The Real Abe Lincoln Wasn't That Great

The movie Lincoln is due for release across Asia in the third week of February, delivering to millions of theater-goers a benign picture of one of America's three greatest presidents and one known to the world as the man who freed the slaves. It is a part of the American narrative that is used as the cudgel for US insistence on human rights today.

By many accounts the movie is more nuanced than might have been expected from Steven Spielberg's stable. Nonetheless there are some things about The Great Emancipator of which both foreign and US audiences are probably not aware.

One is that Abraham Lincoln did not regard black people as equals in any sense at all. He was against slavery for economic and political reasons but he was as prejudiced against blacks as the leaders of the southern Confederacy. His views explain why it took more than 100 years from his Emancipation Declaration in 1863 for blacks finally became regarded as equal (in theory if not always in practice even today).

"Separate but equal" the south's last and most hypocritical bastion of formal discrimination, was actually more liberal than Lincoln. In one of his famous 1858 debates, focused mainly on slavery, with his Illinois rival for the Senate Stephen Douglas Lincoln declared:

"There is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And in as much as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race."

By helping perpetuate the notion of a world divided between black and white, and in which those who are not wholly white are deemed black, Lincoln did a major disservice which is with us today. Why, for example, do Americans refer to Obama as the first black or African-American president when he is half white?

The issue then was not so much that slavery was evil and unconstitutional but over whether it could be extended to more states if they desired. Once war came, the only thing that mattered for Lincoln was the survival of the Union. This was fundamentally undemocratic. The fact is that the South voted to secede and secessionists could have had a plurality even if the slaves, 32 percent of the population of the Confederacy, had been able to vote for the Union.

As for Lincoln's priorities, not only was emancipation not among the war aims but he later declared: "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it".

Most of the world outside America initially viewed the war as driven more by economics than the slavery issue itself. Slavery was to a large extent an economic phenomenon. It had been on the decline in the US until the cotton boom generated by the demand created by newly mechanized textile manufacturers in England. Cotton was very labor intensive making slaves more valuable than ever.

Workers in the North were frightened at the possibility that slavery might be extended to new territories in an expanding US and replace their free labor. Their aim was more to protect themselves than help the slaves.

The divide was between a predominantly rural, agrarian South and an industrializing North. The first wanted free trade, the second protection. Indeed one of the first acts of the Union Congress after secession was the erection of a high tariff wall to keep out foreign manufactures to aid northern industries. This naturally infuriated European and particularly British manufacturers.

Karl Marx, then a contributor to the New York Herald, understood this very well - as did European liberals like Charles Dickens and many Europeans, who had long campaigned against slavery. Slavery had never been recognized for example in Britain itself and been abolished in all its colonies 30 years earlier. It had been abolished in France itself in 1794 and in its colonies in 1848.

Marx was supportive of the Union, only but because he saw the slave system as pre-capitalist. In his version of historical determinism, which had to be replaced by capitalism before the age of the workers would dawn. Wage slavery was simply an advance on chattel slavery so the capitalists deserved support over the slave owners.

It was only after the Emancipation Proclamation that European liberal sympathy for the South drained away. Henry Adams, journalist son of the US ambassador in London, wrote: "The Emancipation Proclamation has done more for us than all our former [battlefield] victories and all our diplomacy."

The Proclamation was the result partly of diplomatic considerations - the war had led to severe strains in relations with Britain and France which declared neutrality - but even more to events on the ground in the South. The slaves themselves in many areas were revolting, adding to the problems of the Confederacy. The slave revolts have long been overshadowed by the victories of Union armies.

But they were a major contributor to Lincoln's final recognition of the political and military benefits of issuing the Proclamation in 1863. By the time the 13th Amendment to the Constitution outlawing slavery was pushed through the following year the war itself was almost over.

Lincoln was not just a Unionist, he was an economic nationalist, at least as far as the North was concerned. His protectionism was more than just wartime politics. He was an admirer of what was happening in Germany in the process of being united under Prussia by "blood and iron" chancellor Otto von Bismarck. The chancellor built on the economic achievements of the Zollverein the Prussian-led Customs Union which preceded the political unification of Germany.

Although in its initial stages in the 1820s the Zollverein encouraged freer trade generally, under the influence of Friedrich List, an economist and polemicist, it became an agent for nationalist designs. List had lived in the US and was an admirer of Alexander Hamilton and directly influenced Henry Clay, who argued for high tariffs in his American System. Lincoln in turn was an admirer of Clay so it was no surprise that List's views were well known to Lincoln and fitted with his political interests and those of the North in general.

List's work The National System of Political Economy was as influential in his day as Keynes was a century later, and has continued to have followers, not least in South Korea in its early period of industrializing and in the European Union. The Customs Union was the basis of a protectionist system behind which German industry could develop. That succeeded beyond all expectations - and to the cost of Germany's neighbors. The US followed suit, albeit with more beneficial consequences.

The decades following the Civil War saw an amazing expansion of US industrial might. This was driven by three things, two of which had their roots in Lincoln's presidency. The first was the belief in List's theory of protection to build national industrial economies to catch up with the leaders.

The second was massive federal help through land grants to aid the development of railways and related infrastructure which was also reflected in state level use of public resources, through the 1862 Land-Grant College Act to fund the land- grant colleges which spurred the production of a large class of technically trained people for agriculture and industry. Only the third ingredient, massive immigration from the poorer parts of Europe, could not be specially attributed to Lincoln.

Whatever the merits of Lincoln's ideas for national development, they were certainly rather different from the free trade and non-government-interference doctrines espoused by the US today in its dealings with the other countries and international agencies such as the World Bank.

Yet nothing can take away from Lincoln's place in American history alongside Washington and Jefferson. Like them too he made little pretense at being religious. But his greatness is better served by recognizing realities rather than as a synthetic icon molded by present day expectations rather than the realities of his own day.