Originally posted on Adam I. P. Smith: Historian:
Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln is really a phenomenally good film. Usually historians go to gripe at historical epics like this. There is no shortage of dreadful films about US history that perpetuate horrible historical inaccuracies. This is not one of them. While I have plenty of quibbles with the detail, the big historical picture feels right. In particular Daniel Day Lewis has channeled Lincoln to an extraordinary degree. He captured the Lincoln of my imagination — the man who comes through to me in the years I’ve been reading his private letters and public speeches. An enigmatic character, with watchful eyes, a self-confidence but an unassuming manner, an unexpected sharp wit and a profound generosity of spirit. Hanging over the film– as over Lincoln at this time — was the death of his young son Willy two years earlier, the difficult relationship with his wife Mary, the affection he had for his other young son Tad, and the distance he felt from his oldest boy Robert.
The film deals with just a few weeks in the life of Lincoln in early 1865. The situation is that the war is coming to an end — the southern attempt to break away from the Union and form a separate slave-holding Confederacy looks to be on its last legs. Lincoln has been re-elected for a second term in an acrimonious election on a platform which commits him to push for a Constitutional Amendment to end slavery for all time in America. Lincoln has already issued the Emancipation Proclamation — and, more to the point, slaves themselves have been destroying slavery by running away and disrupting the Confederate war effort. Almost 200,000 African Americans — three-quarters of them former slaves are now serving in the Union army. Surely the writing is on the wall for slavery. Yet doubts remain. There are still places where slavery is legal — including Kentucky, a slave state that never seceded. And even within the conquered South, would the Emancipation Proclamation still apply once the war was won? The only way to settle the question for all time was a Constitutional Amendment, for which a two-thirds majority of the House of Representatives was needed. So on a basic level this film is about Lincoln’s decision to push for an amendment as soon as he was re-elected and about the various efforts to scare up the necessary votes — some high-minded, most low-down chicanery, some downright corrupt, all darkly comic.