Lincoln Blogs

Sorry for the terrible pun.  Today’s post started out as a comment on a review of the movie Lincoln on Sean Carroll’s blog, but it quickly become too long, so I made it into a post on my own blog.  Apparently I lack Abe’s gift for concision.

I just saw Lincoln — largely inspired by Sean’s review — and loved it.  It struck me as the movie that Lincoln might have wanted to be made about himself: it doesn’t show any of his evolution, but at least it shows the final result of that evolution, and conveys the stories, parables, and insight into human nature that he had accumulated by the end of his life in a highly efficient manner.

Interestingly, the Wikipedia page says that Spielberg commissioned, but then ultimately rejected, two earlier scripts that would have covered the whole Civil War period, and (one can assume) Lincoln’s process of evolution.  I think that also could have been a great movie, but I can sort-of understand why Spielberg and Tony Kushner made the unusual choice they did: at the level of detail they wanted, it seems like it would be impossible to do justice to Lincoln’s whole life, or even the last five years of it, in anything less than a miniseries.

I agree with the many people who pointed out that the movie could have given more credit to those who were committed antislavery crusaders from the beginning—rather than those like Lincoln, who eventually came around to the positions we now associate with him after a lot of toying with ideas like blacks self-deporting to Liberia.  But in a way, the movie didn’t need to dole out such credit: today, we know (for example) that Thaddeus Stevens had history and justice 3000% on his side, so the movie is free to show him as the nutty radical that he seemed to most others at the time.  And there’s even a larger point: never the most diligent student of history, I (to take one embarrassing example) had only the vaguest idea who Thaddeus Stevens even was before seeing the movie.  Now I’ve spent hours reading about him, as well as about Charles Sumner, and being moved by their stories.

(At least I knew about the great Frederick Douglass, having studied his Narrative in freshman English class.  Douglass and I have something in common: just as a single sentence he wrote, “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong,” will reverberate through the ages, so too, I predict, will a single sentence I wrote: “Australian actresses are plagiarizing my quantum mechanics lecture to sell printers.”)

More broadly, I think it’s easy for history buffs to overestimate how much people already know about this stuff.  Indeed, I can easily imagine that millions of Americans who know Lincoln mostly as “the dude on the $5 bill (who freed some slaves, wore a top hat, used the word ‘fourscore,’ and got shot)” will walk out of the cineplex with a new and ~85% accurate appreciation for what Lincoln did to merit all that fuss, and why his choices weren’t obvious to everyone else at the time.

Truthfully, though, nothing made me appreciate the movie more than coming home and reading countless comments on movie review sites denouncing Abraham Lincoln as a bloodthirsty war criminal, and the movie as yet more propaganda by the victors rewriting history.  Even on Sean’s blog we find this, by a commenter named Tony:

I’m not one who believes we have to go to war to solve every problem we come across, I can’t believe that Lincoln couldn’t have found a solution to states rights and slavery in a more peaceful course of action. It seems from the American Revolutionary war to the present it has been one war after another … The loss of life of all wars is simply staggering, what a waste of humanity.

Well look, successive presidential administrations did spend decades trying to find a peaceful solution to the “states rights and slavery” issue; the massive failure of their efforts might make one suspect that a peaceful solution didn’t exist.  Indeed, even if Lincoln had simply let the South secede, my reading of history is that issues like the return of fugitive slaves, or competition over Western territories, would have eventually led to a war anyway.  I’m skeptical that, in the limit t→∞, free and slave civilizations could coexist on the same continent, no matter how you juggled their political organization.

