What ‘Lincoln’ Misses Another Civil War Film Gets Right

Abraham Lincoln, Slavery in the South
The civil war was never about slavery

AFRICANGLOBE – He used the N-word and told racist jokes. He once said African-Americans were inferior to Whites. He proposed ending slavery by shipping willing enslaved Africans back to Africa.

Meet Abraham Lincoln, “The Great Emancipator” who “freed” the slaves.

That’s not the version of Lincoln we get from Steven Spielberg’s movie “Lincoln.” But there’s another film that fills in the historical gaps left by Spielberg and challenges conventional wisdom about Lincoln and the Civil War.

The Abolitionists” is a PBS American Experience film premièring Tuesday that focuses on the intertwined lives of five abolitionist leaders. These men and women arguably did as much — maybe even more — than Lincoln to end slavery, yet few contemporary Americans recognize their names.

The three-part documentary’s airing comes as the nation commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the 1863 decree signed by Lincoln that set in motion the freeing of enslaved Africans. Lincoln is a Mount Rushmore figure today, but the abolitionists also did something remarkable. They took on the colossal wealth and political power of the slave trade, and won. (Imagine activists today persuading the country to shut down Apple and Google because they deem their business practices immoral.)

The abolitionists “forced the issue of slavery on to the national agenda,” says Sharon Grimberg, executive producer for the PBS documentary. “They made it unavoidable.”

“The Abolitionists” offers four surprising revelations about how the abolitionists triumphed, and how they pioneered many of the same tactics protest movements use today.

No. 1: The Great Persuader was not Lincoln

Near the end of “Lincoln,” Spielberg shows the president delivering his second inaugural address, a majestic speech marked by harsh biblical language. Lincoln is often considered to be the nation’s greatest president in part because of such speeches. He was an extraordinary writer.

But the most well-known condemnation of slavery during that era didn’t come from the pen of Lincoln. It came from the pen of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister who joined the abolitionist movement, the PBS film says.

Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” awakened the nation to the horrors of slavery more than any other speech or book of that era, some historians say. It hit the American public like a meteor when it was published in 1852. Some historians say it started the Civil War.

The novel revolved around a slave called Tom, who attempted to preserve his faith and family amid the brutality of slavery. The book became a massive best-seller and was turned into a popular play. Even people who cared nothing about slavery became furious when they read or saw “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”‘ performed on stage, the documentary reveals.

The lesson: Appeal to people’s emotion, not their rationale, when trying to rally public opinion.

Abolitionists had tried to rouse the conscience of Americans for years by appealing to their Christian and Democratic sensibilities. They largely failed. But Stowe’s novel did something all those speeches didn’t do. It told a story. She transformed enslaved Africans into sympathetic human beings who were pious, courageous and loved their children and spouses.

“When abolitionists were talking about the Constitution and big ideas about freedom and liberty, that’s abstract,” says R. Blakeslee Gilpin, a University of South Carolina history professor featured in “The Abolitionists.”

“But Stowe begins with the human dimension. She shows the human victims from the institution of slavery.”

No. 2: It’s the economy, stupid

Want to know why slavery lasted so long? The simplistic answer: racism. Another huge factor: greed, according to “The Abolitionists.”

Many abolitionists didn’t realize this when they launched the anti-slavery movement, the documentary shows. They were motivated by Christian idealism, but it was no match for the power of money.

Christianity and slavery were two of the big growth industries in early America. The country underwent two “Great Awakenings” in the early 19th century — while slavery continued to spread.

But the spread of Christianity did little to stop the spread of slavery because too many Americans made money off slavery, the documentary shows. The wealth produced by slavery transformed the United States from an economic backwater into an economic and military dynamo, says Gilpin, also author of “John Brown Still Lives!: America’s Long Reckoning With Violence, Equality, and Change.”

“All the combined economic value of industry, land and banking did not equal the value of humans held as property in the South,” Gilpin says.

Many Americans hated abolitionists because they saw them as a threat to prosperity, says David Blight, a Yale University historian featured in “The Abolitionists.”

“They wondered if you really did destroy slavery, where would all of these Black people go, and whose jobs would they take,” says Blight.