With a fine, world-weary performance by Welles, ABRAHAM LINCOLN seems to me to be one of Orson Welles's most heartfelt radio programs, and I wonder if the reason doesn't have something to do with MARCHING SONG, the epic play about John Brown that Welles wrote as a teenager with Roger Hill. I had a chance to skim through the manuscript when I was at the Lilly Library not long ago, and one thing that struck me were the parallels drawn between John Brown and Kurtz from Conrad's HEART OF DARKNESS. From what little I was able to read, I got the impression that Welles and Hill considered John Brown to be a potential Kurtz-like figure who may have wanted to set himself up as a kind of monarch in the Old South once slavery had been overturned. In this sense, the program could also be thematically related to the Voodoo MACBETH, which does take place in the aftermath of a successful slave revolt. Abraham Lincoln might have had that kind of power had he lived.
The program shows Lincoln as a political puritan, unwilling to compromise with the South, or with those members of his cabinet who wnated to make a shameful peace with the South. The section of the program dealing with the siege at Ft. Sumter is used to illustrate this. To withdraw from Ft. Sumter, which the Confedracy demanded, might have postponed the war, but it would have compromised the Union's principles. Lincoln figured that, to avoid temporizing would leave the Union with a clean cause, simply and loyally supported. He felt that war could be made impossible only by destroying it's causes, chief among them the betrayal of trust. With the South's sacred trust broken, it was the Union's duty to resist secession.
John Drinkwater's play also seems like a product of the radical 30's as it has Lincoln in a speech consider the fine line between Wage slavery and outright slavery:
"It is assumed by many that labor is available only in connection with capital, that nobody labors unless somebody else, owning capital, uses it to induce that person to labor. This assumed, it is next considered whether that capital shall hire and thus induce them to work by their own consent, or buy them and drive them to it without their consent. Having proceded that far, one can conclude that all laborers are either hired laborers or slaves, and that whoever is once a hired laborer is fixed in that condition for life.
"But there is no such relationship between capital and labor as assumed. Nor is there any such thing as a free man being fixed for life in the condition of a hired laborer. Both these assumptions are false, and all inferences from them are groundless. Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor hadn't first existed. No men living are more worthy to be trusted then those who toil up from poverty. Let them beware of surrendering to a political power which they already posess, and if which surrendered, will surely be used to close the door of advancenent against such as they, and to fix new disabilities and burdens upon them, till all of liberty is lost."
'The Union Forever!" shouts the 9-year-old Charles Foster Kane in 1871. I've always wondered if it was a coincidence that the victorious Union and Charles Foster Kane were so close in age, that perhaps Kane was even a metaphor for the union itself. To Abraham Lincoln, the "Union" stood for common rights, including the rights of labor and the working class ("The working man and the slum child", as CFK later says). Lincoln believed that there was a proper balance between having a government that was too strong to allow it's people those rights and freedoms, and too weak to protect itself and prevent secession. He saw the war as a defense of popular government and the rights of the people, including working people.
It's also worth noting that, some 30 years later, during a guest appearance on The Dean Martin Show, Welles delivered a stirring tribute to the woman who wrote The Battle Hymn of the Republic ("John Brown's body lies a moulderin' in the grave, but his truth goes marching on...").