I’ll go further: it even seems possible to me that the Civil War ended too early, with the South not decimated enough.  After World War II, Japan and Germany were successfully dissuaded even from “lite” versions of their previous plans, and rebuilt themselves on very different principles.  By contrast, as we all know, the American South basically refused for the next century to admit it had lost: it didn’t try to secede again, but it did use every means available to it to reinstate de facto slavery or something as close to that as possible.  All the civil-rights ideals of the 1960s had already been clearly articulated in the 1860s, but it took another hundred years for them to get implemented.  Even today, with a black President, the intellectual heirs of the Confederacy remain a force to be reckoned with in the US, trying (for example) to depress minority voter turnout through ID laws, gerrymandering, and anything else they think they can possibly get away with.  The irony, of course, is that the neo-Confederates now constitute a nontrivial fraction of what they proudly call “the party of Lincoln.”  (Look at the map of blue vs. red states, and compare it to the Mason-Dixon line.  Even the purple states correspond reasonably well to the vacillating border states of 1861.)

So that’s why it seems important to have a movie every once in a while that shows the moral courage of people like Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens, and that names and shames the enthusiastic defenders of slavery—because while the abolitionists won the battle, on some fronts we’re still fighting the war.

30 Responses to “Lincoln Blogs”

  1. Sean Carroll Says:

    Glad to hear that my post spurred you to go see the movie! Now I feel like my blogging has affected the world in some tangible way. (Although the link to my post is garbled.)

    I hope it didn’t get lost in my prevaricating, but I completely agree about the usefulness of (good) cinematic history, and Lincoln was a great example.

  2. Scott Says:

    Thanks, Sean! Link is fixed.

  3. Douglas Knight Says:

    Lincoln, who eventually came around to the abolitionist position after first toying with other ideas like deporting the blacks to Liberia

    I am disturbed by this use of language. “Abolitionist” means against slavery, no more, no less, certainly not “whatever Scott is in favor of in 2012.”

    I’m not sure what you mean by “deporting” and when you are talking about, but I don’t think Lincoln ever proposed expulsion. He advocated and tried to subsidize the voluntary emigration of free blacks. Moreover, I don’t believe he ever changed his mind.

  4. Ely Spears Says:

    I’m curious of what you think about Howard Zinn’s argument that Lincoln was a mouthpiece for northern elites who sought an end to slavery only for the sake of better legal infrastructure for breaking up large Southern coalitions of property owners. His idea is that if slavery was going to end, it would only end in a way that was expedient for elite business interests, and drumming up tribal anger on an issue of slave v. free was one useful tool for bringing war to the Southern elites without losing too much popular support.

    He puts forward this idea, with numerous quotes that make Lincoln look bad up through at least 1864, in his book “A People’s History of the United States.” there are many good critiques of that book, but I’ve always felt thf portion on business interests and slavery was pretty solid. I would love to hear arguments otherwise, or even just good sources that are critical of specifically that portion of Zinn’s book without resorting to being just generic criticisms of Zinn’s larger ideas.

  5. » Shtetl Optimized: Physicists for “Lincoln” Gordon's shares Says:

    […] Link. Excellent writing, very much what I felt. […]

  6. Scott Says:
      “Abolitionist” means against slavery, no more, no less

    Douglas Knight #3: I noticed that issue too when writing; I just failed to think of a better phrasing. By the “abolitionist position,” I really meant “the position held in practice by abolitionists like Douglass, Stevens, Sumner”: namely, not merely that slavery should end, but that the former slaves should become voting citizens fully integrated into American society (assuming they so chose).

    From the NYT article you linked to (thanks, btw), it seems like Lincoln was prepared to allow the former slaves to remain, but also regarded that as highly undesirable and sought ways to avoid it — something that would put him sharply at odds with the actual abolitionists, if not with theoretical “abolitionism.” However, it also seems like, even if Lincoln never completely abandoned the colonization idea, he slowly realized its impracticality and therefore stopped pushing for it, throwing in his lot with the (again imprecisely-named) abolitionists.

  7. Scott Says:

    Ely Spears #4: I’m obviously not an expert, but since you asked, I find that theory of Zinn too paranoid and conspiratorial for my taste. FWIW, I agree with the theory put forward in this smbc comic: the notion that “the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery” seems mainly appealing if you know just enough history to see secret machinations everywhere you look, but haven’t yet grasped the insight that such machinations almost always fail (or produce completely unexpected consequences). I believe that, if you want to know what motivated someone — whether it’s Churchill or Hitler, Lincoln or John Calhoun — reading what they said their motivations were will usually provide a good clue.

