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How Close to Lincoln?

Lincoln

a film directed by Steven Spielberg
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DreamWorks Pictures/Twentieth Century Fox
President Lincoln, played by Daniel Day-Lewis (third from right), meeting with his cabinet to discuss the planned attack on Fort Fisher, in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward is seated to the president’s left.

Abraham Lincoln’s reelection was in doubt through much of the summer and fall of 1864, but Union victories in Mobile Bay and Atlanta restored the popular faith in his leadership, and he won 55 percent of the vote. By December the end of the Civil War seemed close. As far back as late 1863, total abolition of slavery had been part of Lincoln’s understanding of how the war must end; and he had pressed already in June 1864 for the passage of a Thirteenth Amendment to ban slavery in the United States. He was turned back then by the vote in the House of Representatives, but now, with larger Republican numbers in Congress, he was sure of the two-thirds vote required for passage. In his December message to Congress, Lincoln spoke of the amendment as a matter of great urgency. “The next Congress,” he said, “will pass the measure if this does not,” and “may we not agree that the sooner the better?”

Meanwhile, the moderate wing of Lincoln’s party found a new opportunity to satisfy their wish for an early conciliatory end to the war. Francis Preston Blair (whose son Montgomery had been dropped from the cabinet as a concession to radicals) asked and received permission from Lincoln to visit the Confederate leadership and see whether the South might now offer soundings for peace. Three Southern peace commissioners, including the vice-president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, were dispatched to Hampton Roads in Virginia, about two hundred miles from Washington, where eventually they would confer with Lincoln’s secretary of state, William Seward, accompanied by the president himself.

Lincoln heard out their proposals but could not accept a major element of the Confederate position: that the North and South were to be treated as separate countries. He is unlikely to have expected a better result. Yet this abortive final quest for peace arrived unhappily in the midst of the campaign to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, and Lincoln’s allies in Congress asked him personally to contradict a rumor that rebel negotiators were in the city.

He responded with a deft evasion. Hampton Roads, after all, was not the same as the city of Washington. “So far as I know,” Lincoln wrote, “there are no peace commissioners in the city, or likely to be in it.” So the amendment passed, the Confederate commissioners returned to Richmond, and history was supplied with a fresh illustration that the reality of politics may call on a politician to keep three balls in the air: in this case the pressure to end the war on certain terms, the need to maintain radical support for a radical initiative, and the good of proving to moderates that every avenue had been explored. Perhaps a fourth ball was also in play: the reputation of Lincoln for honesty, probity, and consistency.

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln interweaves these distinct engagements of the president during January and February 1865—the vote for abolition in Congress and a talk arranged to consider peace with the slave power—in order to recall the constant presence of mind required in practical politics. Though Spielberg deserves the praise he has been getting, this is in large measure a writer’s movie. The best scenes of Lincoln come from Tony Kushner’s lines, and the best of the lines are plain and clipped. We are shown Lincoln at a dedicatory speech on an occasion (like many in the war) so short that people have barely gathered before it is done. “That’s my speech,” he says. Yet the ground note of Lincoln refers us not to the ceremonial duties of a head of state but to the fatigue and persistence of a leader in time of war. “Some weariness has bit at my bones.” There are enough utterances in that tenor to support the careworn look and bowed posture of Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln.

It is a commanding performance and a credible one. Day-Lewis has squeezed his usual voice into a thinner, higher, reedy instrument, with a gravelly roughness under it. The voice curls into a growl: there is hardly a day in January when Lincoln is not taxed almost beyond endurance. We can be sure somebody working on the picture read an account of Lincoln’s speaking voice, for it had some of these properties, yet it showed a strange power: not booming and baritone, indeed not resonant in any obvious way, but by all accounts close to a high alto; it could irritate at first but after a few paragraphs his listeners would stand enthralled.

Lincoln took hold of his audience by argument, if any politician ever did, but he also did it by the conveyed sense of irreducible conviction behind the argument. Day-Lewis has something of that quality. He gets at it from the outside in, but he goes all the way in. The drawback occurs only when one asks whether this Lincoln could have made himself heard by a crowd. The voice sounds too small and crimped for that—notwithstanding Day-Lewis’s “private theory,” as reported in The New York Times, that “higher voices carry better in crowds”—and its limitations are underlined by the big theatrical moment in which Lincoln shouts that he wants the amendment “Now, now, now!” What we are meant to hear as an irresistible imperative comes across as a thin scream.

The Lincoln whom Kushner has written and Day-Lewis has performed is full of stories, all of them effective and some of them barnyard-low. We are made to see that his skill as a master of arguments ran close beside his gift and his trove as a teller of stories. This was an aspect of Lincoln’s character that two earlier films, Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940) and Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), also leaned on heavily. In the best scene of any of the Lincoln movies, John Ford showed Henry Fonda at the door of the jailhouse in Young Mr. Lincoln, protecting two young men from a lynch mob by singling out the howling men in the crowd. He knows them all, and he talks to them. He does it with little anecdotes and characterizations. The scene is affecting because it shows civic courage and physical courage blended in a single act; and though Lincoln was never involved in a confrontation quite like it, the incident draws on knowledge of what he knew and said about mobs.

