(This essay was published in Hong Kong Economic Journal on 20 March 2013)


I watched Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s latest work of imaginative historical drama, shortly before its run in cinemas here ended. The cinema was largely empty when I went, but like so many other DreamWorks productions it was great entertainment – powerful acting and directing – and it brought to life the role of Lincoln in navigating the intricate politics of negotiating peace and freeing the slaves in the final months of the civil war.


The film is based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, and covers the final four months of Lincoln’s life, focusing on the President’s efforts in January 1865 to have the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution passed by the United States House of Representatives. This amendment would abolish slavery constitutionally.


As an account of the historical role and political significance of Lincoln in American history, the movie may be inadequate and incomplete. But as an account of Lincoln’s genius in the art of political manipulation, it is brilliant. Spielberg’s exceptional directing and the stunning and artful performance of Daniel Day-Lewis bring the famed lawyer-president to life. I am disappointed it did not win more Oscars, but Ang Lee’s Life of Pi is of course another wonderful film.


Lincoln’s Significance in American History


The common view that Lincoln was the emancipator of African Americans and abolished slavery is of course a much-qualified truth. There is undisputed evidence that Lincoln did not always believe in equality for African Americans. The Emancipation Proclamation as a “war measure” freed only the slaves in the 10 Southern Confederate states, but not in any of the Northern Union states. The war measure conveniently allowed the Union to confiscate Southern assets – the slaves – and freed them to join the Union Army. Together with the introduction of conscription this gave Lincoln the manpower to win the war. Lincoln’s attitude towards slavery can be gleaned from the following quote in a letter dated 22 August 1862 that he wrote to Horace Greeley:


If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.” (Roy P. Basler, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Rutgers University Press, 1953-55)


This letter seldom makes it into most discussions about Lincoln and slavery, including the Spielberg film. In the senatorial campaign debates during the 1858 Illinois race against Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas, Lincoln stated even more revealingly:


I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, — that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that 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.” (Paul M. Angle, ed. Created Equal: The Complete Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858. University of Chicago Press, 1958)


Rather than focusing on the morality of the slavery issue, Lincoln’s role in American history should be seen in the context of other historical shifts. Three clusters of ideas related to economics endured and were more or less endorsed by US voters. From 1800 to 1856, the Democratic program of agrarian expansionism (also known as the Jefferson and Jackson program) won most of the time; indeed it was clearly beaten only in 1840. From 1860 to 1928, the Republican program of commercial and industrial development won most of the time; it was clearly beaten (in popular vote, but not in the election itself) only in 1876. From 1932 to the present, Democratic welfare statism has won most of the time; it was clearly beaten only in 1952, 1956, 1972, 1980, 1988 and 2000.


Political candidates supporting the Democratic program of agrarian expansion and its implicit concomitant of slavery won outright every election from 1800 to 1840 with a majority of the popular votes. However, this apparently stable equilibrium began to wobble and failed to obtain a majority of the votes when its political opponents started to effectively show that agrarian expansion entailed approval of slavery: in 1840, 1844, 1848 and 1856.


The Republican program of commercial development (based on Federalism and Whig positions) was only able to successfully challenge the Democrats when it had aligned itself with the issues of free soil and freeing the slaves. In 1860, Lincoln was swept into power in the most momentous election of American history that ended almost 60 years of Democratic dominance over presidential elections. The Republican Party would hence dominate American presidential elections for the next 72 years.


The outcome of the1860 presidential election was morally desirable, even though it ushered in a bloody civil war. It would, however, be overly simplistic to see this as a defeat of the agrarian expansionism program of the Democrats and a victory for Republican commercial interests and the movement to free the slaves. It is not even clear that the new winning coalition was a fair or true representation of what the American people wanted in 1860.


At that time it seemed no cluster of ideas was a clear winner among the populace; but if there was a tilt towards any one group, it was almost certainly still towards that of the agrarian expansionists. The Republican platform of commercial development eventually triumphed only against a slowly dying agrarianism. Even by the 1880s, the old Democratic combination of agrarianism and repression of African Americans was not fully rejected.


The introduction of the slavery issue simply disrupted the stable voting equilibrium that had prevailed in presidential elections since 1800. Slavery was a genuine issue, but one could take many nuanced positions on it – from merely abolishing the system of slave labor to granting African Americans equal rights and opportunities.


It is worth noting that Lincoln still explicitly supported slavery in his first inaugural address. Most Northerners did not oppose slavery at that time. Many Southern slave holders favored staying in the Union because slavery was constitutionally protected. Some historians have argued that disagreement over economic policy and not just slavery was another motivation for Southern secession and Northern aggression.


When Lincoln began his political career in the Illinois legislature he was in favor of setting up national banks, raising taxes to fund public infrastructure works, and putting up high protective tariffs. Lincoln was a political novice in the Republican Party and quickly gained the support of Northern commercial and industrial interests. These economic policies would come at the expense of the South which did not derive much benefit from national banks and public infrastructure works. Southern plantations, which exported cotton overseas, were more interested in establishing a free trade zone in the South than putting up high tariffs.


Southern states felt bullied by the Northern majority on economic policy and not just over slavery, and so the South withdrew from the Union. Indeed Lincoln blockaded the ports very early in the conflict to strike at the economy of the South. When the Civil War was started the war cry of the North was not “free the slaves” but “preserve the Union”. Only the latter would extend the North’s preferred economic policies throughout the nation.


