As you may have guessed already from the title, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, is an example of high-concept. Critics rarely like such movies, but I almost always enjoy them. This film was no exception, and it’s surprisingly well produced, with a budget of $69 million. Surprisingly, it didn’t shoot for funny, but portrayed itself in a disturbingly serious way, considering the outrageousness of the premise. I may have enjoyed it, but the historical content was teeth-grindingly frustrating.
As you may have guessed, the film is an odd mixture of Lincoln history plus vampires. Or, to be more exact, it is a mixture of Lincoln hagiography plus vampires, which fight on the side of Southern Independence, of all things. The film continues to perpetuate a picture of the so-called Civil War which, unfortunately, distorts our current picture of Lincoln.
Is it right for me to take to task a fictional work for its portrayal of Lincoln? Doesn’t artistic license allow for some bending of the story? Sure it does. I’m not one to hold a historical-fiction / monster movie to the exact details of the historical, nor would I even fault a more solidly historical fictional work like a Gore Vidal novel for bending the truth a little. But the problem with Vampire Hunter is that it not only bends the historical record, but it also promotes a simplistic and misleading view of the Civil War, and therefore of the history of modern America, which unjustly turns Lincoln into a demigod, a lover of freedom, and an abolitionist (he was none of these); whitewashes the hypocrisy of Northern aggression; and, in a very literal way, demonizes the Southern soldiers. Though by now we ought to know better, we still spent $69 million dollars on this treacle. If nothing else, the movie’s hagiography deserves a serious response because the movie takes itself so seriously.
It is no comedy. Despite the introduction of vampires, the movie gives no impression to the watcher that its portrayal of Lincoln’s character and the war is misrepresentative. The vampires are equated with both Southern slaveholders and Southern soldiers, and feed on the flesh of slaves. Lincoln’s work against slavery and his work against vampires are conflated as two sides of one coin. No mention is made of Abraham Lincoln’s attempt to return a woman and her four women to slavery in 1847.
Those who believe in the righteousness of American power and the pure virtue of its constant armed interventions and the unquestioned heroism of anyone who carries a uniform and a gun issued by it in who knows what conflict in half-way-across-the-worldistan, need to assimilate some very unpleasant facts with the patriotic myth of America, and particularly the American government, as a beacon of freedom. If we are to maintain that both the so-called Revolutionary War of 1776 and the Constitutional Convention of 1787 possess deep moral legitimacy and demand blood and fealty from every generation in their defense, we must maintain that the US was conceived as a unique beacon of liberty to the world, and that it was our right to secede from Britain in order to secure this liberty to our people.
In contradistinction to this simple feel-good story lie two facts which suggest a darker picture: the government’s enforced practice of racial enslavement of four million slaves for thirty years longer than the supposedly oppressive British, and the North’s brutal war against the South to stop secession, a right which the thirteen states had claimed against Great Britain not long before. These brutalities stand in the way of the myth. Both give the lie to the self-contradictory but still worshipped notion called “consent of the governed.” The risk of these two truths is that they might cause people to suspect that, rather than being a godlike entity spilling forth virtue in every direction, the US government might really be like all other governments: a mixed bag of justice and madness.
As a response to these concerns, the Lincoln myth kills two bird with one stone. On the one hand, it acknowledges slavery, but only as a single gaping hole in an otherwise triumphant coup for liberty in the form of the Revolution / Constitution. (The two are conflated despite the fact that the Constitution undid much of what the Revolution was for.) Then arises Lincoln, a heroic figure who wants to extend the victories of the Revolution by granting human rights to blacks, and so the South, in its slaveholding wickedness, secedes from the Union and starts a brutal war. For freedom, for the United States, and probably for God Himself, Lincoln must fight, and the brutality of the war is justified as the price that had to be paid for the ending of slavery. The brutality of the Civil War undoes the brutality of slavery, and from two wrongs spring a right: the advancement of the American ideal of freedom, and the assurance that no one will ever again be permitted to opt out of freedom under the rule of the federal government. It’s all a neat picture, but more wishful thinking than reality.
The staying power of the Lincoln myth is probably due more to its correspondence to what should have happened, rather than to any resemblance it might bear to what did happen. Given the atrocities of slavery, a principled hero should have arisen, uncompromisingly stood up to the slaveholders, and gone to great personal risk to free the slaves. The Lincoln we are taught about is the Lincoln who should have been, not the historical one, whose hate for slavery was so superficial that in 1847 he represented a slaveholder attempting to retrieve runaway slaves. In case you missed, that let me repeat: Lincoln, of his own free will, engaged for pay in the slimy business of trying to return a woman and her four children to slavery. This Lincoln said, in his first inaugural address, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” (Here.) Anyone who makes him out to be an abolitionist is telling you pretty lies, including Tim Burton.
The movie opens with Lincoln as a child standing up to a racist vampire (Jack Barts) whipping a black boy (William Johnson). Barts retailiates by biting and killing Lincoln’s mother. Later in the movie, Abraham Lincoln and Will meet again, and they become constant companions, with such an easy familiarity that you just know Lincoln was racially enlightened. Apparently inspired by his black friend (proves he’s not racist, right?) and his own innate holiness, Lincoln tours the country campaigning to end slavery!
