- Lincoln: The “Double Consciousness” of the Man and the President
Abraham Lincoln, double consciousness, Lincoln, reminiscences, U.S. presidency
Abraham Lincoln’s law partner and biographer, William H. Herndon, once wrote that Lincoln had a “double” and even a “treble consciousness,” making him a most “mysterious” and “incomprehensible man.”1 In explaining the source of this mystery, Joshua Shenk offers “that Lincoln joined qualities that, though we well understand that they exist separately, confound us when united.”2
Exploring the mystery of Lincoln has occupied the attention of Lincoln acquaintances and scholars across the ages.3 Coming to terms with the mysterious Lincoln continues in Steven Spielberg’s 2012 feature film, Lincoln.4 Therein, Spielberg depicts this double consciousness of Lincoln the family man and Lincoln the president. Spielberg’s portrait of Lincoln—like many biographers past and present—sketches a Lincoln in battle with himself—a battle that played out in his family relations and presidential actions.
The Double Consciousness of Lincoln the Family Man
Lincoln was portrayed at times as a warm and caring husband to his wife, Mary, and to his young son, Tad. In such scenes, Lincoln the empathic [End Page 147] family man expressed a level of masculine tenderness commonly suppressed in depictions of presidential exemplars. Yet, in other scenes, Lincoln’s personal expressions turned more cold and indifferent to his wife and his oldest son, Robert. Lincoln’s power in the family also waivered in the film. Lincoln’s deference to Mary’s marital authority was juxtaposed with his enactment of patriarchal power, demonstrating a Lincoln at once submissive and unyielding. Such contradictory images also extended to Lincoln’s treatment of African Americans in his home. The Lincolns integrated an African American staff into the family with a level of comfort and ease not typically portrayed in films about the slave era. The family’s interactions with the butler and the seamstress exhibited a level of openness and freedom that indicated a social dynamic premised more on affection and equality than segregation and hierarchy. Yet, Lincoln’s conversation with Mrs. Keckley ultimately revealed his resolute attention to matters of constitutional law and natural rights over social equality and interpersonal sympathy.5
Lincoln as a man of emotional warmth was on full display as he spoke with Mary about their son’s death. Willie’s sickness coincided with a White House reception some three years earlier. Mary’s heartache over the loss of her son resurfaced as the Lincolns prepared for another reception. Lincoln comforted his wife with his words: “We didn’t know how sick he was.” He also comforted his wife with his touch, gingerly kissing her hand as he softly spoke, “It’s too hard.”
Lincoln’s interactions with his youngest son, Tad, reinforced images of Lincoln’s fatherly love. As Tad slept next to the warm fire, the gangly Lincoln lay next to his son and kissed his forehead before nudging him to climb on his back. That the slumbering Tad quickly struggled atop his father’s back suggested a bedtime ritual well rehearsed in this father-son relationship. Lincoln’s patience with Tad was also revealed as the doting father welcomed the precocious Tad into a political strategy meeting and allowed him to tag along on presidential business. As a father to Tad, Lincoln’s image was one of unconditional love undisturbed by the chaos swirling about the presidential father.
Lincoln the devoted husband and father also seemed willing to cede family control to his wife and youngest son. Mary routinely commanded her husband to keep her beloved son Robert out of war. Mary’s familial sway over Robert’s enlistment was shown in the words of Tad, who told the Blairs that “Mama said he cannot” go to war. Mary’s power was affirmed by those [End Page 148] with intimate access to the Lincoln family. When Lincoln balked at wearing white gloves to the reception, his butler, Mr. Slade, insisted: “The missus will have you wear them.” Lincoln complied without further protest, portraying a Lincoln bowing to his wife’s authority on...