‘Lincoln’ illuminates our history even as it obscures it

By From page A14 | February 17, 2013

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.

Desmond Jolly

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