This post by M.E. Synon is the first in a series about Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln. A counter-argument will be published tomorrow, followed by a comparison of screen and literary adaptations of the last months of Abraham Lincoln’s life.

Last week in Dublin there was the European premiere of Spielberg’s film on Lincoln. Why Dublin? Because the star Daniel Day-Lewis lives in Ireland and he wanted the premiere as a fundraiser for an Irish charity. All of which meant I’ve been writing on Lincoln for the Irish press, trying – and I know it’s fruitless, but still I go on – trying again to explain to the Irish that Lincoln was a racist, a corporate crony of Northern industrial interests, and an imperialist war-monger, and they ought to stop the hero worship.

They never listen, of course. Somebody once told them that a lot of Irish fought for the Union, so they think that must have been the Right Side. I could point out that a lot of Irish also lynched a lot of blacks in the New York Draft Riots of 1863, but they don’t want to listen to that.

Now the film is opening in Britain, and a wise English friend has suggested I keep quiet about it: ‘Say the war wasn’t about slavery and they will misunderstand.’ Perhaps. But in the 1860s, the British did not misunderstand. They saw what was really at stake in the War Between the States. They showed the South great decency. I know there are people in Dixie to this day who remember.

For example, just this past weekend Prof Donald Livingston of Emory University in Georgia sent copies to me of correspondence between Lord Acton and Gen Robert E Lee: ‘I saw in State Rights,’ wrote Acton to Lee soon after the end of the war, ‘the only availing check upon the absolutism of the sovereign will, and secession filled me with hope, not as the destruction but as the redemption of Democracy…Therefore I deemed that you were fighting the battles of our liberty, our progress, and our civilisation; and I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo.’

Acton understood. What drove Lincoln to provoke war was money, empire and the lust for centralised power. Secession by the Southern States would mean the North losing control of the richest part of America. Eighty percent of US foreign earnings in 1860 were from Southern agricultural exports: cotton was gold. Southern States paid a vastly disproportionate amount of the tariffs that protected Northern industry and funded the Yankees’ drive for Western empire.

The war was about tariffs – the only significant source of Federal revenue the Constitution would allow – and not about slavery. Lincoln held black people in contempt. He campaigned before he became president to have slaves and freed blacks shipped to Africa. Anti-black feeling was so deep in Lincoln’s own culture that, before the war, his native Illinois amended its constitution to prohibit the emigration of freed blacks to the State.

Sometime in the 20th century the British lost the truth about the cause of the war. Yet this was Charles Dickens writing in 1862: ‘The Northern onslaught upon slavery was no more than a piece of specious humbug designed to conceal its desire for economic control of the Southern States.’ Dickens knew the truth.

What a truth it was. Here is glimpse of the kind of people who backed Lincoln in his rampage against the South. This is from the historian Clyde Wilson, who noted in Chronicles Magazine: ‘the Yankee entrepreneur who had erected bleachers from which Chicagoans, for a small fee, could look over the wall at the freezing and deliberately starved Confederate prisoners at Camp Douglas, where the results of the daily death toll were thrown into the nearby swamp.’

‘The Union never did anything before, during, or after the War with the welfare of black Americans foremost in mind. As Frederick Douglass, the most important black American of the 19th century, put it, Lincoln “was pre-eminently the white man’s president, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men.” Ambrose Bierce, a hard-fighting Union soldier throughout the War, said that he never met an abolitionist in the Union Army and never saw any black people except the concubines and servants of Union officers. The status of black people is now a gargantuan presence in American consciousness. But neither side in the War of 1861-65 thought that way.’

Then there was Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which people here persist in thinking freed the slaves. It did not free one slave. What the proclamation did was announce that slaves in territory not controlled by the Federal government, that is, where the proclamation could not be enforced, would be freed. However the slaves in Northern States – there were four slave-States in Lincoln’s Union – and slaves in Southern States or parts of Southern States controlled by conquering Union forces, would not be freed.

The historian Thomas J. DiLorenzo, in The Real Lincoln, quotes The Spectator in 1863 on Lincoln’s proclamation: ‘The principle is not that a human being cannot justly own another, but that he cannot own him unless he is loyal to the United States.’

What was the point of the proclamation? In part, it was an attempt at a virtuous pose to impress Britain. Lincoln was near losing the war and feared Britain would come in on the side of the South. But the British dismissed the proclamation. They suspected it was meant to stir a violent uprising by the slaves, something they denounced as incitement to ‘servile insurrection.’

As for the character of the real Lincoln, Prof DiLorenzo’s offers this example. In October 1862, in the second year of the war, Sioux in Minnesota finally revolted when Lincoln’s government broke another treaty and left them starving. Lincoln was trying to eradicate the Indians from the Great Plains because the railway industrialists who had made him a rich corporate lawyer before the war wanted the land cleared for railway expansion.

At Lincoln’s order, Federal forces swept in and seized hundreds of Sioux, men, women and children. Most of the male prisoners, a total of 303, were sentenced to death. Lincoln, however, feared that if he ordered all of them executed, it might encourage Britain or another European power to offer assistance to the Confederacy. He cut down the list of condemned men to 39, all to be executed on December 26, 1862, the largest mass execution in American history.

Add that to the list of Lincoln’s carnage: 620,000 young men dead in his war, including one-quarter of all white men in the South aged between 20 and 40.

Above all, add to Lincoln’s carnage his destruction of the US Constitution. Or as The Spectator put it in 1866: ‘The change of a Federal Commonwealth into a Democratic Republic, one and indivisible.’ What you might call an ever-closer union.

Tags: 19th century, America, Charles Dickens, Cinema, History, Lincoln