Sunday, April 20, 2014
YOLO COUNTY NEWS
99 CENTS

‘Lincoln’ illuminates our history even as it obscures it

lincolnW

By
From page A14 | February 17, 2013 | Leave Comment

By Desmond Jolly

Americans are a forward-looking people. Having chosen or been forcibly dislodged from their moorings, they can seem to float like flotsam on the sea of history, trusting optimistically that the direction of movement is forward. The risk, however, is that with such little knowledge of starting points, we find ourselves moving in circles, albeit in circles that may be wider in circumference.

The movie “Lincoln” uses the political maneuvering to pass the 13th Amendment to create an engaging drama with President Abraham Lincoln at its center. After seeing the movie, a colleague remarked that “it is a good projection of the myth of Lincoln.”

And, upon reflection, we had to agree that, in the main, it did not present a nuanced picture of Lincoln, and in doing so, does not fundamentally undermine Americans’ aversion to history, particularly our own. We gravitate more to myth and romance captured in a few master narratives that serve as proxies for historical knowledge.

One master narrative is that of the “founding fathers,” in which a score of men, in a divinely inspired act of wisdom and selflessness, created something called “the Constitution,” which freed us from tyranny and guaranteed us our liberty. Another master narrative is that of “the nation of immigrants” which obscures the huge contradictions that accompanied, and were fundamental to, the settling of North America. There is no room in this master narrative for the capture and importation of millions of people or, for that matter, for the scores of Native American cultures that preceded this “nation of immigrants.”

In this context, “Lincoln” illuminates our history even as it obscures it. It sheds light on the Civil War period that interrogates and somewhat undermines the notion of the divine inspiration, selflessness and wisdom of the founding fathers’ master narrative. It obscures to the extent that it presents a fairly one-dimensional picture of President Lincoln.

But the reality of Lincoln is much more interesting than the “broad strokes” picture. Lincoln’s was a complex personality with many powerful contradictions. He did not come to the presidency as a selfless savior. He was an ambitious man who chose the law and politics as avenues to “make something of himself,” to become worthwhile in his and the eyes of others.

Though he eventually would be responsible for the Emancipation Proclamation that would outlaw the tyranny of slavery, he was not, at the outset, an abolitionist, although he was always opposed to slavery on moral grounds. Rather, he vigorously opposed the geographic spread of the slave system “from sea to shining sea.”

He preferred to assume that, confined to its then extent in the Old South, slavery would eventually and inexorably die out. Moreover, Lincoln felt that the founders had protected their investments and economic interests in the Constitution and that even as president, he would lack the constitutional authority to unilaterally abrogate the law. Moreover, he had stated clearly that though he opposed slavery, he did not believe in racial equality.

Lincoln’s road to the presidency was full of bumps, detours and disappointments. And, on that road he would keep encountering his nemesis — Stephen Douglas. Douglas was as ambitious as Lincoln, if much more opportunistic and callous. In “The Long Pursuit: Abraham Lincoln’s Thirty Year Struggle with Stephen Douglas for the Heart and Soul of America,” Roy Morris Jr., describes the decades-long political battle between Lincoln and Douglas.

They began as lawyers in Illinois and faced off early in a murder case, which Lincoln won. But their competition would continue in a variety of venues for the rest of their lives and, for a long time, Douglas seemed to get the best of Lincoln. Lincoln made several attempts at higher elected office. Most ended in failure and frustration. As Morris tells it, Lincoln conceded that his one term in Congress “had been a comprehensive failure.”

By contrast, Douglas was elected to the Senate and held office for a long time becoming known as “the Little Giant,” and using his bully pulpit to advocate on behalf of slavery and the Democratic Party. Lincoln became a Republican in 1856 and continued his verbal and political duels with Douglas. Racism was flagrantly employed in political discourse. When John C. Fremont ran for national office, The Richmond Enquirer said the Republican slogan should be “free n——-, free women, free land and Fremont.”

In this racially charged political context, Lincoln’s nomination for the presidential contest in 1860 was a shock. Douglas was nominated by Northern Democrats but ultimately was denied the presidency. Lincoln’s election success then was as shocking as Barack Obama’s was in 2008. In fact, it was so shocking that it precipitated the secession of the Southern states and prompted them to make a pre-emptive strike against the United States though Lincoln had reassured them he had no intention of interfering with their slave-dependent system.

Ironically, their war against the Union forced his hand and eventually made him do what he otherwise might not have done — free their captive labor force.

