Quick fact check of Stephen Spielberg’s movie Lincoln

by Gordon Leidner of Great American History

If you have seen Steven Spielberg’s movie “Lincoln,” starring Daniel Day-Lewis, you may want to know: “how much is fact and how much is fiction?” As you probably have heard, the movie is based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent book about Lincoln, entitled, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln . Of course, in order to make an interesting story it was necessary for the movie’s screen writer, Tony Kushner, to start with Goodwin’s book and add a lot of conjectured dialogue. Although it is beyond this article’s scope to cover movie dialogue, I do address the movie’s basic historical facts below.

The Thirteenth Amendment

abraham_lincoln As can be seen by other articles from Great American History, the basic history covered in Spielberg’s Lincoln movie is correct. Lincoln did, in fact, lead the fight to get the 38th Congress to pass the Thirteenth Amendment and abolish slavery. He used his political skills and his “immense power” (which, by the way, Lincoln DID say) to sway the votes of reluctant Democratic congressman towards acceptance of the Thirteenth Amendment.

Lincoln and Congressman Thaddeus Stevens worked together, in spite of their differences, to pass the the Thirteenth Amendment through the 38th Congress. (More on this here). There was a lot of pressure put on Lincoln to delay the Thirteenth Amendment’s passage until after the war had ended. But Lincoln was concerned that if he waited for the 39th Congress to pass the amendment after the war, his previously issued Emancipation Proclamation might be overturned by the courts—allowing slavery to continue. Consequently, Lincoln was insistent on using his influence as President of the United States to assure the Thirteenth Amendment’s passage. Fortunately for the slaves, he succeeded before he was assassinated on April 14, 1865.

Lincoln's voice and mannerisms

What about other aspects of the movie? Lincoln’s voice, for instance. Was it as high pitched as Daniel Day-Lewis’s rendition is? Was his vernacular as “folksy” as the movie portrays?

There is no recording of Lincoln’s voice, but there is a lot of historical information about it, garnered from the recollections of Lincoln’s friends. Rather than having a deep, melodious voice, Lincoln had a higher-pitched tenor voice—and when in informal conversation his midwestern drawl would come through. It may seem incongruous to us today that America’s greatest statesman, a leader of discriminating logic that tackled and solved some of the greatest problems America has ever faced, would also have a demeanor in casual conversation that was jovial and approachable. Lincoln was an extremely complex man, in that he not only composed inspiring, insightful speeches such as the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address, but he also told homely jokes and stories. Even if Daniel Day-Lewis’s excellent characterization of these aspects of Lincoln are not perfect, they are certainly historically supportable.


mary_todd_lincoln In regards to his marriage to Mary Todd Lincoln, Spielberg was correct in demonstrating the tremendous strain that Mary Todd’s temperament put on her husband’s life. Much has been written on this subject, but it is commonly understood by historians that Mary Todd suffered from prolonged bouts of depression, and there is some conjecture that she suffered from bipolar disorder. Her depression was largely a result of the deaths of two children from sickness and four of her Kentucky half-brothers, killed in the war. Although Lincoln was an extremely patient, generous individual and was extremely popular among his associates, Mary was frequently difficult to get along with. Lincoln’s secretaries, Nicolay and Hay, called her “The Hellcat.”

Lincoln's role as a father

Lincoln was definitely an indulgent Father to his son, Tad. Lincoln had always advocated parental lenience, and with the death of Tad’s brother, Willy, in 1862 this inclination became stronger. Consequently, Lincoln indulged Tad’s childish pranks a little more than some of his cabinet members and secretaries would have wanted him to.

It’s true that Lincoln did not have a close relationship with his oldest son, Robert Todd. While Robert was young, Lincoln had been away from their Springfield, Illinois home a great deal, travelling the 8th Judicial Circuit as a lawyer. When he was older, Robert had been absent from the home as well, attending either preparatory school or Harvard. After Robert graduated from Harvard, he did in fact pressure his parents to allow him to enter the army. Lincoln finally relented and in deference to Mary’s fear for her son’s safety, asked General Grant to take Robert onto his personal staff at “some nominal rank.” Lincoln even offered to pay Robert’s salary. Grant was happy to comply, and Robert became a respected, dutiful officer in the closing months of the war. Incidentally, he was the only Lincoln son to survive to adulthood.

There is one scene in the movie between Lincoln and Robert that is pure Hollywood, however. There is no documented evidence that Lincoln ever slapped his son Robert Todd, and to do so would have been very unlike Lincoln's nature. Lincoln, when a boy, was occasionally slapped by his own father. Hence, Lincoln's aversion to what he called parental "tyranny."

