By Jinny Heo & Tony Tan
Lincoln is an American historical period drama film produced in 2012. The movie, directed by Academy Award-winning director Steven Spielberg, portrays President Abraham Lincoln’s sagacity and patience reflected in the four months that he spent attempting to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which would permanently abolish slavery in the United States. Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays President Lincoln, artfully reenacts the Congressional debate and at times dubious political maneuvering that led to the passage of the amendment. Beyond emphasizing the evils of slavery and appealing to morality, Lincoln’s team engaged in quid pro quo, offering government jobs to some Congressmen to get their votes of approval. Eventually, towards the end of the movie, the House of Representatives approves the amendment.
Throughout its plot, the movie touches on a series of complex and sensitive yet important topics such as slavery, racial equality, and society’s resistance to justice. It also sheds light on the various methods employed by Lincoln to facilitate abolition, some of which are not widely known among the public. Overall, through a dramatic and exciting plotline, the movie reminds its audience—the American public—of the progress that American society has made as whole, while simultaneously serving as a warning that the end of slavery cannot be equated with the extermination of racism.
Historical and Cultural Context
Lincoln captures the Congressional debate and political maneuvering that led to the abolition of slavery, while reminding its audience that the United States was in the midst of a civil war when Congress proposed the Thirteenth Amendment. Specifically, the movie shows that there was substantial debate in the House of Representatives about whether to adopt the amendment. When the amendment was introduced, passage was anything but a foregone conclusion, especially given the strong opposition voiced by some powerful members of Congress who were not persuaded by the appeals to fairness and morality. In order to gather the requisite number of votes in the House, President Lincoln and his cabinet employed a variety of methods, including offering high-ranking federal government jobs to opposition congressmen who would change their votes from “nay” to “yea.” Lincoln also intentionally stalled a Confederate delegation from reaching the capital, and he misled Congress using a technically true statement to dissuade negotiations before the House passed the Thirteenth Amendment.
The film also captures the beginning of the opposition against racial equality. For instance, shortly after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment and the end of the Civil War, Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, a white supremacist. Even decades after the Civil War, the American South was plagued with the afterlives of slavery and could not replace its racist values with those of Lincoln’s. The film touches on a series of complex and sensitive yet important topics such as slavery, racial equality, and society’s resistance to justice, all of which were relevant when the movie was unveiled in 2012 and continue to be relevant today.
While the movie may have slightly dramaticized Lincoln’s commitment to ending slavery and overlooked the roles played by abolitionist organizations in advocating for the Thirteenth Amendment, the movie’s plot, including the tactics that were used to procure favorable votes for the amendment, is mostly accurate based on the historical record. Nonetheless, it is important to note that because Lincoln is a movie rather than a documentary, watching the movie will not provide a complete understanding of the history surrounding Lincoln and abolition in the United States.
Themes and Styles
It is evident that Spielberg’s delicate balance of historical accuracy, character development, and film structure all contribute to the rhetorical effectiveness of the work. To make the character of President Lincoln more convincing, the filmmakers used historical accuracy as the main rhetorical ethos. During an NPR interview, historian Ronald White remarks that while Lincoln is not a documentary, it is mostly accurate in comparison to the factual record that we currently have; even the role played by William Seward in obtaining the required votes, and the unusual and perhaps questionable methods he used to convince members of congress, were also mostly accurate as portrayed (Wertheimer and White 1). Consequently, the credibility of the plot effectively conveys the extensive “arm-bending” that was required by Lincoln to push the nation one step closer to equality. Additionally, it is notable that the filmmakers chose to delve into Lincoln’s family life; throughout the movie, Lincoln is met with several disagreements with his family members—most notably his wife Mary Todd Lincoln and his oldest son Robert Lincoln. For instance, Robert’s thwarted desire to serve in the army is coldly shot down by his father who cannot afford to lose another son after having previously lost two others. Mary is still haunted by the death of their son Willie in 1862, and she cannot fathom her husband’s seemingly insensitive nature to their loss when he finally allows Robert to enlist in the army. The details of his family life outside of his office serves as rhetorical pathos to show that Lincoln, just like any other person, struggled with typical marriage and family life; this evokes sympathy from the audience. The combination of Lincoln’s office life with family life ultimately acts to paint Lincoln’s “fierce ambition, astonishing political skills, willingness to take responsibility for unbearable choices, melancholy temperament, gift for storytelling, life-affirming sense of humor, [and] literary genius” (Kushner and Goodwin 9).
In addition to the filmmakers’ use of rhetorical devices, their deliberate choice of film structure is also worth noting. The plot of the entire movie is straightforward and linear, with the exception of the ending of the movie. In less than a week after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender of the Civil War, Lincoln is assassinated by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre. Lincoln passes away shortly thereafter, and the screen fades to black. The movie does not end, however; the audience is taken back to Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. The ending of his speech can be heard: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to achieve and cherish a lasting peace among ourselves and with the world. to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with the world. all nations.” This deliberate choice of flashback serves to remind us that, despite his death, the impact of the immeasurable will and effort put forth by Lincoln in the struggle for equality is everlasting—it marked the first steps that America took towards justice.
