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

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.

"They are nearer to me than the other side, in thought and sentiment, though bitterly hostile personally," he told Hay. "They are utterly lawless—the unhandiest devils in the world to deal with—but after all their faces are set Zionwards." Inadvertently, Spielberg has echoed a discredited school of Reconstruction historiography that dominated the field in the early 20th century. It doesn't seem likely that Spielberg actually believes this interpretation, for his closing scene includes Lincoln's fire-and-brimstone premonition that "every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another with the sword." Lincoln could be just as cruel as Stevens.

Smaller quibbles:

  • The film's gray-haired House Speaker, Schuyler Colfax, looks nothing like the young, black-haired House Speaker, Schulyer Colfax, in real life (interestingly, he does look a lot like Colfax's much older predecessor, Galusha Grow).
  • Spielberg changed the names of many Democratic opponents of the 13th Amendment. That fact alone is problematic, but one of the pseudonyms assigned to a proslavery congressman, if I heard it right, is "Washburn." There were actually four Washburn brothers who served in Congress before, during and after the war, and they all opposed slavery. Their mother would be very upset.

  • Hay and Nicolay are portrayed as cowering in Lincoln's presence. They wouldn't have. They knew him more intimately than anyone outside of his family, and they were brash, arrogant White House aides whom many people found a little too big for their britches ("a fault for which it seems to me either Nature or our tailors are to blame," Hay once quipped.) Tony Kushner should have asked Aaron Sorkin to help write their parts.

* * *

But these are trivial objections, mostly. Lincoln is not a perfect film, but it is an important film. Spielberg has positioned his work as something that should unite a divided nation in the aftermath of the 2012 election, but, paradoxically, his story points to a different conclusion. Sean Wilentz, one of those rare historians who moves seamlessly between the academy and the public sphere, noted that "Abraham Lincoln was, first and foremost, a politician." Lincoln probably didn't bribe congressmen to pass the 13th Amendment, but he instructed others to do so. He forged a deep connection with soldiers and their families, and won 78 percent of the soldier vote in 1864 because of it. He knew the power of his office, and used it.

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.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

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


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Entertainment

Just In