Steven Spielberg’s 2012 movie Lincoln serves up a timely reminder that has long been obscured by past and current Southern lies.
Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) tours a Civil War battlefield
From first to last, the cause of the Civil War was slavery.
According to The Destructive War, by Charles Royster, arguments over “states’ rights” or economic conflict between North and South didn’t lead 13 Southern states to withdraw from the Union in 1860-61.
It was their demand for “respect” of their “peculiar institution”–i.e., slavery.
“The respect Southerners demanded did not consist simply of the states’ sovereignty or of the equal rights of Northern and Southern citizens, including slaveholders’ right to take their chattels into Northern territory.
“It entailed, too, respect for their assertion of the moral superiority of slaveholding society over free society,” writes Royster.
It was not enough for Southerners to claim equal standing with Northerners; Northerners must acknowledge it.
But this was something that the North was increasingly unwilling to do. Finally, its citizens dared to elect Abraham Lincoln as President in 1860.
Lincoln and his new Republican party damned slavery-–and slaveholders-–as morally evil, obsolete and ultimately doomed. And they were determined to prevent slavery from spreading any further throughout the country.
Southerners found all of this intolerable.
The British author, Anthony Trollope, explained to his readers:
“It is no light thing to be told daily, by our fellow citizens…that you are guilty of the one damning sin that cannot be forgiven.
“All this [Southerners] could partly moderate, partly rebuke and partly bear as long as political power remained in their hands.”
It is to Spielberg’s credit that he forces his audience to look directly at the real cause of the bloodiest conflict on the North American continent.
At the heart of Spielberg’s film: Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) wants to win ratification of what will be the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. An amendment that will forever ban slavery.
But, almost four years into the war, slavery still has powerful friends–in both the North and South.
Many of those friends belong to the House of Representatives, which must ratify the amendment for it to become law.
Some are hostile to Lincoln personally. One of them dubs him a dictator: “Abraham Africanus.” Another accuses him of shifting his positions for the sake of expediency.
Other members–white men all–are hostile to the idea of “equality between the races.”
To them, ending slavery means opening the door to interracial marriage–especially marriage between black men and white women. Perhaps even worse, it means possibly giving blacks–or women–the right to vote.
Members of Lincoln’s own Cabinet–such as Secretary of State William Seward–warn him: You can negotiate the end of the war immediately–if you’ll just let Southerners keep their slaves.
After the amendment wins ratification, Lincoln agrees to meet with a “peace delegation” from the Confederate States of America.
At the top of their list of concerns: If they persude the seceded states to return to the Union, will those states be allowed to nullify the amdnement?
No, says Lincoln. He’s willing to make peace with the South, and on highly generous terms. But not at the cost of allowing slavery to live on.
Too many men–North and South–have died in a conflict whose root cause is slavery. Those lives must count for more than simply reuniting the Union.
For the Southern “peace commissioners,” this is totally unacceptable.
The South has lost thousands of men (260,000 is the generally accepted figure for its total casualties) and the war is clearly lost. But for its die-hard leaders, parting with slavery is simply unthinkable.
Like Nazi Germany 80 years into the future, the high command of the South won’t surrender until their armies are too beaten down to fight any more.
The major difference between the defeated South of 1865 and the defeated Germany of 1945, is this: The South was allowed to build a beautiful myth of a glorious “Lost Cause,” epitomized by Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel, Gone With the Wind.
In that telling, dutiful slaves were well-treated by kindly masters. Southern aristocrats wore white suits and their slender-waisted ladies wore long dresses, carried parisols and said “fiddle-dee-dee” to young, handsome suitors.
One million people attended the premier of the movie version in Atlanta on December 15, 1939.
The celebration featured stars from the film, receptions, thousands of Confederate flags, false antebellum fronts on stores and homes, and a costume ball.
In keeping with Southern racist tradition, Hattie McDaniel and the other black actors from the film were barred from attending the premiere. Upon learning this, an enraged Clark Gable threatened to boycott the event. McDaniel convinced him to attend.
When today’s Southerners fly Confederate flags and speak of “preserving our traditions,” they are actually celebrating their long-banned “peculiar institution.”
By contrast, post-World War II Germany outlawed symbols from the Nazi-era, such as the swastika and the “Heil Hitler” salute, and made Holocaust denial punishable by imprisonment.
America’s Southern states have refused to confront their own shameful past so directly.
But Americans can be grateful that Steven Spielberg has had the courage to serve up a long-overdue and much needed lesson in past–and still current–history.