How historically accurate is the movie Lincoln (2012)?

Abraham Lincoln is one of the giants of US history. When it was announced that Steven Spielberg was making a movie based on his life during a key moment in American history there was great excitement and interest in the project. In 2012 Lincoln was released and it was a huge box-office hit and a critical success. The title role was played by Daniel-Day Lewis one of the finest actors of his generation and he was singled out for praise by the critics. Among the other leading actors that starred in the film, were Sally Field, David Strathairn, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, and Tommy Lee Jones. The screenplay was written by Tony Kushner and it is based on the award winning historical work ‘A Team of Rivals’. The movie concentrates on four key months in the career of Lincoln and America. It focuses on the period when Lincoln tried to have the 13th Amendment passed, which sought to prohibit slavery in the United States. In January 1865, the Union was about to emerge victorious in the American Civil War. The movie focuses on Lincoln’s efforts to ensure the freedom of Africa-American slaves, which had been promised under the Emancipation Proclamation (1863). Spielberg directed and produced the movie and it was much darker and serious than many of his works. In December 2012, the film received seven Golden Globe Awards including Best Motion Picture. Lincoln was nominated for twelve Academy Awards including that of Best Picture and Best Director. It won two academy awards including that of best actor for Daniel-Day Lewis. While the movie was critically acclaimed there was some controversy regarding its accuracy. There are those who believe that it was inaccurate and ignored key issues and facts. While the film is deemed to be largely factual by others. This article will try and determine how historically accurate is Steven Spielberg, Lincoln (2012).

Poster of Lincoln (2012)

The Setting

The movie focuses on the key period when Lincoln was trying to pass the 13th Amendment, in early 1865. In 1863, he had issued the proclamation that gave freedom to many African-American slaves. This at the time had been a strategic move designed to undermine the Confederates ability to fight the war at a time when General Robert E Lee was inflicting defeats on the Union army[1]. Since then the tide had turned in favor of the Union and by 1865, the Union army under Ulysses S. Grant had Lee practically cornered in Virginia. The victory of the Union was inevitable and Lincoln had saved the Union. However, Lincoln was also deeply alarmed at this time and it is shown in the movie. He believed that there were many in the Senate and the House of Representatives who wanted to backtrack on the Emancipation Act of 1863. There were many senators and congressmen who had sympathies with the white slaving owning class and who were racists and regarded slavery as the natural state of African-Americans. It seemed that with the Union victory that many in the American political establishment could accept the continuation of some form of slavery in the United States [2]. The movie accurately captures Lincoln’s concerns that the Civil War would fail to secure the emancipation of the slaves. This was all correct and it was by no means certain that Lincoln and his followers could secure the necessary votes that would have allowed them to pass into law the prohibition of slavery. This is all very accurate. The motion picture shows Lincoln fighting to secure the passage of the 13th amendment and that he faced significant opposition. Traditionally, it was widely believed that the abolition of slavery was inevitable after the Union victory. This was not the case. It was a great struggle to pass the Amendment and only a figure with the prestige of Lincoln could have achieved it. Spielberg captures the scale of Lincoln’s achievement.

Celebrating the passage of the 13th Amendment in Congress

The Vote

The movie shows the vote on whether to pass the 13th Amendment as passing in a key moment in the American Civil War is correct. The day of the vote was scheduled to occur just as the Union and the Confederates were about to enter peace negotiations. The south was on the verge of defeat and many Confederate units had collapsed or were on the point of collapse. Lincoln was committed to ending the war as quickly as possible to preserve both Union and Confederate lives. Indeed, as the Confederate officials traveled north the debate on the motion to pass the Amendment had begun[3]. Many in the southern states hated the idea that slavery would be abolished and indeed it had persuaded many to fight on. There was a great fear among many in the Union army that even after the defeat of the Confederates that many would continue the struggle. It did seem at one stage that the Confederate representatives would abandon the talks and end any hopes of a ceasefire or peace agreement. Furthermore, many in the Houses of Congress wanted to use the negotiations to delay the vote. Lincoln did manage to save both the peace negotiations and the vote by a clever piece of word play. This is very accurately captured in the movie. The President stated that the southern peace negotiators were not in Washington and therefore the debate on passing the 13th amendment could continue. This was not strictly true and they were on their way to Washington. This allowed Lincoln to secure his twin goals of getting the Amendment debated and starting the peace negotiations with the north. This was a piece of brilliant political scheming. The movie shows us very accurately that ‘Honest Abe’ was a shrewd political operator and that he was not above using cunning to get his way. The actual vote in the house is mainly realistic. Spielberg shows the house as being very raucous and noisy. Very unlike the modern Senate. This was the case at the time. In the nineteenth century, political debates were often full-bloodied affairs and much more passionate than present day politics. The motion picture does a great job of capturing the febrile environment in Houses of Congress. There is one error in the movie and that is the presence of Lincoln’s wife during the debate. Mary Todd Lincoln played by Sally Fields is shown by Spielberg as being present during the historic debate. This was not the case as it would have been considered ‘un-ladylike’ for her to be present during a raucous political debate[4].

