History on the Big Screen – Lincoln

By Barbara Maranzani

We’re back with our latest installment in a series that examines the real history behind some of this year’s most honored films. This week, we’ll take a look at “Lincoln.” Find out what the movie gets right, what it gets wrong and which historical facts get obscured in the Hollywood haze.

this-year-in-history-abraham-lincolnHow realistic is the very first scene?
There’s almost no way the opening scene of the film, which shows two African-American soldiers meeting Lincoln at a Union camp, and reciting the Gettysburg Address to its author, happened. It’s a wonderful set-up, but highly unlikely. Why? Because during Lincoln’s lifetime, few Americans had even heard of the speech, let alone committed its 273 words to memory. It was only after the war that his words took on the resonance they have today. This isn’t terribly surprising when you look at the events surrounding Lincoln’s delivery of the speech in November 1863, at the dedication for the national cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. There was no build-up to Lincoln’s speech: In fact, he wasn’t even originally scheduled to speak, and was only invited to at the last minute by one of the organizers. The real draw was meant to be Edward Everett, one of the greatest orators of the day. And Everett tried to live up to the star billing, delivering a long-winded speech that went on for more than two hours Lincoln’s speech, which lasted less than three minutes, didn’t wow the crowd—or reporters covering the event. Everett felt differently, however, going so far as to send the president a letter in which he proclaimed that Lincoln’s words would be remembered long after his own.

What’s with that voice—and the constant jokes?
When the first trailer for the film was released, one of the first things people commented on was Daniel Day-Lewis’ speaking voice. Well, here’s one place where the film has probably corrected the faux-history Hollywood has shelled out over the last 100 years. Unlike what your childhood memories of other Lincoln movies, plays and, yes, animatronic figures, might say, most historians believe Lincoln’s voice was not deep and soothing, but was actually rather high-pitched and reedy, with a pretty strong Kentucky accent. In fact, in one of his first major addresses on the national scene, at New York’s Cooper Union in 1860, newspaper articles report that his voice was so odd and off-putting that it took awhile for the audience to adjust and actually pay attention to what he was actually saying. Another thing the film gets right, according to the historical record, is Lincoln’s use of both allegorical storytelling and self-deprecating humor to put people at ease and gain their support. As a young man, Lincoln often entertained his friends and colleagues with tall tales and jokes, including the one featured in the movie about Ethan Allen, which was one of Lincoln’s favorites.

Was Lincoln always a strong supporter of the abolition of slavery?
Put quite simply, no. The movie begins in early 1865, when Lincoln has fully committed himself to getting the 13th amendment passed to formally abolish slavery in the United States. However, Lincoln, like many Americans, struggled with both the idea and reality of slavery for much of his life. While he found the practice itself immoral, he saw no easy way for America to solve the problem—either culturally or politically. In some of his early writings and speeches, he opposed the expansion of slavery, but stopped short of calling for its outright abolition. He also, at times, supported the then-popular idea of freed blacks voluntarily leaving the United States to settle in black-only colonies in Africa. Even early in the war, Lincoln went on record to state that his sole goal was the preservation of the Union stating, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.” As the war went on, however, his views continued to change. With thousands of slaves fleeing to safety (and freedom) behind Union lines, and under increasing pressure from abolitionists and more radical members of his own Republican party, he was finally able to find what he saw as the right political (and moral) solution to the problem. Convinced that the Constitution granted him greatly expanded powers during wartime, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which in fact freed only a few slaves in southern territory already under Union control. As the film accurately shows, Lincoln did fear that the proclamation could easily be overturned once the war ended, leading to his full-court press to get the 13th amendment passed before it did.

Did Lincoln really bribe congressmen to get their votes?
“Bribe” might be too strong of a word, but let’s just say there were a whole lot of back-room deals going on.
As shown in the film, newly elected Pennsylvania Congressman Alexander Coffroth, whose election had been in dispute, was finally admitted to the House after he agreed to vote for the 13th amendment. Several other congressmen got plum patronage jobs in exchange for their votes—or their agreement to abstain from voting all together (lowering the number of “yes” votes needed for the bill’s passage). One congressman who switched his vote was even named ambassador to Denmark for his quick change. As for the trio of men who are hired to wrangle votes? W.N. Bilbo is based on a real Washington lobbyist, but his (and his cohort’s) role is exaggerated. In reality, it was Secretary of State William Seward and other Lincoln confidantes who handled much of the dirty work and kept track of the votes needed to pass the amendment.

How real is the depiction of Congress?
Congress was certainly a much livelier place in the 19th century, with heated debates occurring regularly. The film does take a few liberties, however. Several times, House members verbally attack each other during debates over the amendment. However, then, as now, members are not permitted to address each other directly, but rather technically address their statements to the presiding congressman, not each other. Also, when casting a final vote, neither the House nor Senate voted by state delegations; voting has always been done in alphabetical order.

Did the public really come out to see the final vote?
Yes, but not quite how the film portrays it. Several blacks crowded the House gallery on that fateful day, including one of Frederick Douglass’ sons. There were also a large number of women in attendance, which was not normally the case. However, considering the high-profile role women had played in trying to end slavery, it’s perhaps not so surprising. In fact, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who would go on to lead the fight for women’s suffrage, actually got their start in the abolitionist movement. In 1863, they helped form the Women’s Loyal National League, the first national political organization run by women. They lobbied hard for the amendment’s passage, collecting more than 400,000 signatures in its support. They were not present for the bill’s final passage—but then again, neither was Mary Todd Lincoln, contrary to what the film portrays.

Where’s Frederick Douglass in all this?
That’s what a lot of people are asking. One of the primary complaints with the film is that while the movie is focused almost exclusively on the fight to permanently free blacks from bondage, very few African Americans are featured in the film. The most glaring omission seems to be that of Frederick Douglass, the former slave turned powerful abolitionist. It was Douglass, along with other reformers—black and white—who pressured Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, allow for the enlistment of African-American troops and, later, pushed hard for a constitutional amendment formally ending slavery. Douglass was a persistent nudge on the matter, visiting Lincoln at the White House on at least three occasions, including at least once in the time period depicted in the film. Yet he’s nowhere to be found on screen. There are a few African-American figures that do make it into the final cut: William Slade and Elizabeth Keckley (sometimes spelled Keckly), both employed as servants by the Lincoln family. Both were real historical figures, but little information about their lives is provided. Slade served as both a valet and trusted messenger for both the president and his family, organizing most White House entertainments and managing the rest of the African-American staff. Following Lincoln’s assassination, he went on to serve as the first public steward of the White House under Andrew Johnson. Elizabeth Keckley has an even more fascinating background, hardly mentioned in the film. Born a slave, she managed to save enough money from her work as a seamstress to buy freedom for both her and her son, eventually establishing herself as one of Washington, D.C.’s premier dressmakers. In January 1861, she met Mary Todd Lincoln, who hired her to design the new first lady’s lavish wardrobe. Keckley and Lincoln became close friends, a relationship that would last into Lincoln’s troubled widowhood, until the publication of Keckley’s memoirs, which depicted her life as a slave and offered up personal details of her time in the Lincoln White House—greatly irritating the former first lady. As a side note, if you’re interested in the relationship between Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckley, you might enjoy this book—it’s a great read.

Join us next week, when we’ll tackle the true story behind “Argo.”

Categories: Abraham Lincoln, Academy Awards, American Civil War, Movies