Raymond Massey in Abe Lincoln in Illinois walked through Lincoln’s stories as if they were lines that he was told somebody might laugh at and so he rehearsed them straight. Day-Lewis tells them like a man who has studied the high adepts of the cracker barrel and is ready to lead a revival. Fonda alone—it is one of the things that make Young Mr. Lincoln a great contribution to folklore and myth—talked as if the humor were native to him, as if there was hardly a moment in a circle of men when a story might not come into his mind. A flicker of the possibility of humor was always behind his eyes. Also, the possibility of anger. Fonda remains the actor of Lincoln who can astonish by a vehemence that is not unfettered rage.

Anachronisms, though never so thick as to become an annoyance, are freely strewn over the phraseology of Spielberg’s Lincoln. It is true that the president needed a few Democratic votes to pass the Thirteenth Amendment in the lagging days of a lame-duck Congress, but he never attached any symbolic importance to its coming before the public as “bipartisan” legislation. He was an unembarrassed Republican who took every opportunity to call himself a Republican; and the active contest some politicians in our time disdain as partisan bickering was for him a normal condition of life. Again, “conservative Republicans” was not, in 1865, a conventional phrase to denote those who might go easier on slavery than the abolitionists Zachariah Chandler, Benjamin Wade, Thaddeus Stevens, and Charles Sumner. But those are minor slips. The major ones appear to be calculated defections from probability that the filmmakers weighed in cold blood against their value as claptrap.

The Tennessee lawyer and lobbyist W.N. Bilbo, whom Lincoln’s team deploys as a vote-getter, is pictured as a coarsely clever operative, but would Lincoln have barged in on him personally to check the count and would Bilbo have shouted in surprise, “Well I’ll be fucked!”? At an opposite reach of the available idioms, it seems wrong for Stevens to deplore the weak morale of white people by saying that their “moral compass…has ossified.” Nor was the historical Lincoln a name-dropper or an allusion-monger. But Kushner’s Lincoln drops quotations from Shakespeare like chocolate-covered dinner treats. When he tells of a nightmare, Hamlet must be slotted in: “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” He cannot see an unhappy person without quoting King Lear—the wretch is an “unaccommodated poor bare forked creature such as we all are.” Probably Lincoln had his fill of that sort of thing from Daniel Webster. Anyway, at close quarters he left the parade of refinement to the resourceful and crafty (and boastful and overingenious) William Seward.

Here, incidentally, a chance for dramatic contrast has been lost. Seward, the movie’s fourth major character alongside Lincoln, Mary Lincoln, and Thaddeus Stevens, has been made to look several years younger and several inches thinner than he appears in portraits of the time. Indeed, Seward as played by David Strathairn cuts a figure uncannily like Sam Waterston in the TV series Law and Order, and this is odd because Sam Waterston was the voice of Lincoln in Ken Burns’s documentary of the Civil War as well as in many public readings and the 1988 TV biopic Lincoln.

Strathairn is an accomplished actor but his recurrent lifts from the Waterston repertory of tics and traits—the quiver of the head, the nervous downward look digesting a thought, the air of constant intelligent receptivity—by a freak of influence crowds the film with a second Lincoln in the room. Yet unlike Day-Lewis’s Lincoln and Strathairn’s Seward, the historical Seward liked to dominate any room he was in; and Lincoln seems to have been content to let some persons walk away from the White House imagining that Seward ran the government. Later, a gesture or action unmistakably his own would prove again who held the reins.

In an imposing verbal set piece of this movie, Lincoln speaks of himself as “clothed in immense power.” He argues that his power itself is a sufficient reason for passing the amendment at once. But like other reports of Lincoln boasting of dictatorial powers and buying votes, the speech has an unreliable source, a quotation in the reminiscences of Congressman John B. Alley of Massachusetts:

I leave it to you to determine how it shall be done; but remember that I am President of the United States clothed with great power, and I expect you to procure those votes.
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Twentieth Century Fox/Everett Collection
Henry Fonda as Abraham Lincoln in Young Mr. Lincoln, 1939

The Lincoln of that imputed command, and of the Cromwell-like speech written by Kushner in the same key, is for the moment frankly indifferent about the means of accomplishing a desirable end. This will not carry conviction to anyone who has read much about Lincoln.

