Forgive us, please, for continuing to dwell on Spielberg’s Lincoln. It’s not often that we have a rich trove of books on the very subject captivating the nation’s conversation. Wait, strike that, it’s pretty often, actually. It’s kind of our thing.
The film has a scene in which Lincoln and Radical Republican congressman Thaddeus Stevens have retreated from the grand reception of the president’s second inauguration down to a messy White House kitchen. Daniel Day Lewis’s Lincoln, driven to engineer the passage of the 13th Amendment, is trying to convince Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones, to temper his usually-forceful demands for racial equality, so as not to scare off the moderate votes required for the bill’s adoption. The scene, packed with quick Kushner dialogue, witty and wise, is one of the film’s great depictions of politics as art of the possible.
In the course of their volley Lincoln expresses his admiration for Stevens’s “zeal,” but explains why he’s had to act with greater restraint than the congressman had wished:
If I’d listened to you, I’d’ve declared every slave free the minute the first shell struck Fort Sumter; then the border states would’ve gone over to the confederacy, the war would’ve been lost and the Union along with it, and instead of abolishing slavery, as we hope to do in two weeks, we’d be watching helpless as infants as it spread from the American South into South America.
That reference to South America is one of the very few moments in which Spielberg gestures towards the global context of the American Civil War, and it’s all the more striking for how matter-of-factly it’s dropped into conversation. The standard popular and historical gaze back at the Civil War—embodied pretty accurately by the film, save the above—sees the coming of the conflict as territorially bounded by regions that were only delineated by the war itself. The narrative, in other words, reads the parties created by the war as those that started it.
As Walter Johnson argues in River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom, a much-anticipated book whose publication is but a couple of months away, we need to ask not just what “the South” was seceding from, but what it was seceding to:
It takes no great insight (only a taste for heresy) to say that the story of “the coming of the Civil War” has been framed according to a set of anachronistic spatial frames and teleological narratives. It is resolutely nationalist in its spatial framing, foregrounding conflict over slavery within the boundaries of today’s United States to the exclusion of almost every other definition of the conflict over slavery. Because of the territorial condition of the regions under debate and the character of federal recordkeeping, the Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act produced tremendous archives that American historians have used to terrific effect. Yet for many in the Mississippi Valley (and for the president of the United States, who in 1852 devoted the first third of his State of the Union address to the topic), the most important issue in the early 1850s was Cuba, an issue that was related to but certainly not reducible to the question of territory gained through the Mexican War and the Compromise of 1850. Similarly, for many pro-slavery Southerners, especially in the Mississippi Valley, the issues of Nicaragua and the Atlantic slave trade were more important than the question of Kansas (dismissed by many as a fight over a place where no real slaveholder would ever want to live anyway) and more important than what was happening in Congress, from which they, in any case, expected very little. The standard narrative, that is to say, projects a definition of spaces which resulted from the Civil War—no Cuba, no Nicaragua, no Atlantic slave trade—backward onto its narrative of the description of the conflict over slavery before the war.
Much of this work has been done through the category of “the South,” which serves in its dominant usage as a spatial euphemism for what is in fact a conceptual anachronism: those states which eventually became part of the Confederacy. But what the “Southern position” was on any given issue... was subject to fierce debate at pro-slavery commercial conventions of the late 1850s, which are generally seen as hotbeds of secessionism. About the only things upon which those conventions could agree was that there was something called “the South” that was worth fighting for and that the election of a Republican president in 1860 would be grounds for secession. The ultimate grounds for secession represented a sort of lowest common denominator, a platform defined by what everyone involved agreed “the South” could not be.
We recently had a chance to speak with Johnson about pro-slavery imperialism, the political economy of slaveholders, and the inherently-expansionist logic of cotton monocropping:
Incidentally, there’s another striking moment in Lincoln, in which the president and his Secretary of State are directly pleading for Kentucky congressman George Yeaman’s support for the amendment. “I saw a barge once, Mr. Yeaman,” Lincoln says, “filled with colored men in chains, heading down the Mississippi to the New Orleans slave markets. It sickened me, ‘n more than that, it brought a shadow down, a pall around my eyes.”
Those New Orleans slave markets are the subject of Johnson’s earlier work, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market. The book—recently the focus of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Effete Liberal Book Club”—lays bare the chilling day-to-day workings of the commodification of human beings. It’s a deeply effecting work, and a must-read for anyone unsettled by the tendency to reduce the era to faceless statistics and the congressional jockeying of white men.