January/ February 2013 Lincoln Died for Our Sins

By Jelani Cobb

The opening scene of Steven Spielberg’s cinemythic portrait of the sixteenth president features President Abraham Lincoln seated on a stage, half cloaked in darkness, and observing the Union forces he is sending into battle. It’s an apt metaphor for the man himself—both visible and obscure, inside the tempest yet somehow above the fray. Lincoln was released in early November, just in time to shape our discussions of January 1, 2013, the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Yet with its themes of redemption and sacrifice, Spielberg’s film could seem less suited for an anniversary celebration than an annual one. Here is a vision of a lone man, tested by betrayal, besieged by enemies whom he regards without malice, a man who is killed for his convictions only to be resurrected as a moral exemplar. Spielberg’s Lincoln is perhaps less fitted to January 1st than it is to the holiday that precedes it by a week.

In fairness, this narrative of Lincoln’s Civil War, equal parts cavalry and Calvary, did not originate with Spielberg. The legend of the Great Emancipator began even as Lincoln lay dying in a boardinghouse across from Ford’s Theater that night in April 1865. (In the same way that JFK’s mythic standing as a civil rights stalwart was born at Dealey Plaza in November 1963.) In the wake of his assassination, Lincoln the controversial and beleaguered president was remade into Lincoln the Savior, an American Christ-figure who carried the nation’s sins. Pulling off this transformation, this historical alchemy, has required that we as a nation redact the messier parts of Lincoln’s story in favor of an untainted, morally unconflicted commander in chief who was untouched by the biases of the day and unyielding in his opposition to slavery. We have little use for tainted Christs. Through Lincoln the Union was “saved” in more than one sense of the word.

History is malleable. There is always the temptation to remake the past in the contours that are most comforting to us. In a nation tasked with reconciling its democratic ideals with the reality of slavery, Lincoln has become a Rorschach test of sorts. What we see when we look at him says as much about ourselves as it does about him. And what we see, or choose to see, most often is a figure of unimpeachable moral standing who allows Americans to gaze at ourselves in the mirror of history and smile. If the half-life for this kind of unblemished heroism is limited—we’ve grown more cynical across the board—it has remained resonant enough for our politicians today to profit from their association with it. The signal achievement of Spielberg’s Lincoln is the renovation of that vision of Lincoln, a makeover for a nation that had elected its first black president to a second term just three days before the film hit theaters.

In 2007 Barack Obama announced his presidential candidacy in Springfield, Illinois, deliberately conjuring comparisons to that other lanky lawyer who spent time in the state legislature there. There is no shortage of politicians claiming an affinity with Lincoln—George W. Bush saw himself as a Lincolnesque figure when he was prosecuting the war on terror—but rarely have the parallels been as apparent as they are with Obama. The candidate played up that angle, visiting the Lincoln Memorial just before his inauguration, carrying a well-thumbed copy of Team of Rivals on the campaign trail, slipping sly riffs on Lincoln’s second inaugural address into his own first one, and taking the oath of office on the Lincoln Bible.

Beyond the obvious, though, lies a deeper theme between Obama and Lincoln: the identities of both men are inextricably bound to questions of both disunity and progress in this country. It’s worth recalling that Obama’s rise to prominence was a product of his 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention, in which he offered a compelling, if Photoshopped, vision of a United States where there are no red states or blue states, where neither race nor religion nor ideology can undermine national unity. Obama walked onto that stage an obscure state legislator; he left it a virtual avatar of American reconciliation, the most obvious brand of which was racial. Implicit within his subsequent campaign, particularly after the flashpoint of controversy over Jeremiah Wright’s sermons, was the possibility of amnesty for the past. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Obama’s “More Perfect Union” speech in Philadelphia in March 2008. Delivered at a time when the campaign was virtually hemorrhaging hope, the speech was a deft manipulation of the very human aspiration to break with the messy past, to be reborn in an untainted present.

In the wake of the release of Spielberg’s Lincoln it was common to see pundits remark with amazement on the enduring public fascination with the sixteenth president. The biopic grossed $84 million by the beginning of December—a grand haul for a historical drama with no special effects and an ending we’ve known since grade school. But viewed from another angle, the question becomes not why we are still intrigued by Lincoln but how we could not be. His life contains epic themes: genius, war, personal loss, a narrative arc in which a barely schooled young man goes on to produce some of the most elegant prose in the American canon and a role in ending the wretchedness of slavery. The capacity of his life to inspire and intrigue is rivaled only by its capacity to exonerate. It is this last element that takes center stage in Spielberg’s film. The director’s artistic choice to focus on the last four months of the president’s life is simultaneously a choice to focus on his finest hour and to not focus on the troubled, torturous path he traveled to get there. There is no Frederick Douglass here goading the president toward the more humanitarian position, no whites rioting at the prospect of being drafted to fight for Negro freedom.

On the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, we see unwitting testimony to our ongoing racial quagmire in the reductive ways we discuss the author of that document and the reasons for slavery’s end. We speak volumes about our impasses in the glib, self-congratulatory way we discuss the election of the president most ostensibly tied to Lincoln’s legacy.

It’s important to note that Spielberg’s film about the death of slavery all but ignores the Proclamation. That choice allowed the director—and his audience—to avoid both Lincoln’s support for the mass colonization of free blacks and also the fact that the now-hallowed Proclamation left nearly a million slaves in chains. It also made unnecessary any discussion of the uncomfortable truth that the Proclamation was devised in part as a war measure to ensure the loyalties of border states and deprive the Confederacy of its labor force, while leaving open the question of the South getting those very slaves back, should they return to the Union.

Jelani Cobb is the author of "The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress" and the director of the Institute for African American Studies at the University of Connecticut.


  • Douglas6 on February 26, 2013 3:09 AM:

    What utter hogwash. What ever made you think that a self-styled "transformational" president, one who blew the Federal Government up by 25% and who has a vision of "sharing the wealth" by expanding cradle-to-grave welfare transfer programs to be paid for by vastly increased taxes on the most productive members of society, would not stimulate vast and determined opposition, none of which has anything to do with the president's skin color?