Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and the historical drama of the Civil War

Published on World Socialist Web Site WSWS, by Tom Mackaman, Nov. 12, 2012.

Lincoln, which will be released in theaters nationally November 16, is a powerful cinematic treatment of the Lincoln administration’s struggle to pass a Constitutional amendment abolishing slavery in 1865, the final year of the American Civil War.  

The film centers on the period of the “lame duck” Congress in early 1865, the fourth year of the Civil War, after the electorate had handed Lincoln and the Republicans a crushing victory in the 1864 elections over the Democrats, who opposed Emancipation. It follows the political struggle to pass the Thirteenth Amendment through the House of Representatives—it had been passed by the Senate the previous year—amidst deep war-weariness in the North and against the backdrop of a mounting sentiment in favor of a negotiated peace with the South within the Republican Party itself.

The screen is populated by real historic figures, first and foremost Lincoln, played by Daniel Day-Lewis. Also present are First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), Congressman and radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), conservative Republican Francis Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), New York City “Copperhead” Democratic politician Fernando Wood (Lee Pace), Union general Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris), Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley), and many, many others.

The considerable strength of the film, directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Tony Kushner, rests in its detailed presentation of the extraordinary history surrounding the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. This took Kushner beyond the work of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Lincoln biography Team of Rivals, upon which the film is partly based … //

… Lincoln has been pilloried by numerous practitioners of “identity politics” as a racist and hypocrite. And it has become nearly an article of faith in certain layers of academia, the erstwhile civil rights movement and the ex-left that the Civil War accomplished nothing, that what followed in the African American experience was simply “slavery by another name,” to borrow the title from a recent documentary.

As the passage from Marx indicates, socialists view the Civil War and Lincoln’s role in quite a different fashion, as part of an objective historical assessment, paying full tribute to the revolutionary and world-historical character of the titanic struggle of the 1860s.
All the evidence suggests considerable popular interest in Lincoln, with one publication describing its limited opening weekend as “triumphant.” It is to be hoped that the film will lead to a further engagement with Lincoln the historical figure, with the abolitionists and the Civil War, as well as a deeper appreciation of the motor force of American history: the struggle for equality.
(full text).

(The author also recommends: In honor of the bicentenary of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin [12 February 2009]).


Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution outlaws slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. It was passed by the Senate on April 8, 1864, by the House on January 31, 1865, and adopted on December 6, 1865. On December 18, Secretary of State William H. Seward proclaimed it to have been adopted. It was the first of the three Reconstruction Amendments adopted after the American Civil War … (full text on en.wikipedia);

Google Images-results for Thirteenth Amendment.

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