    Yes, it’s true that part of the reason the North was against slavery was that it gave the South such an unfair competitive advantage, but I’m not even certain that they were wrong to feel that way. Certainly, in all the speeches of both sides at the time that I’ve read, people seemed to reach the highest fever-pitch of emotion when they got to slavery, and that seems like a reasonable window into what they cared about. I’ll be grateful if anyone else can provide more insight.

  8. Sniffnoy Says:

    I’m going to say right now I don’t know much about this topic but from reading Adam Cadre’s writings on the subject, I get the idea that this sort of “scouring of the south” is what Reconstruction was supposed to have done, but Andrew Johnson screwed it up. Can anyone who knows more say how correct that might be?

  9. Douglas Knight Says:

    When I say “‘Abolitionist’ means against slavery,” I am not making a “theoretical” argument from etymology. I am talking about how the word was used for hundreds of years. Many people who everyone agreed to call abolitionists were opposed to racial equality. They were “actual abolitionists” just as much Douglass, Stevens, and Sumner.

    There is a sense in which Lincoln was not an abolitionist, which is that he was not in a big hurry to end slavery. Early in his career, he condemned “the promulgation of abolitionist doctrines” as counterproductive. But this has nothing to do with his position on free blacks.

    I used the phrase “racial equality” above, which the movie uses, I believe with historical accuracy. But it is not a great phrase because it has had several meanings.

  10. Jay Gischer Says:

    I agree with your point about Stevens completely. It is obvious to the modern viewer that he had the right of it.

    As to why the war happened? Well the South seceded because they lost an election, and a man who simply wanted to limit the growth of slavery became President. And they seized, by force, Federal property and land. Who would tolerate such a thing?

    Furthermore, if part of the country can leave because they lost an election, democracy means nothing. The North had been on the losing side for decades. It finally won one, and the South says, “never mind, we’re taking *your* ball and going home.” Who wouldn’t say, “Not so fast, buster?”

  11. Jay Gischer Says:

    Oh, and if you still think the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, read what the people of South Carolina thought it was about:

  12. Eric Jablow Says:

    Gerrymandering is a bipartisan pursuit. Look at the fractal districts in Florida, New York, and Illinois if you want confirmation.

  13. John Sidles Says:

    Ely Spears #4 says: “I’m curious of what you think about Howard Zinn’s argument that Lincoln was a mouthpiece for northern elites.”

    I’m thinking that Howard Zinn’s and Noam Chomsky’s review of The Fellowship of the Ring, that was published in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, is pretty accurately reflective of left-versus-right demagoguery:

    Chomsky:  The film opens with Galadriel speaking. “The world has changed,” she tells us, “I can feel it in the water.” She’s actually stealing a line from the non-human Treebeard. He says this to Merry and Pippin in The Two Towers, the novel. Already we can see who is going to be privileged by this narrative and who is not.

    Zinn:  Of course. “The world has changed.” I would argue that the main thing one learns when one watches this film is that the world hasn’t changed. Not at all.


    Chomsky:  Strange how all the ringleaders head immediately to the Grey Havens.

    Zinn:  No extradition laws there, I’m sure. And those who remain in Middle Earth won’t have any Orcs to bother them with talk of independence. “Stability” is established, and the foolish Hobbits can return to their homeland.

    Which is not to say that the issues associated to Lincoln are simple.

  14. wolfgang Says:

    >> it even seems possible to me that the Civil War ended too early, with the South not decimated enough

    I do understand that the whole Rep. vs. Dem. thing can drive one nuts – but this is is not acceptable imho.

    The civil war brought more than a million casualties – how many more would you have killed?

