January 13, 2013

#Lincoln — #Reconstruction, rosewater, Tony Kushner (updated)


Image via Bartleby's Second Inaugural page
As I said in a previous blog post, there’s one thing wrong with the new Lincoln movie. (Actually, with further reflection, there's more than one thing that, if not wrong, could have been done better; see poll at right to cast your own vote on the movie's historicity.)

Tony Kushner recently, on NPR’s Fresh Air, was claiming that the “lost cause,” the rise of the Klan, etc., were due to nobody in the North listening to Lincoln's “Malice for none.” WRONG!

Reality? The Klan arose during the first half of Andrew Johnson's administration, precisely because Johnson was too soft. And, as partial illustration? The Klan's leadership was first offered to Robert E. Lee, before Nathan Bedford Forrest. Lee turned it down but not on moral principles. Rather, it appears he thought such type of work was beneath him and his position in the Southern social hierarchy and caste.

Reality? Kushner needs to read Eric Foner’s “Reconstruction.” As do a lot of Americans. Or Gabor Borritt’s “The Gettysburg Gospel.”

I don’t put Lincoln on too much of a pedestal myself, but, I think April 14, 1865 was clearly the most tragic single day in American history. (That said, see my full review here.) As for Kushner’s thoughts, Lincoln probably would have toughened up his “rosewater” reconstruction plans when he saw the rise of the Klan, while yet extending carrots to smart-minded Southerners. He would have put down the Klan and related groups immediately, unlike Andrew Johnson, that’s for sure. And, from 1869 on, he would have been a Republican elder statesman to guide President Grant.

But, the real problem is that Kushner seems to be committing the same error that was deliberately done by white Northerners and Southerners on the Gettysburg Address no more than 20 years after Lincoln spoke it, as Boritt points out so well.

And that is, he’s assuming the “Malice toward none and charity for all” were to apply to Southern white folks only.

Rather, both at Gettysburg and at Washington, D.C., on March 4, 1865, Lincoln clearly includes blacks in the “all” who should get charity and the “none” who should not suffer malice.

After all, soon after this inaugural, Lincoln was postulating extending the vote to at least some freed slaves and, as John Wilkes Booth knew, “that means nigger citizenship,” as he surely spoke for many a white Southerner.

Let’s look at the full last paragraph of the Second Inaugural:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
We’ve already talking about the first two clauses. Now, let’s look at a few more.

1. “(W)ith firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.” Lincoln’s views on black Americans had evolved and grown throughout the war. He had abandoned the idea of colonization. He had now ventured the idea of black voting. He was seeing more — and surely would also have supported the 14th Amendment as well as the 15th — as “the right.” And, per the language of the 14th Amendment, would have taken necessary action in Reconstruction against the Klan and other white power groups.

After all, this was a president who had once suspended habeas corpus across the entire Union, and had had no problem using military tribunals to avoid civilian courts when he deemed it necessary. Yes, he expressed his hope that a Jefferson Davis might just flee the country, but, confronted with a Nathan Bedford Forrest who, rather than flee the country, sought to repress newly-freed black Americans, Lincoln would have been resolute.

He would have offered an olive branch with his rosewater. But, for the Forrests who refused his proffered cocktail?
The Almighty has His own purposes. Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.
Or, per a Psalm: “Woe unto that man. Better for him had he never been born.”

2. “(L)et us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds …” Those wounds weren’t just white Southerners or white Northerners. Remember, Lincoln had just said:
Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with 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.’
Binding up the wounds of “two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil” would be part of Reconstruction as he saw it. And woe to those who would derail such work.

Lincoln would have supported a Freedman’s Bureau at least as much as Radical Republicans, and might have eventually seen an even broader mandate for it.

In short, Kushner’s reading of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural is superficial. And, sadly, although the movie does decently overall with Lincoln’s relationship to black Americans, one wonders if Kushner’s ideas didn’t harm the screenplay just a little bit. I will have to keep that in mind with my next viewing. 

And, while the movie was already 2:30, I partially agree with this NYT critic that a more forceful black American could have had more airtime. Fred Douglass was initially turned away from the inaugural soiree, before Lincoln personally intervened with gala security, then talked with him. That scene could have been inserted before the scene about Lincoln and the black vote. 

And, far beyond a relatively young Northwestern professor, let's look at the man arguably the dean of modern Civil War scholars. Eric Foner also says the movie has a limited view, namely that Lincoln didn't start the push for emanicipation in general or the 13th Amendment in particular.

In a video interview with CNN, Foner also says the movie overdramatizes things. True, the next Congress was not set for regular session until December, but Lincoln had pledged to call it into special session in March if necessary.

But, to nuance Foner, Lee surrendered April 9, and Lincoln had no idea if an event like that might happen earlier. So, I'd have to criticize that criticism of his. And, per Lincoln not jumping on the "amendment bandwagon" until the middle of 1864, Foner himself writes enough about Lincoln's political skills, and evolution on slavery in general, in his latest book, that one could honestly wonder if, although not to the degree an Amazon reviewer claimed, that there's not a small bit of sour grapes at work. 

At the same time, Foner defends Lincoln well from the claims he was a racist slave supporter. He's right that Bennett is overwrought and "cannot take yes for an answer." 
Which was the real Lincoln — the racist or the opponent of slavery. The unavoidable answer is: both. Bennett cannot accept that it was possible in nineteenth-century America to share the racial prejudices of the time, and yet simultaneously believe that believe that slavery was a crime that ought to be abolished.
Foner goes on to note that the Emancipation Proclamation was a turning point for both Lincoln and the country. After it, he more openly accepted blacks serving in the Army and also let go of his earlier colonization schemes, Foner claims.

However, Foner is wrong, at least on colonization. He mentioned it on Dec. 1, 1862, in his second State of the Union. And, he continued to push it at least in the early part of 1863. Sebastian Page lists what's well known to Civil War historians less exalted than Foner. Indeed, Lincoln didn't write finis to the Haitian scheme until 1864.

In light of that, including the overly generous assessment of Foner, it is clear Lincoln was grasping for how black and white would live side by side in postwar America. Perhaps he was even recognizing that blacks would theoretically be free to move North, bluntly confronting states with "black codes" like his own Illinois. And, that's why Corey Robin's words about Thomas Jefferson allegedly looking to that end are much more applicable to Lincoln, as I have blogged.

So, while the movie may be somewhat hagiographic, it perhaps as much as it could be. And, it's not a documentary. Do we want Ken Burns to do a sequel to the Civil War, with eight episodes on Lincoln? If so, no Bennett and no Thomas diLorenzo. Fortunately, Shelby Foote is dead.

That said, Lincoln's ongoing interest in colonization, not just in 1864 but even 1865, possibly, also means that Foner may also be wrong for criticizing someone like Donald Miller who claims Lincoln was too passive, too often. On colonization, at least, in the face of continued support for it by the more clearly racist types, Lincoln may just have been too passive.

Update, Jan. 13, 2013: Speaking of Foner, per his "The Fiery Trial," the movie does have at least one historical inaccuracy. In the opening sequence, when the more outspoken of the two black soldiers mentions pay inequality? Congress fixed that in the middle of 1864. Also, having now read that book, I feel more confidence in my thought that Lincoln would eventually have had a sterner Reconstruction plan than what Andrew Johnson thought, or projected, Lincoln had.

First, Lincoln would have recognized the way the north in general and his party in particular were headed.

Second, postwar activities, above all the start of the Klan, would have disabused him of much of his remaining thought about likely degrees of cooperation among white southerners. 

That said, I think he still would have worked for a more in-depth solution than the Radicals had in mind, while recognizing the power of the legislative branch.   

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