The speech sounds wrong for internal reasons because it is unlike anything credibly reported as said by Lincoln (whatever he may have thought privately). And it is weak for external reasons because—as the historian Michael Vorenberg has noticed in a fine essay on the Thirteenth Amendment—Congressman Alley conjured the words from memory twenty-three years after the fact.* The same goes for a judgment spoken in the movie with solemn authority by Thaddeus Stevens: that the amendment “was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”

We are meant to pause and sigh at that; and, the director being Spielberg, we are given time to pause and sigh. But here, not just the authenticity but the tone of the words is uncertain. Does Stevens intend to convey bafflement? Wonder? Irony? The reproach of one moralist against another regarding the strangeness of conscience in politics? The line is floated as an optional profundity, but it too was skimmed from memory, this time thirty-three years after the fact, by an opponent of the New Jersey railroad monopoly who had been disappointed by Lincoln’s coolness in approaching that issue.

These are small trespasses—no worse than some that were justified by purely fictional license in Young Mr. Lincoln and Abe Lincoln in Illinois. One moment of Spielberg’s Lincoln, however, dips a good deal lower and tampers with the consistency of the character. “We’re stepped upon the world’s stage now,” Kushner makes Lincoln say, “with the fate of human dignity in our hands. Blood’s been spilled to afford us this moment.” What is it, exactly, that turns those words so false in Lincoln’s mouth? They show a kind of strut. The man is aglow and his voice is alive with the tremendous business of making history. But this was a sentiment that Lincoln shunned. He would not have spoken grandly of the fate of “human dignity,” a familiar phrase in two words that Lincoln never actually paired. The broad ideal of human dignity belongs to the late twentieth century, to the morale of decolonization and the UN Charter.

More gratingly, the conjunction of “world’s stage,” “blood,” and “our hands” brings to mind two famous soliloquies in Macbeth, one confessing murder and one confessing despair, neither of them a suitable vehicle for rallying votes. But it is the underlying falsification that disturbs. Any leader who adopts the posture of seeing himself on the stage of history is a glory to himself and a menace to all whom he must lead. Napoleon (whose favorite word was “destiny”) loved this posture, and Lincoln (as he revealed in his Lyceum Address of 1838) hated Napoleon for loving it.

Lincoln remains an honorable movie compounded of irresolute but mostly upright intentions; and its strengths are only a little undercut by the synthetic quality of its ambition. But that has always been the price of Spielberg’s energy and his enormous competence. Like Amistad (1997), his earlier historical film about slavery, Lincoln initially had a tight story and setting. At bottom, it is the simple political drama of the preparation and execution of a major vote in Congress; whereas Amistad was a courtroom drama about the freeing by American justice of slaves illegally transported from Africa in 1839. In both movies, the plot is enlarged by episodic, picturesque, and artificial embellishments that add forty minutes as an earnest of seriousness—in Amistad, flashbacks to the Atlantic crossing of the slaves, discussions of the career of John Quincy Adams, the missionary Christian lesson given to the rebel chief Cinque, and mocking tableaux of the court of Queen Isabella.

In Lincoln, we have the asserted claims of the White House children Tad and Robert, Abe’s relationship to Mary, a prologue about a black soldier reciting the Gettysburg Address, and a series of epilogues to signal the death of Lincoln and the end of the war. The inclusion of Mary Lincoln, however, takes on a separate strength from the integrity of Sally Field’s performance. We see her often at the brink of hysteria yet always coming partway back to sanity from a deep sympathy with her husband’s courage and resolve.

As a piece of filmmaking about American politics, Lincoln is not in a class with John Frankenheimer’s version of The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and as a realistic portrait of a legislative battle it lacks the care and detail of Otto Preminger’s Advise and Consent (1962). Yet it may hold up as well as those earlier films. Spielberg has the advantage of working on the ground of a real event that Americans care about. And he has given a memorable face to a lesson that happens to be true.

The Emancipation Proclamation of January 1863, the most extraordinary act of lawgiving in history, was conceived by Lincoln as an emergency measure, and he defended it on narrow grounds of military necessity. Yet Lincoln believed in emancipation as a matter of principle. How, then, could he give the moral act the solid legal claim it wanted? The law freeing the slaves had to be rendered compatible with rigorous adherence to the Constitution, since he had never intended the exception to stand as a rule. The emergency proclamation of emancipation in 1863 was a partial expedient to obstruct the progress and mitigate the evils of slavery.

By contrast, “this amendment” of two years later, as Lincoln said in response to a serenade on its passage, “is a King’s cure for all the evils. It winds the whole thing up.” Those characteristic words carry his rhythm of thought—happy at the success of the amendment because it winds the whole thing up. Democracy, as Lincoln points out with sufficient plainness, discovers its justification not in emergency actions but in the ordinary and difficult work of passing laws, and the daily dedication of people who agree to live by laws.

  1. *

    “The Thirteenth Amendment Enacted,” in Lincoln and Freedom: Slavery, Emancipation, and the Thirteenth Amendment, edited by Harold Holzer and Sara Vaughn Gabbard (Southern Illinois University Press, 2007). 

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