    You are obviously a very intelligent member of the species Homo Sapiens – but in the end you are just another blood thirsty monkey (like we all are) I am afraid.

  15. Scott Says:

    wolfgang #14: I agree that these are difficult questions, and I hesitated to write that. To illustrate the difficulty (for both sides), let’s consider the converse question. Would you have made an agreement with the South whereby slavery would be maintained (but, let’s say, not extended to the territories), if it would end the war with half the number of casualties?

  16. Bram Cohen Says:

    Umm, Scott, about the south not acknowledging that they lost the civil war as late as the 60s –

  17. wolfgang Says:


    yes those are difficult questions. e.g. should the US attack Cuba because people are not free there?

    In general I would say war can be justified only in self-defense which may include pre-emptive attacks (if one country is vulnerable).

    But your suggestion was to continue the civil war and decimate some more Confederates because … their heirs are trying to implement voter ID laws etc.
    And this is not difficult to decide at all imho.

  18. Scott Says:

    Bram #16: Yeah, I saw that! I thought the greatest response was that of Austin, which petitioned to secede from Texas should Texas secede from the US.

  19. Scott Says:

    wolfgang #19:

      But your suggestion was to continue the civil war and decimate some more Confederates because … their heirs are trying to implement voter ID laws etc.

    No, mostly because it took another century to get basic human rights for black people, what many Northern abolitionists probably saw as the goal of the war. Still, as I said, these historical what-if questions are extremely difficult: it’s also conceivable that more war would have postponed civil rights even further. Also, I’m certainly not a consistent utilitarian: even if I were Lincoln, and even if I were convinced that a prolonged war would ultimately make the country better, I wouldn’t believe that licensed me to wage an unlimited amount of further war, mostly because of the possibility of systematic errors in my own thinking.

  20. Aram Says:

    A related point is that the American War of Independence was perhaps a good thing because it gave us the first amendment (which Canada still doesn’t have), but at the terrible cost of an extra ~50 years of slavery. Other benefits of our government over Canada’s (like separation of powers) seem too subtle and ambiguous to compare.

  21. Vadim Says:


    I believe that Canada has something very similar to the United States’ first amendment, namely section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Unlike in the US, parliament and provincial/territorial legislatures can pass laws containing a “notwithstanding clause” that makes the acts immune from judicial review, but this causes them to automatically expire unless renewed every 5 years (meaning an intervening election would have taken place, allowing people, in theory, to vote in a new legislature if they were unhappy with the law). While the notwithstanding clause seems to make the charter significantly weaker than our bill of rights, it’s only been invoked 4 times (all by provincial/territorial legislatures), and is seen as very politically costly, so overall the charter’s guarantee of freedom of expression, religion, assembly, etc protections seem similar to the 1st amendment’s.

  22. Mike Says:

    Regarding the argument that the problem with the Civil War was that the South was not sufficiently demolished, I would note that, apart from the massive number of fatalities, the war left the South with a per capita income less than 50% of the national average, where it remained until well into the 20th century. Apparently Scott thinks that the problem with this number is that it was too high, but I would posit that if Germany and Japan had experienced similar long-term economic devastation as a result of WWII (instead of their respective economic miracles) then we would likely be seeing some more Lost Cause-style nostalgia from them as well.

  23. Scott Says:

    Mike #22: On reflection, I think your analysis of the situation is probably closer to the truth than mine, and I apologize.

    FWIW, here’s my thought process:

    It seems obvious, in retrospect, that the optimal outcome of the Civil War would have been if the Southern whites just gave up entirely their Confederate dreams, to the same extent the Germans gave up their dream of a thousand-year Reich. Not held on to it “symbolically,” with flags over Capitol buildings and so forth, not tried to emphasize the chivalry while downplaying the slavery part, but rejected it as something completely evil, as the majority of Germans did Nazism. Further it seems obvious that this would’ve been the best course, not only for discriminated-against southern blacks or moralistic Northerners, but also for Southern whites themselves, for their own economic future.