— Desmond Jolly, a longtime Davis resident, is an emeritus agricultural economist at UC Davis and a lecturer for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

LEAVE A COMMENT

Discussion | No comments

The Davis Enterprise does not necessarily condone the comments here, nor does it review every post. Read our full policy

  • Recent Posts

  • Enter your email address to subscribe to this newspaper and receive notifications of new articles by email.

  • .

    News

    Tom Adams seeks Davis school board seat

    By Jeff Hudson | From Page: A1

     
    Hub of activity: DHS newspaper keeps evolving

    By Zoe Juanitas | From Page: A1 | Gallery

     
    A springtime ritual

    By Wayne Tilcock | From Page: A1 | Gallery

    Holy fire ceremony draws thousands in Jerusalem

    By The Associated Press | From Page: A2 | Gallery

     
    Tour renovated YCCC facility Thursday

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

     
    Tour Davis Waldorf School on Wednesday

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

    The fifth annual Tour de Cluck is soon to be hatched

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A3 | Gallery

     
    Ortiz lawn signs available

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

    Sign up soon for spring cooking classes

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

     
    Robb Davis team to rally on Saturday

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

    Steadfast in their support

    By Lauren Keene | From Page: A4, 8 Comments | Gallery

     
    Yolo Hospice offers free grief workshops

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

    Sign up for Camp Kesem caterpillar crawl

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

     
    Quilters gear up for annual show

    By Sebastian Onate | From Page: A4

    League hosts a series of candidate forums

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A5

     
    KDVS launches fund drive on Monday

    By Jeff Hudson | From Page: A5

    Calling all Scrabble fans

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A5, 1 Comment | Gallery

     
    Hub webpage is seeing traffic increasing

    By Zoe Juanitas | From Page: A8

    Hotel/conference center info meeting set

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A16

     
    Lescroart welcomes all to book-launch party

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A16 | Gallery

    DEVO set to serve up 14th annual Winkler Dinner

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A16 | Gallery

     
    Learn Chinese crafts at I-House

    By Sebastian Onate | From Page: A16

    Preschool open house set at Davis Waldorf

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A16

     
    Birch Lane celebrates its 50th anniversary

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A16

    .

    Forum

    Take ownership of your health

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: B5

     
    Keep your baby safe

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A7

     
    Not thrilled with lack of symmetry

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A7

    Reliving the agony and ecstasy of spring

    By Marion Franck | From Page: A7

     
    Road diet? No, city diet!

    By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A12, 5 Comments

    We’re reveling in our equality

    By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A12, 1 Comment

     
    Vote no; it’s fiscally responsible

    By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A12, 3 Comments

    Rick McKee cartoon

    By Debbie Davis | From Page: A12

     
    Core values on campus

    By Our View | From Page: A12, 3 Comments

     
    Don’t want to sit in Fix 50 traffic? Consider alternatives

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A13, 1 Comment

     
    Bill is an affront to UC Davis ag biotech and local farmers

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A13, 2 Comments

    .

    Sports

    Devils burn up the track

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: B1

     
    UCD softball shut out by Santa Barbara

    By Thomas Oide | From Page: B1 | Gallery

     
    Aggie men shoot 9-under, lead own tourney

    By Bruce Gallaudet | From Page: B1 | Gallery

    Stars shine in Woody Wilson Classic

    By Evan Ream | From Page: B1, 1 Comment | Gallery

     
    UCD roundup: Aggie baseball swept away by Highlanders

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: B2

    A’s score 3 in ninth, rally past Astros 4-3

    By The Associated Press | From Page: B6

     
    .

    Features

    .

    Arts

    .

    Business

    Yolo Federal Credit Union gets WISH funds

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A9

     
    PG&E pays taxes, fees to county, cities

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A9, 1 Comment

    Will Davis get an Old Soul?

    By Wendy Weitzel | From Page: A9

     
    Pediatricians, nurse practitioner hired at Woodland Healthcare

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A9 | Gallery

    Asian stocks mostly higher after mixed U.S. earnings

    By The Associated Press | From Page: A9

     
    Davis Roots will showcase its graduating startups

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A14

    University Honda wins another President’s Award

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A14 | Gallery

     
    Dutch Bros. raises $19,000 for girl with leukemia

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A14 | Gallery

    .

    Obituaries

    .

    Comics

    Comics: Sunday, April 20, 2014

    By Creator | From Page: B8