Warning: this may be only wishful thinking on my part. But it turns out that Tony Kushner, who wrote the screenplay for Lincoln, shares that wishful thinking, if only wishful it be. My wife and I saw the movie Sunday, and we both thought it was terrific. I have a few quibbles about it, but not with its historical accuracy in the literal sense – Kushner really did his homework, as he explained in an interview Nov. 15 with Dave Davies of WBRU radio in Boston. It was in that same interview that I found he shared my wishful thinking.
We know the history of Reconstruction after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Andrew Johnson followed Lincoln’s policy of malice towards none and charity towards all; by the end of 1865, he had approved new governments in the former Confederate states, nine of which showed apparent good faith by ratifying the 13th amendment. As far as Johnson was concerned, they were back in the Union. But the Radical Republicans won a two thirds majority in Congress in 1866, and quickly moved to impose Radical Reconstruction: only the most extreme measures, they believed, could bring political and social justice to the South and eradicate the legacy of slavery. And they had grounds for suspicion of white Southerners; a number of states had adopted “black codes” to restrict the rights of freedmen.
Under Radical Reconstruction, the white governments of ten Southern states were replaced by military governments, which created voter rolls that enfranchised blacks and disfranchised any whites who had supported the Confederacy. The new state governments elected in 1867 were controlled by Republicans, and enacted progressive measures like universal public education and public works. But they were also soon mired in blatant corruption, as in appropriating millions for railroads that were never built, with the funds ending up in sticky fingers. Taxes skyrocketed, and some states went bankrupt in all but name. The old planter class resented property taxes based on the actual value of their land; before the Civil War, they were hardly taxed at all, because they could declare the value of their land and nobody would dispute them. But working people and the poor also suffered. While a number of blacks held office, they were largely pawns of the carpetbaggers and scalawags who waxed fat from Reconstruction. Only, it was the blacks who were blamed by white conservatives for all their real and imagined sufferings, and were singled out for brutal vengeance by the White League and the Ku Klux Klan.
Out of all this came the legend of the Lost Cause and the Redemption, which led to draconian Jim Crow laws, disfranchisement of blacks, decades of lynchings, and all the rest. That legend was the subtext of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of A Nation (1916), which was based on a 1905 Thomas Dixon novel called The Clansman, and led to a revival of the Klan; and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936) – her celebration of the Klan was cut from the 1939 movie version, but the Legend of the South as some sort of idyllic paradise before the War remained. The white conservative view of Reconstruction was accepted almost universally in the North as well as the South; one the few dissenters (among whites, at least) was Howard Fast, whose Freedom Road (1944) was made into a movie in 1979. But as a Communist – he won a Stalin Peace Prize in 1953 – Fast had to hew to the absurd Marxist premise that the freedmen and poor whites, who together made up the overwhelming majority of the Southern population, were proletarian brothers in arms – and thus inexplicably done in by a handful of vengeful planters. Perhaps the only 20th Century novelist to write honestly about Reconstruction was Frank Yerby (himself black, although most of his readers may not have known it) in works like The Vixens (1947), which portrayed the carpetbaggers as crooks and the Redeemers as callous murderers.
Would things have been any different had Lincoln lived? And just what did Lincoln have in mind? That has become a matter of some controversy among historians, given that in 1862 he had seriously proposed that freed blacks be sent to Latin America. There had already been a movement to return blacks to Africa; that was the origin of Liberia, and Lincoln had supported that before the war. During the war, there had even been an attempted settlement in Belize. Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave who became a black leader, regarded the colonization plan a betrayal, and some revisionist historians seem to think it was Lincoln’s Final Solution to the problem of what to do with freed slaves – although noting that perhaps it was only because he feared Southern whites would never accept free blacks. But his secretary John Hay wrote that he had “sloughed off” that idea in 1864, and there is no mention of it in his final public address, delivered in front of the White House April 11, 1865, just after Lee surrendered; rather, he held out hope that whites and blacks could live together, although it would take time to achieve political equality. He gave the example of Louisiana, where the whites had embraced the Union and accepted emancipation – clearly criticizing Radical Republicans who opposed recognition of the new government:
Some twelve thousand voters in the heretofore slave-state of Louisiana have sworn allegiance to the Union, assumed to be the rightful political power of the State, held elections, organized a State government, adopted a free-state constitution, giving the benefit of public schools equally to black and white, and empowering the Legislature to confer the elective franchise upon the colored man. Their Legislature has already voted to ratify the constitutional amendment recently passed by Congress, abolishing slavery throughout the nation. These twelve thousand persons are thus fully committed to the Union, and to perpetual freedom in the state--committed to the very things, and nearly all the things the nation wants--and they ask the nation’s recognition and its assistance to make good their committal. Now, if we reject, and spurn them, we do our utmost to disorganize and disperse them. We in effect say to the white men "You are worthless, or worse--we will neither help you, nor be helped by you." To the blacks we say "This cup of liberty which these, your old masters, hold to your lips, we will dash from you, and leave you to the chances of gathering the spilled and scattered contents in some vague and undefined when, where, and how." If this course, discouraging and paralyzing both white and black, has any tendency to bring Louisiana into proper practical relations with the Union, I have, so far, been unable to perceive it. If, on the contrary, we recognize, and sustain the new government of Louisiana the converse of all this is made true. We encourage the hearts, and nerve the arms of the twelve thousand to adhere to their work, and argue for it, and proselyte for it, and fight for it, and feed it, and grow it, and ripen it to a complete success. The colored man too, in seeing all united for him, is inspired with vigilance, and energy, and daring, to the same end. Grant that he desires the elective franchise, will he not attain it sooner by saving the already advanced steps toward it, than by running backward over them? Concede that the new government of Louisiana is only to what it should be as the egg is to the fowl, we shall sooner have the fowl by hatching the egg than by smashing it.
There is scant reference to this address in Lincoln, which mentions only that he wanted to limit the black franchise, at least initially, to the most intelligent – and those who had served in the Union Army. But to advocate voting rights for any blacks at all was revolutionary in 1865. But the film portrays our 16th president as both a man of principle and a man of what would later be called realpolitik. He wanted the 13th Amendment passed as a matter of principle, but didn’t shrink at arm-twisting and backroom deals to get the votes he needed in the House. The Hampton Roads Conference, where he met with Confederate leaders to talk “peace,” was the price of getting Preston Blair, a prominent Democrat, to lean on other Democrats – by fair means or foul. Chances are that Lincoln considered it just a ploy; the movie seems to suggest that the outcome of the war was still uncertain at the time, but in fact the Confederacy was clearly on the verge of military collapse. If its leaders seriously expected any concessions from Lincoln, they were delusional. In any case, here is how Kushner summed up the situation in his interview with Davies:
I think that what Lincoln was doing at the end of the war was a very, very smart thing, and it is maybe one of the great tragedies of American history that people didn't take him literally after he was murdered, the inability to forgive and to reconcile with the South in a really decent and humane way without any question was one of the causes of a kind of resentment and the perpetuation of alienation and bitterness that led to the quote/unquote "noble cause" and the rise of the Klan and Southern self protection societies and so on. The abuse of the South after they were defeated was a catastrophe and led - helped lead to just unimaginable, untellable human suffering. So had Lincoln not been murdered and had he really been able to guide Reconstruction, I think there's good reason to believe that he would have acted on those principles because he meant them.
Maybe I’m delusional. Maybe Kushner is delusional. Maybe things would have turned out just as badly if Lincoln had lived and his policies been pursued. In our history, we know how long it took for blacks to regain the “scattered contents” of the cup of liberty dashed from their lips. It surely could have been no worse in that other history that never happened.