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

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.

But Stevens's relationship with Smith was an outgrowth of his conviction, not the cause of it. He grew up in Vermont, where he likely never met an African American. After college at Dartmouth, he moved to Adams County, Pennsylvania, on the border between slavery and freedom. There, as a young and starving attorney, he took on the case of one Norman Bruce, a Maryland farmer whose slave, Charity Butler, had fled across the state line with her two young children—one of them still a baby. Bruce tracked down his property and sued for their return; Charity sued for her freedom, claiming that she had ceased to be a slave the moment she stepped foot on free soil. Stevens was a clever attorney, and he won the trial for Bruce. Charity Butler and her children were remanded to slavery. Within three years, Stevens became an almost fanatical abolitionist. He put skin in the game, too, conducting fugitive slaves along the Underground Railroad, through his home and office, even while serving as a member of Congress. The realization of what he had done, and the memory of it, made him sick. He was unforgiving of other people's shortcomings, because he was unforgiving of his own. The film captures none of this complexity, a fact attributable to the one-dimensional way in which Stevens is written.

Spielberg's film makes Stevens an unnatural compromiser. He wasn't. He was a politician's politician and had no problem crawling in the mud to achieve an objective. A year and a half after the events portrayed in the movie, Stevens gave a rousing campaign speech in which he excoriated the Democratic party. "We shall hear it repeated ten thousand times," he intoned, "the cry of 'Negro Equality!' The radicals would thrust the negro into your parlors, your bedrooms, and the bosoms of your wives and daughters....And then they [Democrats] will send up the grand chorus from every foul throat, 'nigger,' 'nigger,' 'nigger,' 'nigger!' 'Down with the nigger party, we're for the white man's party.' These unanswerable arguments will ring in every low bar room and be printed in every Blackguard sheet throughout the land whose fundamental maxim is 'all men are created equal.'" In one paragraph, he managed to take down the crude racial incitements of his opponents, while simultaneously assuring listeners that those incitements were false. That was a politician.

* * *

One can find matters small and large with which to quibble. With the exception of Secretary of State William Seward (played convincingly by David Strathairn), Lincoln presents almost every public figure as either comical, quirky, weak-kneed or pathetically self-interested. Only the president is able to rise above the moment and see the end game. This treatment does injustice to men like Rep. James Ashley, Sen. Charles Sumner, and Sen. Ben Wade (misidentified in the credits as "Bluff" Wade, his nickname, for when challenged to a duel by a pro-slavery congressman he accepted and chose broadswords. His foe assumed that he was bluffing but didn't care to find out.). These men were serious, committed legislators who fought a lonely fight for black freedom before the war, and a difficult struggle for black equality after it. They deserve better.

Day-Lewis plays Lincoln as he really was: a man in his mid-50s, shivering with cold, weary, concerned, bones aching, mind distracted.

In the film, Stevens and Lincoln meet secretly to agree on strategy. There, Stevens lays out his plan for Reconstruction, including a massive expropriation of rebel plantations and land redistribution to freedmen and loyal whites. Lincoln tells Stevens that they will soon be "enemies" but for now, they are friends. The scene constitutes a clumsy attempt to deal with a complicated historical question. Stevens did not formulate his plan for Reconstruction until after Lincoln's death, and the president had not yet decided on his own course of action. It is likely that he would not have embraced the radical blueprint in its entirety. But Lincoln did not view the radicals as enemies.

Jump to comments
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.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

Just In