Thaddeus Stevens

Spielberg's Lincoln movie was correct on Thaddeus Stevens in every aspect except one. Thaddeus Stevens, a radical Republican from the state of Pennsylvania, was the powerful Chairmen of the Ways and Means Committee. He fought for complete racial equality all of his adult life. Known as "the Dictator" of the House of Representatives, he had a caustic wit that he used to intimidate other congressmen. He wore a wig that was cut the same way all around so that he didn't have to worry about how he put it on. He and Lincoln worked successfully to push the Thirteenth Amendment through Congress in January of 1865. It is not known for certain, however, whether or not Thaddeus Stevens’s housekeeper, Lydia Hamilton Smith, was his mistress, as shown in the movie.

Elizabeth Keckley

Was Elizabeth Keckley, the African-American seamstress and friend of Mary Todd in fact a historical character? Yes. Elizabeth Keckley was a former slave, close friend, and confidant of Mary Todd Lincoln who spent a great deal of time in the White House. She and Mary shared a common interest in the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. In 1868, Elizabeth Keckley wrote one of the most interesting (and controversial) accounts of the Lincoln White House, entitled Behind the Scenes in the Lincoln White House: Memoirs of an African-American Seamstress .

Miscellaneous facts about the movie

Lincoln really did:

  • Have strange dreams about being on board a “singular, indescribable vessel,” that was “moving with great rapidity” towards a “dark and indefinite shore.” He had had the dream repeatedly, before “nearly every great and important event of the War.” [Quotes are from Lincoln's Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles] Lincoln had other dreams, at least one of which was a premonition of being assassinated.
  • Walk flat-footed, like they show in the movie.
  • Store letters and state papers in his hat.
  • Study Euclid. He also read and memorized Shakespeare, which he quotes more than once in the movie.
  • Spend a great deal of time in the War Department’s Telegraph Office, reading telegrams and talking to the young officers.
  • Highly UNLIKELY:

  • That Lincoln bombastically stated that he is the "President of the United States, clothed with immense power!" He did in fact say this, but probably in a more conversational tone.
  • That Lincoln shouted profanity when telling his cabinet he wanted their support for the amendment. Lincoln swore so infrequently that if he really had displayed that sort of anger it probably would have been recorded in contemporary accounts. Makes for good drama, though.
  • The opening scene, where several soldiers are talking to Lincoln about the Gettysburg Address. Although Lincoln was a very "approachable" president that enjoyed talking to soldiers, the idea that a corporal in the army, black or white, would sneer and "talk-back" to the Commander-in-Chief is ludicrous. There are many documented accounts of how black soldiers interacted with Lincoln, and none of them showed disrespect or criticism. This role should have been reserved for the famous black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who brought up inequality issues with Lincoln many times. Even he would have done so with respect, however, as he and Lincoln were friends, and Douglass recognized the difficulties Lincoln faced in bringing equality. Douglass's abscence from the movie is certainly a dissapointment.
  • Historical sources

    There are other interesting books written by people that knew the Lincolns, many of which were utilized by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Firsthand accounts of Lincoln can be found in Abraham Lincoln and Men of War-times: Some Personal Recollections of War and Politics During the Lincoln Administration by Alexander Kelly McClure. (Goodwin utilized this book as source material great deal.) Another interesting account of the Lincolns in the White House is The Inner Life of Abraham Lincoln: Six Months at the White House by Francis Bicknell Carpenter. Carpenter was commissioned to paint Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation (which now hangs in the United States Capitol building) and had many interesting conversations with Lincoln while doing so. Other interesting sources come from Lincoln cabinet members. Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy wrote Diary of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy Under Lincoln and Johnson . Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury wrote Inside Lincoln's Cabinet: The Civil War Diaries Of Salmon P. Chase . Both of these works include invaluable insight into the personal deliberations of the Lincoln cabinet, as well as insight into Lincoln as war leader.

    See Great American History's Did Lincoln Really Say That? page for some discussion of Spielberg's Lincoln dialogue and other famous spurious Lincoln quotes.

    For further reading

    Order Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: Lincoln Film Tie-in Edition

    Order Harold Holzher's Lincoln and Freedom: Slavery, Emancipation, and the Thirteenth Amendment

    Order Gordon Leidner's Abraham Lincoln: Quotes, Quips, and Speeches

    Order Allen Guelzo's Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (Library of Religious Biography)