in the country are represented in the army. If only Republicans are in the army, the war will be a failure, but if the Republicans, the Democrats, the Know-Nothings, and the Socialists are in the army, we shall be saved.”

How did it come to Lincoln’s attention that “the Socialists” were a political current substantial enough to be included here? Most likely, socialism had come to Lincoln’s attention in association with German immigrants, who were massively present in Illinois. In the 1850s Lincoln actually purchased the building, type, presses and other equipment of a German newspaper in Springfield, holding it in reserve for a future campaign. At one point Lincoln carried a German-English dictionary with him on the judicial circuit, aspiring to learn German.

Two hundred thousand natives of Germany fought in the Union Army, about equal to the number of colored troops. Some of the leading officers in the Union Army were Germans who were, or had been, members of the First International, like General Joseph Wedemeyer.

The people named their children, not after popular entertainers, but after political heroes, like Lincoln’s friend Henry Clay Whitney. They named a town in Iowa (Elkader) after Mohammed El Kadir, leader of the struggle for Algerian independence, and a county after Louis Kossuth.

Why did a million white yeomen go off to war against the Confederacy? Whatever sympathy they had for their Black countrymen languishing under slavery was uneven and mixed, where it existed at all. But it is a certainty that the heroic and extended political agitation against slavery by a committed minority of Blacks and whites had created a vein of moral certainty that invested them with extraordinary courage, commitment and self-sacrifice, and a sense of defending something tangible and of real value.

In all of Lincoln’s speeches arguing that slavery should be restricted to its then present boundaries, which obviously carried with it the corollary that the settlement of new territories should be white, he says over and over again that slavery should be restricted because it is “wrong.”

“If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” When he says this, and he says it throughout Illinois in 1858 to the broad masses who come to hear his debates with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln is greeted with cheering and applause by his auditors. “Patriotism” was something very different from the Babbitry of the Chamber of Commerce version peddled throughout the 20th century. Patriotism, at least since the official inauguration of American imperialism with the wars of conquest in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, has meant, at bottom, white privilege.

For the slave, who had no access to self-government in the most minimal form, and to self-determination only by running away, the Civil War, which divided the master classes, was an opportunity that was seized immediately. It was the autonomous movement of hundreds of thousands of African Americans away from slavery and toward freedom, what W.E.B. DuBois called the “general strike,” which broke the stalemate in the war.

The mass enrollment of men of African descent into the Union army, beginning in 1863, gave this initial movement great temporal and moral power. It began to melt the glacier of racial hatred built up over 200 years. And the intervention of the most active component of the white population, notably in their massive enrollment in the Union army and then the overwhelming victory given to Lincoln and the Republican party in 1864, effected a unity of action that crushed the slave owners’ rebellion.

“Lincoln” closes on a note of high emotion, in the background a tableau of the Capitol and Lincoln reading his second inaugural address (Mar 4, 1865), which is scrolled across the screen, if I remember rightly. Of course it ends with the famous “With malice towards none, with charity towards all,” appropriated later by the apologists for white supremacy, to support their thesis that if Lincoln had lived he would have restrained the abolition fanatics in Congress, and spared the South the indignity of having to pass through the trauma of Black Reconstruction.

I was wondering if this recitation would include the passage immediately preceding it: “Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet if it is God’s will that it continue, until all the wealth piled up by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn by the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.’” It did.

And the continuing relevance of Lincoln is, I think, that all the wealth has not been sunk, and every drop of blood drawn by the lash has not yet been paid.

 There have been four feature films made in Hollywood about Abraham Lincoln, including Spielberg’s recent production. The first one, in 1930, directed by D.W. Griffith, of all people, starred Walter Huston.







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