The truth is much less edifying, and if the goal of American history is to give us heroes to fawn over, read no further! Lincoln was openly racist, arguing that slavery shouldn’t be allowed further west so as to keep territories open for free white labor. He stated that as long as whites and blacks lived together, it would of course be best if the whites maintained the superior position. Blacks ought not intermix with whites, nor serve as Congressmen, nor as jurors, etc. For those familiar with his “colonization” scheme, it is old news that Lincoln was fixated on the idea of shipping black people off to Liberia where they couldn’t bother him with their innate inferiority. And it’s simply false that Lincoln was out to abolish slavery in running for President. For one thing, in 1847, he filed suit in Matson v. Rutherford with the aim of returning a woman and her four children into slavery after they had run off with some abolitionists. In his First Inaugural Address he made it very clear that he was opposed to any attempt to have the nation outlaw slavery in the southern states. He did not set out to end slavery, no matter how many times they might repeat it in school.
There was no moral heroism in Lincoln’s presidential campaign, nor in his law career. The truth is that, far from being the culmination of a heroic life, the ending of slavery during and after the career of Lincoln was a sort of spectacular accident, and slavery went out in a blaze of hypocrisy and tragic irony. Make no mistake: I am glad that slavery was ended. No man has the right to own another human being, and the existence of the institution of slavery is in my mind the single greatest atrocity of the early United States, 1776-1860. Anyone who, like myself, believes in a God who speaks through history cannot help but see the judgment of God in the carnage that fell upon a nation that for four score and seven years bought and sold human beings like cattle. Just wanted to be clear.
Far from being an opponent of slavery, Lincoln was the largest slaveholder in the world. What is slavery, if not the use of threats of violence and even murder in order to make another person do what one wants? The draft forces men to go and kill other men, whether they want it or not, and then threatens these men with death should they refuse to continue. They call the refusal to go kill other men for a cause one does not understand “desertion.” Even if one volunteered, one was enslaved from that point onward; one could not just leave. Soldiers, throughout most of history, have been like slaves, but treated as more expendable.
Let’s not mince words. Lincoln enslaved two million people and then sent them to fight another million slaves of the Confederacy, which resulted in seven hundred fifty thousand deaths. Nor did he send all those men to kill and be killed with the aim of ending slavery: the use of awful means for a noble end. Lincoln himself said that the war was about keeping the South under the government of the United States, not about slavery, and that he would do whatever it would take to win, whether it meant emancipating all the slaves or keeping every single one in slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation, despite the implication made by the movie, was a tactical move, a tactical move with a glorious side effect, to be sure, but a tactical move nonetheless.
And, since I’m already on record spouting these and other heresies, let’s go one step forward. The Civil War was not necessary to free the slaves. Slavery was on the way out, worldwide, and the South, whether inside or outside the Union, would have gone on to free the slaves. Some people seem to imagine that, had the South won, slaves would still be scraping away, picking long rows of cotton under the hot sun all over the South right. I can see it now — some Southern gentleman sitting on his front porch, drinking a mint julep and using his iPhone to post to Facebook about the “hilarious” thing one of his slaves just said.
Wikipedia has a timeline of when slavery was abolished, and the fact is that the entire Western world, along with pretty much all the colonized world and even the Ottoman Empire freed their slaves at some point in the nineteenth century. The secession of the South would have delayed the inevitable freeing of the slaves, but how long. A decade or two? At most three. And it doesn’t take a war to free slaves: every other country in the world managed to eliminate slavery without a war, except for the notoriously dysfunctional island nation of Haiti. There were two ways to get rid of it: either to simply outlaw it or to sweeten the pill a bit by compensating slaveholders for the lost slaves. Even if we discount the human cost of the Civil War entirely, the cost of financing the Civil War was about four to ten times the cost of buying out the slaveholders, depending on how much one decided to compensate them.
And so don’t buy it if anyone presents the Civil War as the sacrifice of 750,000 people for the permanent freedom of 4,000,000. It was, instead, the killing of 750,000 people, out of 3,000,000 war-slaves, which resulted, as a side effect, in freedom a bit earlier for 4,000,000 agricultural slaves.
History has judged Lincoln too kindly, but now that the internet exists, ever more people can easily find their way to the truth. They’ll learn that he was a white supremacist, that he personally attempted to assist in the re-enslavement of a woman and her four children, and that he was willing the kill the better part of a million people in defense of an abstraction known as The Union, invading a set of seceding states, even despite the fact that The Union to which he offered his grisly human sacrifices was created in a similar act of secession a lifetime before.
Recommended Readings (Books)
I haven’t yet read this one, but it’s on my reading list: Lerone Bennett Jr.’s Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream. I’ve heard good things about it from Thomas DiLorenzo (here and here) and more of a mixed review from Eric Foner (here). And while we’re at it, here’s another good article by DiLorenzo on Lincoln: here.
I’ve heard good things about Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, which I am told is a work of fiction which, unlike Vampire Hunter, alerted the public to a great deal of true stuff about Lincoln that they hadn’t been previously introduced to. Like Forced into Glory, it’s on my enormous and ever-growing reading list.
With readings on the civil war and more, The Costs of War, a Mises Institute symposium on war revisionism, edited by John V. Denson is a great start for those who want to consider the possibility that the various jihads they’ve been raised to revere just might be the work of a bunch of murderous lying sociopaths.
And finally, on the topic of Revisionism in general, a good introduction is Jeff Riggenbach, Why American History Is Not What They Say. It explains why we need revisionism, and provides a quick overview of the main writers, with lots and lots of footnotes.
Murray Rothbard’s memo to the Volker fund on the causes of the Civil War explains how one can be anti-slavery and still support the idea of the South’s right to secede: here.
Myles Kantor, “Lincoln’s Slavery Lacunae,” discusses, among other things, Lincoln’s attempt to re-enslave a woman and her four children in 1847: here.