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

"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.

Days before Lincoln opened in limited release, the United States reelected its first black president. Barack Obama makes no secret of his love for Lincoln. He opened his first national campaign on the steps of the Illinois State Capitol, the building where Lincoln delivered his famous "House Divided" speech. Both men served several years in the Illinois state legislature, and both were elected to one term in Congress before improbably ascending to the presidency. A particular strain of history has imagined Lincoln as a great conciliator. Barack Obama has aspired to rise above politics and forge unity in a sharply divided polity. Like Lincoln, his enemies have made it all but impossible for him to do so.

Steven Spielberg's film reminds us that there was another Lincoln: a profoundly controversial, loved and hated president. Before his apotheosis on Good Friday, 1865, he was scorned as much as he was revered. "It is a little singular that I who am not a vindictive man should have always been before the people for election in canvasses marked for their bitterness," Lincoln told Hay. But Abraham Lincoln understood that politics was combat. He was able to reconcile his supreme confidence and a people's touch. He came to believe that he was the hand of God without believing that he was God.

One has to assume that President Obama will soon take the opportunity to see Lincoln. If he does, we can hope that the film reminds him that he is clothed with immense power, and he should continue to use it in ways that will prove untidy in the moment, but wise in the rear-view mirror of history.

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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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