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

Lincoln did, in fact, tell Congressman James Alley, "I am the President of the United States, clothed with immense power, and I expect you to procure those votes." Or at least that's how Alley remembered it, 23 years after the fact. If those were Lincoln's precise words (unlikely, as they don't sound like him; he was a man who liked things done, not said), the president probably didn't bellow them across the room, but rather, slyly conveyed his determination to use patronage as a blunt legislative instrument. But a movie is a movie, not a scholarly monograph, and screenwriter Tony Kushner's use of the line does no real violence to Lincoln's larger position.

Having begun his political career as a Whig, a party founded in opposition to the heavy-handed leadership of Andrew Jackson, Lincoln still believed that presidents should defer to Congress. Though the war ironically demanded that he preside over a massive expansion of executive authority, he rarely demanded much of the legislative branch and even more rarely used his veto power. More usually, he sidestepped Congress when he thought it necessary. His campaign for the 13th Amendment was a rare example of intercession in the legislative process, and Spielberg and Kushner are right to emphasize that point. Whether Lincoln would have continued this active role during Reconstruction, we will never know.

***

Much has been said about Daniel Day-Lewis's imagination of Lincoln's voice. The high pitch, the raspy texture, the vague traces of a Southern Indiana draw—it's probably closer to contemporary descriptions than any previous attempt on stage or screen. But it's the disposition that is pure genius. Day-Lewis perfectly captures what John Hay described as "that weary, introverted look" of Lincoln's. He also captures his exhaustion.

The presidency ages its incumbents prematurely, but none so much as Lincoln. He worked 14 hour days. During critical battles, he stayed up until the early daylight hours, reviewing telegraphic dispatches from the War Department. He battled chronic insomnia. Unlike modern presidents, Lincoln never took a vacation. He worked seven days each week, 52 weeks of the year, and left Washington only to visit the front or, on one occasion, to dedicate a battleground cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The president once told the journalist Noah Brooks that "nothing could touch the tired spot within, which was all tired." Day-Lewis makes you believe it. He plays Lincoln as he really was: a man in his mid-50s, shivering with cold in the dead of winter, weary, concerned, bones aching, mind distracted.

The most touching scenes in the film probe the depth of the Lincoln family's sorrow, as they continue to struggle with the death of their middle son, Willie, three years earlier. After Willie's death, the president took to locking himself in the boy's bedroom each Thursday, retreating for hours at a time into his private grief. "He was too good for this earth," Lincoln said, with tears in his eyes, "...but then we loved him so." Their younger son, Tad, became his father's constant companion. Many nights, Tad fell asleep in his father's office, until Lincoln knelt by his side and carried him off to bed. Day-Lewis reenacts this ritual with powerful authenticity and emotion.

Over time, Lincoln came to view the war as God's divine punishment for the sin of slavery, and in some fashion, he saw Willie's death as the personal cross that he must bear to atone for that crime. The film does not make Lincoln out to be humble, and indeed he wasn't. "It is absurd to call him a modest man," Hay later remarked. "No great man was ever modest." Lincoln's "intellectual arrogance and unconscious assumption of superiority" were hallmarks of his personality. His certainty allowed him to preside over a carnival of death. As Day-Lewis plays the part, Lincoln has the people's touch, but he never once confuses himself for common. His determination to clean house of slavery stemmed from a belief that he was acting as the hand of God, and when leaders begin to think that way, they either become very frightening or other-worldly. Day-Lewis gets that, too.

Every good story needs an antihero. Lincoln also follows the motives and machinations of Thaddeus Stevens, the stern, steely eyed chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, a position that in the 19th century doubled as House Majority Leader. He was "the dictator of the house"—a zealot in the cause of freedom and racial equality. Brilliant, sharp-tongued, and tremendously intimidating to friend and foe alike. In life, Stevens had little patience for Lincoln, whom he viewed as a temporizing moderate. In Spielberg's movie, he is the president's sworn enemy, cautiously willing to drop his armor and work with the president to abolish slavery.

Tommy Lee Jones captures Stevens's spirit well. Unfortunately, Kushner's writing leaves the part flat. In the film, Stevens deploys clever ad hominem attacks to smack down his opponents; in life, he never needed to resort to cheap shots, for he was deft at using cold, hard logic to leave his adversaries the laughing stock of the chamber. In the film, Kushner ascribes Stevens's hatred of slavery to his secret private life. (Spoiler alert: if you don't know much about Thaddeus Stevens and haven't seen Lincoln yet, skip the rest of this paragraph). Indeed, Stevens's life partner of 20 years was Lydia Hamilton Smith, whom the world knew as his black housekeeper. It was the worst-kept secret in Washington.

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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