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.

lincoln history banner dreamworks.png

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.