    It also seems obvious that this isn’t what happened. I’ve just been reading with disgust about how academic history departments were dominated, for the century following the Civil War, by Lost Cause-style nostalgia. Once you know that, it’s not so hard to predict that the society that tolerates it will be economically backward, even if there isn’t a direct causal arrow.

    So, the relevant question is what could’ve been done differently, in order to increase the probability of the desired outcome. Lincoln himself believed passionately that only “total war” would suffice, which is why he kept sacking generals who didn’t agree with that until he got to Ulysses S. Grant. But on reflection, you’re probably right that demolishing the South was ultimately a case of “mission accomplished.” Maybe if Lincoln had remained alive to help guide Reconstruction, he would’ve figured out a more effective course of action.

  24. Joseph Hertzlinger Says:

    Let’s see… Living in Dixie in 1860 was correlated with being pro-slavery. The opinions of people in Dixie in 1860 were correlated with the opinions of people in Dixie in 1910. The opinions of people in Dixie in 1910 were correlated with the opinions of people in Dixie in 1960. The opinions of people in Dixie in 1960 were correlated with the opinions of people in Dixie in 2010. The opinions of people in Dixie in 2010 are correlated with the Republican platform.

    I don’t think it follows that the current Republican platform is pro-slavery (or even based on the same principles).

    In any case, the Dixiecrat version of the “long march through the institutions” (as mentioned in your last comment) resulted in takeovers of Princeton University and then the Federal government somewhat more recently than the American Civil War. If we’re looking for opinions resembling pro-slavery opinions, we might do better to look at advocates of expanded Federal power or the opinions on Ivy-League campuses. (In the other direction, Texas was taken over by New Englanders.)

  25. Aram Says:

    Vadim: Thanks for letting me know! This page
    seems to suggest somewhat weaker protections than in the US, but not dramatically so. Certainly the 1st amendment is an imperfect shield in the US too.

    Scott: The German contrition after WW2 seems pretty rare. Even Japan doesn’t seem as totally convinced that what they did was wrong. A lot of white S. Africans are still nostalgic for apartheid, even though 99% of the world considered their side to be the bad guys. (Many Japanese and white S. Africans are horrified about WW2/apartheid, but what I’m trying to say is that not all of them are.) It makes me wonder what was so special about Germany.

  26. Aram Says:

    I wish my comments didn’t always await moderation. Surely by now you can trust me, Scott…

    D-Wave rulz! complexity droolz!

  27. Scott Says:

    Aram: OK, just for you, I changed the comment moderation policy (which became what it was during the Joy Christian episode) so that people with a previously-approved comment don’t get stuck in moderation.

    Yeah, I know that Japanese schools continued for a long time to teach that Japan was an innocent victim in WWII (and maybe they even do so today?). The difference is that, unlike with the American South, that lack of contrition never seemed to have any practical implications for anything. However, maybe the difference is simply that, in Japan’s case, “practical implications are quantized” (you either invade China or you don’t, either bomb Pearl Harbor or you don’t), and Japan since WWII has been very comfortably below the threshold? Seceding from the Union is also quantized, but discriminating against the blacks in your midst comes in arbitrarily fine degrees.

  28. John Sidles Says:

    Scott says: “Aram: OK, just for you, I changed the comment moderation policy.”

    LOL … does 2013’s Shtetl Spring include my blythe meditations too?

    Averroes put down his pen. He told himself (without excessive faith) that what we seek is often nearby.

       —La Busca de Averroes

    Thank you Scott, for your sustainment of this fine weblog! 🙂

  29. Bram Cohen Says:

    History would probably have been very different if the assassination attempt on Andrew Johnson had succeeded, or if Lincoln had simply named a Vice President who would actually carry on his program in the event of his death, rather than someone who appealed to constituents who didn’t really side with him. Pick a compromise Vice President: A good way to get yourself killed.

  30. William Banks Says:

    A good source relating to the historical inaccuracies in the film: