Historical Accuracy of "Lincoln"
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A famous historical drama that was directed by Steven Spielberg is a marvelous movie about the final and most important weeks of life of a famous historical figure - Abraham Lincoln. He manages to gather enough votes in Congress for the Thirteenth Amendment and finishes the Civil War. The movie astonishes with an actors’ play, beautiful decorations restoring historical time and inspiring mood. It was highly acclaimed by critics and nominated for twelve Oscars. It is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography of Lincoln “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.” Moreover, Spielberg and Kusher consulted serious historical studies to make a depiction of the critical period in American history in an authentic way. On the other hand, this film is not a documentary, but rather a “dream” or a “historical fiction” with some facts simplified and some scenes and ideas added for the brighter expression. However, it has a firm historical background and can be regarded historically accurate in key points.
There are some moments in the film that draw particular attention. It is interesting to know whether they are factual. For instance, throughout the film Abraham Lincoln tells stories to indirectly express his point of view or to ease an intense situation. This is true about him as he was a good storyteller even when he was a young man. In the “Team of Rivals,” there is a mention of his talent:
In these convivial settings, Lincoln was invariably the center of attention. No one could equal his never-ending stream of stories nor his ability to reproduce them with such contagious mirth. As his winding tales became more famous, crowds of villagers awaited his arrival at every stop for the chance to hear a master storyteller (Goodwin, 2005).
One of the most outstanding and memorable stories that one can find while watching the historical drama is about Ethan Allen visiting England. Whether it can be regarded as true or can be disproved, it was one of the most favorite Lincoln’s anecdotes. Another story about the 70-years-old woman, whom Lincoln helped to escape the punishment, is also historically veracious (Wickman, 2012).
Perhaps, one of the most intrigue questions is whether Daniel Day-Lewis has managed to convey the main physical and character features of Abraham Lincoln. To start with, the voice of the 16th President may seem to sound higher than it is expected. An acknowledged historian Harold Holzer confirmed that such high-pitched voice is “uncanny, convincing, and historically right.” After all, he confirmed that “Lincoln didn’t growl - in fact some people said he whined!” (Wickman, 2012). As for the accent heard, it also sounds right. In the movie, Lincoln speaks with Kentucky and Indiana accent as it can be noticed in some words. For instance, “chair” may sometimes sound like “cheer,” and “bear” may resemble “bar.” However, being a gifted politician, Lincoln could easily go in and out of this accent whenever he wanted (Wickman, 2012). Concerning a slouching posture of the President, that is vividly seen against the window, when he is waiting for the vote results, and especially, when he walks away for his last theatre play. Holzer says that Lincoln’s contemporaries often noted his slump rounded shoulders as if Old Abe had to wear the weight of the world on him. He indeed was often described as being a stoop-shouldered (Wickman, 2012). As for the appearance, no doubts that costume designers and make-up artists did their best to make Daniel Day-Lewis look like Abraham Lincoln – a remarkable beard and a high top-hat leave no doubts that the viewers see Old Abe.
Lincoln indeed often spoke about a mysterious ship he saw in dreams. However, it had no connection to the Thirteenth Amendment. Instead, it was a sigh of significant actions and military victories. Gideon Welles, a secretary of the navy, wrote that Lincoln told him about that dream when they were waiting news from General William Tecumseh Sherman. White House guard Henry Crook claimed that Lincoln talked about the ship at the night of his assassination (Wickman, 2012). Since the main attention of the film is focused on the Amendment to emphasize its importance, the dream was interpreted as an omen for its adoption.
A curious issue of Lincoln’s personality is whether he kept scraps of paper in his top-hat. According to Harold Holzer, he indeed had that habit. He probably did that more often when he rode the legal circuit alone. After becoming a President, he had clerks to assist him with paper work (Holzer, 2009).
An interesting point in the film is the usage of swear words by the President and other characters. In the story about Washington’s portrait in a closet, the final statement is “Nothing will make an Englishmen s**t so quick as the sight of General Washington.” It is hard to establish the veracity of the story, but he liked it and told very often. As it is said, a word dropped from a song makes it all wrong. However, he would never swear or use God’s name in vain as it is depicted in a film. His contemporaries often marked that he had no such habit and objected when other cursed (Bradford). Regarding other characters using abusive words, the movie is not quite accurate. When Lincoln comes to visit three political fixers, one of them exclaims “Well, I’ll be f***ed!” Such curse seems inappropriate for that time.
Another issue worth mentioning is relations between the President and his family. The scene of argue between Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln is very emotional but rather fictional as it was hard to make Old Abe scream and blame someone, especially his wife. Lincoln adored children, which is vividly seen how he loves his youngest son Tad and mourns the dead one, Willie. However, his relations with the elder son, Robert, are rather cool. Nevertheless, the scene where he slaps Robert was invented by the screenwriter. Lincoln’s biographers often point out that he was hard to get angry and avoided violence (Bradford).
A significant part of the movie is dedicated to the process of gathering a necessary number of votes for the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment. There is no complete support or denial of the fact that Lincoln proposed postures to the needed people. His people indeed offered jobs to a number of members to get a support. Naturally, there are no concrete historical facts or specific records of what was proposed and said during such meetings and conversations. Therefore, one cannot fully trust to the dialogues and scenes on the screen; obviously, screenwriters had to invent them to make a vivid picture.
A great part of the movie takes place in a House of Representatives. The point is that the conversation between the members during the debates was not as free as it is depicted. The rules forbade direct address. It means that if a person wanted to tell something to the opponent, he or she had to address to the Speaker. Moreover, Lady Mary Lincoln never attended the House to observe debates and the voting process.
Concerning Mrs. Lincoln, there are some more inaccuracies. First of all, there are hot debates about her mental disorder. In the movie, she claims “All everyone will remember of me was that I was crazy and that I ruined your (Lincoln’s) happiness.” Today, however, many historians assert that she was a politically smart and shrewd woman (Bloomer, 2012). In the scene of reception, she demands to be called “Madame President” and this meets the truth. She indeed was angry at Thaddeus Stevens for investigating her expenses. On the other hand, it seems implausibly that she accused him so openly in public and broke the reception procedure. In the film, there is an inaccuracy in her speech. She says to Lincoln that she is afraid to send their son to war as he can be shot by a sniper. For that time, a “sharpshooter” is a more appropriate word.
Thaddeus Stevens in turn, is a prominent person. He was indeed a very sarcastic debater. Naturally, there are no specific records of his insults, but some historians say he was even more sarcastic than it is shown in the film. Concerning his appearance, he was bold and had to wear a wig. The costumers managed to create a perfect replica of his hairpiece. What is more interesting, he is believed to be involved in relations with his African-American mistress Lydia Hamilton Smyth. Again, it is hard to say whether this was true as in public their communication was always proper. However, these relations were often discussed by people who knew him, which was accepted by historians as true (Bradford). There is also no concrete fact that his speech, where he proclaims that the race should be equal, was a turning point for the voting.
The voting day is depicted with several imprecisions. A member of Congress, Joe Courtney, even wrote a letter to Spielberg, noting that a key moment of the film is wrong. Indeed, only two lawmakers from Connecticut vote for the Amendment in the movie. In fact, all four representatives supported it. In response, Kusher wrote an open letter and acknowledged that it was done on purpose:
We changed two of the delegation's votes, and we made up new names for the men casting those votes, so as not to ascribe any actions to actual persons who didn't perform them. In the movie, the voting is also organized by state, which is not the practice in the House (Oldenburg, 2013).
While some number of African-Americans was allowed to be present at the voting, historians do not agree that they had such an extraordinary power as in the film, but there might be an unusual quantity of women (Wickham, 2012). It is also doubtful that Stevens managed to take a document home. On the other hand, George Yeaman, a representative of Kentucky, indeed changed his opinion and supported the Amendment. The Speaker, Schuyler Colfax, used his right to participate in the process and voted “yes” (Wickham, 2012). Nevertheless, Wickham claims that politicians would call the document “The Constitutional Amendment” or “The Constitutional Amendment Abolishing Slavery,” rather than the “Thirteenth Amendment” (Wickham, 2012).
Some other inaccuracies include misusing some notions or technical details. For instance, Hendrik Herzberg noted that at that time, the notion “Democracy” was associated with a Democratic Party. Therefore, while Lincoln was talking about the virtues of democracy, he would rather say “freedom” or “self-government” (Herzberg, 2012). In the President’s cabinet, there was no portrait of William Henry Harrison, although it may be interpreted as a sign of a soon Lincoln’s death. There was no such system of ropes to pull the flag up as it was depicted during his speech. It is doubtful that any soldier would recite the words of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as it is shown in the opening scene of the movie, where the President visits the front (Holzer, 2012).
To sum up, the film was inspired by the crucial events of the American history, but it was not aimed to restore them with extreme historical accuracy. It reflects the main dates and facts but can be hardly used as a historical guide. Still, the movie can be demonstrated at history classes to create an excellent mood and promote a deeper investigation of the issue. “Lincoln” is an outstanding movie that creates a perfect historical illusion.