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  • Lincoln and Historical Accuracy
  • David Zarefsky (bio)

Lincoln, Abraham, Lincoln(film), 13th Amendment, history in film, emancipation

Historical films are not simply depictions of “what happened.” There always is an element of artistic license, choices of selection or emphasis or modes of presentation, to enhance the appeal the film can make to its audience. Critical commentaries often focus on these choices, asking whether the film is historically accurate. But they often address minor questions that may be tangential to the central thesis of the film or to its underlying assumptions.

Lincoln is no exception. Some concerns are simple matters of fact: the Connecticut delegation voted for the Thirteenth Amendment, whereas the film depicts them as voting against. Some are matters of probability: it is highly unlikely that Lincoln would have slapped his son Robert, as the film depicts. Some are matters of exaggeration: even in an age of elaborate personal attacks on the floor of Congress, the tone of debate was more indirect and at least superficially polite than the film depicts. Some are matters of misplaced certainty: Thaddeus Stevens’s liaison with his housekeeper, though rumored, was neither proved nor disproved. Some are matters of artistic invention: there is no record of what was said in the personal conversations between Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln.

It is also true that some seemingly unlikely events really did happen. Lincoln did indeed instruct his aides to procure the last two votes for the Thirteenth Amendment by any means necessary. There was in fact a Pennsylvania representative named Alexander Coffroth who was promised that his election would not be contested if he voted aye (though the dialogue with [End Page 155] Thaddeus Stevens is invented). Most notably, the House managers did indeed rush to the White House on January 31, as the vote was impending, seeking assurance that no Confederate peace commissioners were in the city, and Lincoln did respond to the precise question asked, assuring the House that “so far as he knew” they were not present in the city, assurance that he could give since he was preparing to meet them at Hampton Roads, Virginia.

These highly specific matters, though, can obscure the larger questions of how the film depicts Lincoln and the situation, what messages are thereby conveyed, and how these portrayals comport with the findings of Lincoln scholarship.

Earlier Lincoln films, several made during the 1930s, such as Young Mr. Lincoln and Abe Lincoln in Illinois, tended toward the hagiographic, which was consistent with the way Lincoln was treated in mainstream histories of the time, especially as the Second World War approached.1 The 1960s and 1970s, a period Barry Schwartz calls the “post-heroic age,” did not feature new Lincoln films.2 Although there are still some attempts to debunk Lincoln, especially under the impact of critical race theory,3 mainstream scholarship has moved toward a more nuanced portrayal, praising Lincoln and appreciating his genius while also acknowledging his faults and limitations.4 This is the view of Lincoln that emerges in the film.

Notably, the film eschews dichotomies that characterized earlier views of Lincoln. Was he a principled statesman or a practical politician? Lincoln answers, “Both.” In his commitment to the Thirteenth Amendment and his abhorrence of slavery, he is shown as unyielding. In his willingness to use all the levers of power, ranging from jawboning to near bribery, he is unconstrained by some more noble view of civic life. He is intimately involved in the details of rounding up the necessary votes, suggesting strategies and tactics. Yet he never loses sight of the exalted purpose for which he is doing it, the “king’s cure for all the evils,” as he described the proposed amendment.

The clear message of the film is that, contrary to what we might suppose, these two dimensions of leadership are not at odds. Lincoln is not schizoid, as some would later characterize Richard Nixon, for example. He consistently expresses both aspects of his being. The message is one of admiration for Lincoln while recognizing that he is grounded in mundane reality and sometimes makes mistakes; he is no demigod. Audiences can appreciate Lincoln as a complex figure who understands the...


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pp. 155-159
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