January/ February 2013 Lincoln Died for Our Sins

By Jelani Cobb

Instead, Spielberg’s Lincoln centers on the comparatively clean moral lines surrounding the Thirteenth Amendment. But like a great deal of the popular ideas about Lincoln, the film confuses the president’s strategic ideas with his moral ones, and in so doing shifts the landscape toward redemption. At issue here are not just Lincoln’s actions, but the context for those actions and the motives behind them. The film highlights that Lincoln, in fighting for a constitutional amendment, freed four million enslaved blacks, as well as untold generations yet to be born. The film does not highlight that by 1865, Lincoln would have known very well that permanently ending slavery would also deprive the readmitted Southern states of the labor force that had allowed it to nearly tear the country in half. The amendment was no less strategically motivated than the Proclamation had been. Arguing that the end of the war gave Lincoln leeway to strike the blow against slavery he’d patiently waited for overlooks the fact that Congress had attempted to pass the amendment in the previous session—when the outcome of the war was far less certain. After the amendment passed Lincoln referred to it as a “king’s cure for all the evils,” but in his annual address given months earlier, in December 1864, he spoke of it as a prerogative of preserving the nation:

In a great national crisis like ours, unanimity of action among those seeking a common end is very desirable, almost indispensable. And yet no approach to such unanimity is attainable unless some deference shall be paid to the will of the majority simply because it is the will of the majority. In this case the common end is the maintenance of the Union, and among the means to secure the end such will, through the election, is more clearly declared in favor of such Constitutional amendment. (Emphasis added.)

The strategic and moral benefits of Lincoln’s actions are not mutually exclusive, but the need for a redemption figure makes us behave as if they are. The fact that black freedom occurred because a particular set of national interests aligned with ending slavery doesn’t diminish the moral importance of it. Indeed, the moral high ground here is that Lincoln, unlike millions of Americans in both the South and the North, was able to recognize that slavery was not more important than the Union itself. This seems somehow insufficient to the definition of heroism today, but it shouldn’t. The by-product of our modern, mythical Lincoln is that he allows us to shift our gaze to one American who ended slavery rather than the millions who perpetuated and defended it. By lionizing Lincoln, we are able to concentrate on the death of an evil institution rather than its ongoing legacy. The paradox is that Lincoln’s death enabled later generations to impatiently wonder when black people would cease fixating on slavery and just get over it.

When Obama cast himself in the mold of Lincoln in 2007, he could not have known how deeply he would find himself mired in the metaphor. As a recent Pew Study revealed, our country is more divided along partisan lines today than at any point since they’ve been conducting studies. Basic demographic divisions—gender, race, ethnicity, religion, and class—do not predict differences in values more than they have in the past. Men and women, whites, blacks, and Hispanics, the highly religious and the less religious, and those with more and less education differ in many respects, but those differences have not grown in recent years, and for the most part they pale in comparison to the overwhelming partisan divide we see today. This is only partly because of the growth of cable news programs offering relentless blue-versus-red commentary and a la carte current events. It’s also because party identity has become a stand-in for all the other distinctions the study explained.

That chasm is the stepchild of the sectionalism of Lincoln’s era. Today, we are another House Divided, though the lines are now drawn more haphazardly. And this is where Obama and Lincoln part ways. In future feature films about the current era, it won’t be the details of the president’s life that will be redacted, but the details of our own. More specifically, it will be the details of those Americans who greeted Obama’s reelection with secession petitions; those who reacted to the 2008 election by organizing themselves and parading racially inflammatory banners in the nation’s capital; those who sought solace from demagogues and billionaire conspiracy theorists who demanded that a sitting president prove his own citizenship.

The heralded “Age of Obama” began with a sugar high of postracialism, but four years later the number of whites subscribing to explicitly racist ideas about blacks had increased, not diminished. The vision of a black person executing the duties of the nation’s highest office was supposed to become mundane; we were supposed to take his identity for granted. Somewhere there was a little-voiced hope among black people that his simple existence as president would be a daily brief for our collective humanity, that we would be taken to be every bit as ordinary as the man occupying the Oval Office. At points in the last four years, it seemed as if we could live in a poetic moment, as if our founding documents could be taken at face value. But the numbers tell us it’s not true. Many Americans have reacted to the promise of the Obama era as a threat, as a harbinger of the devaluing currency of whiteness. The problem is not that these people want to take their country back, it’s that they were loathe to share it in the first place. The recalcitrant racism of the Obama era will be as vexing to the story of American virtue as Lincoln’s racial failings were to those of his era. Lincoln was not as flawless as we’ve been told, and we are not as virtuous as we’ve begun to tell ourselves.

To be clear, though, something in the nation has changed. At no point prior to 2008 could a presidential aspiration have been so effectively yoked to this yearning for a clear racial conscience. But beneath the high-blown, premature rhetoric of postracialism lies the less inspirational fact that those changes were as much about math as they were about morality. Depending on your perspective, we have either reached a point of racial maturity that facilitated the election of an African American president or we’ve reached a point where a supermajority of black voters, a large majority of Latino and Asian ones, and a minority of white people are capable of winning a presidential election. Again, these ideas need not be mutually exclusive, but the need for clean lines and easy redemption makes us behave as if they are.

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?