Lincoln’s Choice


The new coalition that came into power in 1860 was tentative and unstable. Solidifying it would require political strategizing and luck, and it would put Lincoln’s enormous leadership abilities to the test. Spielberg’s movie is at its best in portraying Lincoln’s heresthetic skills in holding together the coalition of Republican conservatives, radical Abolitionists, and loose and splinter elements in the Democratic Party in January 1865 to pass the Thirteenth Amendment. This was shortly after he had won his second presidential election.


In politics winners succeed by inducing other people to join them in alliances and coalitions. Winners usually command considerable rhetorical skills, but this alone is not sufficient. Typically they win because they have set up the situation in such a way that other people will want to join them — or will feel forced by circumstances to join them — even without any persuasion at all. And this is what heresthetics is about: structuring of the world so you can win. Heresthetics is related to rhetoric, the art of verbal persuasion, but differs from it because there is a lot more involved than eloquence and elegance. Where rhetoric is concerned with the persuasion value of sentences, heresthetics is concerned with their strategy value.


Heresthetics is an art, not a science. The heresthetician talks to allies, adversaries and potential allies, asking them questions and telling them facts; he utters arguments, giving reasons for believing his arguments are true; and he frames situations precisely and in such a way as to lead others into responding as he wishes. The successful politician is a master heresthetician – and Lincoln was a grandmaster.


In January 1865, Lincoln realized the civil war was about to end and the South was eager to negotiate for peace. He realized Conservative Republicans wanted peace more than the freeing of the slaves. He knew slavery continued to have its advocates even in the North. If the war ended before the slaves were freed through a constitutional amendment, then the path to the eventual abolition of slavery could be long and uncertain.


Perhaps even more importantly was that without an immediate end to slavery, Lincoln intuited that the winning coalition put together in 1860 would be at risk. The Radical Republicans would lose faith in the coalition. If the coalition failed to consummate a dominant hold on power quickly then the initial Republican success could falter. Lincoln had put together his winning coalition by splitting the Democratic Party and their supporters over slavery. It is possible that the Republicans could also become similarly divided after the war, especially if the southern states refused to end slavery after rejoining the Union.


Lincoln’s Political Genius


Lincoln was very audacious. He wanted to achieve many goals: (1) free the slaves, (2) dictate the terms of the surrender of the South, and (3) consummate a dominant winning Republican coalition.


To succeed it was necessary for him to gain the support of the Conservative Republicans whose top priority was to restore peace rather than end slavery. Lincoln had to put up the pretense of being willing to meet envoys from the South in order to avoid criticism of not working for peace. He therefore reluctantly authorized the Republican Party founder Francis Preston Blair to engage envoys from the South in peace negotiations. But he also understood that if negotiations with the South were to take place then that would kill the sense of urgency in passing an amendment on slavery immediately.


His approach was clearly not supported by his cabinet members – a team of rivals that held divergent views. They argued that even if the Republican votes were secured they did not have enough votes to win in the House without procuring some votes from the Democrats. Some argued in favor of waiting until a Republican heavy House was returned after the elections before proceeding with the constitutional amendment. Unlike Lincoln, apparently many of his cabinet members did not see that the winning coalition’s hold on power still had to be strengthened. The Spielberg movie does not bring out this difference between Lincoln and his cabinet explicitly.


To secure passage of the constitutional amendment, Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward worked to secure the necessary Democratic votes for the amendment. Lincoln’s strategy was to concentrate on Democrats who had just lost their House seats and would only be in office for a few more months. They would be in need of jobs and Lincoln could offer them federal posts. Lincoln surmised these Democrats would be less fearful of how their vote on the amendment would affect a future re-election campaign. Lobbying agents were hired to secure their votes and Lincoln himself also worked on these Democrats.


When envoys from the South were ready to meet with Lincoln, he instructed that they be kept out of Washington as the amendment approached a vote on the House floor. A rumor nonetheless circulated that envoys were in Washington ready to discuss peace, prompting both Democrats and conservative Republicans to advocate postponing the vote on the amendment. Lincoln explicitly denied that such envoys were or would be in the city — technically a truthful statement, since he had ordered them to be kept away — and the vote proceeded.


The purest Republican radical, Thaddeus Stevens, who had railed against “Lincoln the inveterate dawdler, Lincoln the Southerner, Lincoln the capitulating compromiser, our adversary, and leader of the God forsaken Republican Party, our party”, decided in a moment of truth at the House vote to moderate his usual stubbornly principled statements about racial equality to help the amendment’s chances of passage. The amendment narrowly passed by a margin of two votes. That evening, Thaddeus Stevens recalled the events of the day for his Black housekeeper and said simply it was, “The greatest measure of the nineteenth century. Passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”


Passage of the Thirteenth Amendment cemented the divisions within Lincoln’s Party and ushered in the Republican era that laid the foundations for America’s rise to become the greatest economic power in the twentieth century.


Is misrepresentation an inescapable feature of the heresthetics? Is the art of manipulation a necessary part of politics? Is there any room left for the exercise of moral principles? In my article next week I shall share my thoughts on this matter.




William H Riker, The Art of Political Manipulation, Yale University Press, 1986.

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