Many commentaries on the movie Lincoln have discussed the movie’s historical accuracy. One recurring theme is that although the movie is not a documentary, its plot is generally accurate based on the historical record. In the words of historian Ronald White, “if a ninth-grader were to write a school paper based on the film, she’d find that its ‘dramatic core’ is basically on target” (1). According to White and Roger Ebert, many of the events portrayed in the movie, including Secretary of State William Seward’s role in obtaining the required votes through at times dubious means, are mostly accurate as well.
Other historians, however, have argued that the history presented by Lincoln was too “truncated” to be historically accurate. For example, Eric Foner argues that the history presented by Lincoln overlooked the roles played by abolitionist organizations, and that the movie “grossly exaggerates the possibility that by January 1865 the war might have ended with slavery still intact” (1). Foner’s claim is not without merit, as historian David Herbert Donald wrote in his biography of Lincoln that the president had seriously entertained both the possibility of ending the Civil War without abolishing slavery and a proposal to pay the South a compensation for freed slaves (362). The omissions of these facts in the movie show that the movie may in fact be too “truncated” to provide an accurate and good understanding of the complex history involved.
In addition to the historical accuracy of the film, commentators have also discussed other points about the film that portray the beginning of anti-blackness and the afterlives of slavery. For instance, the efforts of Lincoln were met with great backlash not only from the public but also from his very own cabinet. Shortly after the grueling passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, the government was unsurprisingly met with severe opposition from the South. Michael Ross, a specialist in American Constitutional History at the University of Maryland, describes that “…one week after Lee’s surrender, John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln at Ford’s Theater and a long, often chaotic struggle to define the war’s meaning began among the new President Andrew Johnson” (277).
Although the nation took steps towards racial equality, the American South was still tied down to its values—white supremacy and sentiments of anti-blackness—resulting in a conflict between progress and conservatism. The South, accustomed to the cruel hands of slavery, could not bear to accept Lincoln’s new ideals. This sentiment manifested itself in the form of afterlives of slavery; the South was soon ridden with reactionary violence from paramilitary groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, the White League, and the Knights of the White Camellia. The ex-Confederates passed the infamous Black Codes, which were designed to reinstate the old racial and economic order. Despite the establishment of the Freedmen’s Bureau and the process of the Reconstruction intended to lessen the power of such laws, many of the discriminatory statutes (such as those found in Jim Crow laws) continued to plague the American South for almost a century. During the Lincoln era, these actions of backlash initially jeopardized the power of the Thirteenth Amendment; however, these sentiments later carried on to give rise to new racist provisions such as the Black Codes, the Grandfather Clause, and the Jim Crow Laws, which were perfectly embodied in the afterlives of slavery.
Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln. New York, N.Y.: Simon & Schuster, 1995. Print.
Ebert, Roger. “Lincoln Movie Review & Film Summary (2012) | Roger Ebert.” Rogerebert.com. N.p., 2012. Web. 27 Feb. 2018 . <https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/lincoln-2012>.
Foner, Eric. “Lincoln’s Use Of Politics For Noble Ends.” N.p., 2012. Web. 27 Feb. 2018 . <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/27/opinion/lincolns-use-of-politics-for-noble-ends.html>.
Kushner, Tony and Doris Kearns Goodwin. Lincoln: The Screenplay. Theatre Communications Group, 2012. EBSCOhost.
Ross, Michael A. “The Supreme Court, Reconstruction, and the Meaning of the Civil War.” Journal of Supreme Court History, vol. 41, no. 3, Nov. 2016, pp. 275-294. EBSCOhost.
Wertheimer, Linda, and Ronald White. “We Ask A Historian: Just How Accurate Is ‘Lincoln’?.” NPR.org. N.p., 2012. Web. 26 Feb. 2018. <https://www.npr.org/2012/11/22/165671751/we-ask-a-historian-just-how-accurate-is-lincoln>.
Bogen, D. S. “The Impact of the Thirteenth Amendment on the Common Law.” University of Maryland, 2011. <http://digitalcommons.law.umaryland.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1116&context=schmooze_papers>
The Promises of Liberty: The History and Contemporary Relevance of the Thirteenth Amendment, edited by Alexander Tsesis, Columbia University Press, 2010.
Wai Chee Dimock. “Crowdsourcing History: Ishmael Reed, Tony Kushner, and Steven Spielberg Update the Civil War.” American Literary History, Volume 25, Issue 4, 1 December 2013, Pages 896–914, https://doi.org/10.1093/alh/ajt044
Weber, Jennifer L. “Was Lincoln a Tyrant?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 25 Mar. 2013.
Keywords: Lincoln, Emancipation, Equality, Slavery, Spielberg, Racism, Thirteenth Amendment, Civil War, Film