Fact-Checking 'Lincoln': Lincoln's Mostly Realistic; His Advisers Aren't

Spielberg's film gets the president's disposition right, but doesn't quite do justice to everyone else.

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In May 1862, to the considerable frustration of anti-slavery stalwarts in his own party, Abraham Lincoln overturned an order issued by General David Hunter that would have freed every slave across vast swaths of the southern Atlantic coast. It wasn't the first time that the president subordinated his personal antipathy toward slavery to placating the border states, and it wouldn't be the last.

Slavery was crumbling fast. Lincoln knew it and encouraged it. The year 1862 would see the president sign legislation banning the "peculiar institution" in Washington, DC and the western territories. Even as he disavowed abolition as a primary objective, Lincoln privately beseeched border state representatives to emancipate their slaves under generous terms, before the tide of war swept away the whole system under no terms at all. "You can not if you would, be blind to the signs of the times," he warned. Still, he couldn't abide General Hunter's order. "I wanted him to do it," Lincoln explained to a friend, "not say it."

This was Abraham Lincoln in a nutshell. Inscrutable and unknowable, he was, by his own admission, "rather inclined to silence." William Herndon, his law partner, worked beside him for 16 years but found him the most "shut-mouthed man who ever lived."

How, then, can we access his mind, 150 years after the fact, when those closest to him found Lincoln so impenetrable in his own time? Relative to other presidents, he wrote comparatively few letters, and virtually none of a personal nature. We have no diaries with which to work, and obviously no film footage or recordings. Much is left to context, and invariably, to imagination.

Steven Spielberg's new biopic, Lincoln, is probably the most ambitious Lincoln film in the history of its medium. Based largely on Doris Kearns Goodwin's monumental volume Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, the film follows Lincoln over the last four months of his presidency, as he simultaneously works to draw the Civil War to a close and secures congressional passage of the 13th Amendment. Though Spielberg wisely confined himself to just one chapter of Goodwin's expansive history, the argument is unmistakably hers: Lincoln was a strong executive, astute in all matters political and military. He placed his former rivals in positions of considerable influence and then wielded firm authority over an unruly and divided cabinet to achieve great things.

In fact, Goodwin's central argument (and, by default, Spielberg's) originated with John Nicolay and John Hay, Lincoln's White House aides, who play bit roles in Spielberg's film. Twenty-five years after the president's assassination, they published his authorized Lincoln biography. Enjoying exclusive access to Lincoln's papers, which were otherwise embargoed until 1947, they were the first to claim Lincoln's mastery of his fractious cabinet, his evolving genius for military strategy, his mystical bond with the citizenry, and his deep intelligence. As Nicolay assured Robert Lincoln, "we hold that your father was something more than a mere make-weight in the cabinet... We want to show that he formed a cabinet of strong and great men—rarely equaled in any historical era—and that he held, guided, controlled, curbed and dismissed not only them but other high officers civilian and military, at will, with perfect knowledge of men." It's that notion that informs Spielberg's film.

Lincoln's faced a very real dilemma in January 1865, and the film does a masterful job of explaining his complex set of exigencies. The war was nearing its end. The president had grounded the Emancipation Proclamation in his wartime powers as commander-in-chief. A cessation of hostilities would undermine the legal basis of that order, and it was not inconceivable that the courts might order the re-enslavement of millions of African Americans, including many who fought in the Union Army. The new Congress, which was scheduled to convene in December 1865, was sure to pass the measure, as Republicans had routed their opponents in the recent election. Lincoln even had the option of calling the new Congress into session early. But he was under intense pressure to negotiate peace with the Confederacy, and he needed the amendment in order to make abolition a sine qua non. Only when the rebels realized that slavery could not be saved would they lay down their arms.

The film shows Lincoln prevailing over the opposition of his advisers. But while it's true that Lincoln's original cabinet was an unruly and independent bunch, by January 1865 the president had grown weary of the incessant squabbling and back-stabbing. He scrapped his Team of Rivals for a Team of Loyalists. Those who couldn't find comity, like Salmon P. Chase, the fiercely antislavery Treasury Secretary, and Postmaster Montgomery Blair, a cantankerous conservative, were out, replaced by men who understood that they served at the pleasure of the president. Attorney General Edward Bates retired to his home in Missouri, replaced by James Speed, a Lincoln loyalist and slavery foe. Interior Secretary John Usher was swapped out for James Harlan, one of Lincoln's staunchest supporters in the Senate. Of the original cabinet, those remaining—Secretary of State William Seward, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles—were deeply loyal to the president.

It's therefore highly unlikely that Lincoln had to do much cajoling and convincing when he announced his intention to push for the 13th Amendment. But if Spielberg's narrative is a little off, his principal argument isn't. Lincoln did, in fact, assume great risk in backing the amendment during his re-election canvass the year before, and he placed the weight of his presidency behind it in 1865.

The film captures none of Stevens's complexity, a fact attributable to the one-dimensional way in which he's written.

Spielberg's film also credits Lincoln with sanctioning, and in some cases directly negotiating, the brazen use of patronage appointments to buy off the requisite number of lame duck Democratic congressmen. Here, the record is hazy. Historians generally agree that the president issued broad instructions to Seward, who in turn hired a group of lobbyists from his home state of New York to approach potential apostates. It's highly implausible that Lincoln dealt directly with these men, or that he immersed himself in the details. He was too smart a politician to do that. But he did whip hard for the amendment. He visited a Democratic congressman whose brother had fallen in battle, to tell him that his kin "died to save the Republic from death by the slaveholders' rebellion. I wish you could see it to be your duty to vote for the Constitutional amendment ending slavery." That scene is true to history.

Presented by

Joshua Zeitz

Josh Zeitz was a senior policy advisor to New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine and has taught American history and politics at Cambridge and Princeton. He is writing a joint biography of John Hay and John Nicolay to be published in the fall of 2013.

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