Lincoln and his tactics

The vote for the passage of the 13th amendment was very close. In Spielberg’s film, Lincoln is shown as a shrewd political operator and capable of resorting to some low tactics to secure the passage of the Amendment. While the film shows Lincoln to be an idealist and a humanitarian it does not shy away from the fact that Lincoln could be as devious as his political opponents and enemies. This period in American politics was one that was characterised by outright bribery and shady deals. Lincoln had no choice but to operate in this environment and deal with unprincipled people. The movie shows Lincoln using the party machine to secure the votes that he needed for the passage of the 13th amendment. ‘Honest Abe’ is shown to be in league with his Secretary of State William Seward to secure the necessary votes in any way they can. Seward employs three lobbyists who use underhand tactics to get the votes that are needed for Lincoln to win. The movie shows Lincoln actively cooperating with Seward and the lobbyists. Lincoln probably kept his distance and merely secretly condoned the activities of the lobbyists. This is all very accurate. In one scene, the great liberal politician Thaddeus Stephens is shown discussing the amendment with his African-American housekeeper and commenting that the freedom of the slaves had been secured by low-means. This piece of dialogue did not happen but it captures the reality of the vote and how Lincoln despite being a very principled man was prepared to engage in ‘dirty politics to secure the freedom of countless slaves[5].

Lincoln in 1863

Slavery and the Civil War

However, the movie seems to show that Lincoln was always committed to the abolition of slavery. This was not always the case. By the time of the movie Lincoln was certainly committed to the prohibition of slavery. It also gives the false impression that the civil war was fought on the issue of slavery. In this way, the movie and Spielberg missed a golden opportunity to promote a greater understanding of the origins and the course of the Civil War. Lincoln started the war to stop the break-up of the Union, slavery was only one of many issues that divided the north and the south. The war was not a result of the President’s efforts to end the institution of slavery and indeed in the early 1860s he was prepared to accept that it was up to the individual states to decide on the matter[6]. However, during dark periods of the civil war when it seemed that the Confederates might prevail he came to a belief that the Union could not survive without a genuine commitment to freedom and liberty. It was only in 1864 that Lincoln was fully committed to the abolition of slavery and he made it one of his key slogans during his re-election campaign in that year. The abolition of slavery became the ‘second purpose’ of the Civil War[7]. This is not really shown in the movie. Moreover, the movie gives the false impression of the situation on the ground. In fact, the institution of slavery was already collapsing in the south as many African-Americans were simply leaving their plantations and moving north [8]. This is not shown in the movie.

The portrayal of Lincoln and his family

The casting of Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln was an inspired one. He could capture the character of Lincoln. ‘Honest Abe’ was a complex man, he was in many ways an ordinary man and was genuinely modest and self-effacing. The movie also shows how Lincoln loved to tell a story and was a great story-teller. Day-Lewis also captures the other side of Lincoln the passionate orator and the fiery idealist who becomes convinced that the Civil War had a higher purpose and America a great destiny. Day-Lewis also captures the physical characteristics of Lincoln. Like Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis is tall, lean and has a tenor voice. A voice that was pleasing and critical to Lincoln’s success as a politician. The Anglo-Irish actor studied the appearance and mannerisms of the US President and this in large measure accounts for his ability to portray Lincoln so well. The movie also presents the character of Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, largely accurately. Sally Fields was like Lincoln’s wife as she too was petite. In the movie Lincoln’s wife tells him that she has only made him unhappy and that she was made. There is some convincing evidence that shows that Mrs Lincoln had mental health issues. However, there are some historians who argue that she was also a helpmate of Lincoln and gave him sound political advice. She is also shown in the movie, correctly as urging her third son not to join in the army. The Lincolns had already lost two sons in the war. Lincoln could get his son a position on the movie shows the Lincoln’s third son serving in the army of Grant and being present at the surrender of Lee at Appomattox Court House. This is all historically correct.

How accurate was the movie Lincoln?

In many ways, Spielberg’s movie is very accurate. The director and producer bring Lincoln to life and present a key period in the history of America very accurately. The motion picture does capture the drama surrounding the passage of the vote of the 13th Amendment and Lincoln’s role in it. It shows very well the often-dubious tactics adopted by Lincoln and his supporters to get enough votes. The 2012 motion picture also captures the complex nature of the US President and his often-contradictory character and it presents a more plausible and realistic one that was shown previous Hollywood movie. The circumstances surrounding the vote are all excellently done and we get a real sense of American politics at the time. However, there are shortcoming and errors. For example, the chief one being that Lincoln is shown as being a committed abolitionist and this was not the case throughout the war. Then the movie does not show that slavery was collapsing in the south and that the 13th Amendment was only recognizing what was happening on the ground.

References

  1. Goodwin, Doris Kearns Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (London, Simon & Schuster, 2013), p. 113
  2. Goodwin, p. 116
  3. Goodwin, p. 234
  4. McGovern, George S. Abraham Lincoln. London, Macmillan, 2008), p. 345
  5. Goodwin, p. 312
  6. Manning, Chandra, "The Shifting Terrain of Attitudes toward Abraham Lincoln and Emancipation", Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, 34 (Winter 2013), 18–39
  7. Goodwin, p 234
  8. Zilversmit, Arthur "Lincoln and the Problem of Race: A Decade of Interpretations". Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association. 2 (11) (1980) 22