Historical Fiction

What’s True and False in “Lincoln” Movie

Did Lincoln really do that? Was Mary Todd really there? Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer, author of Lincoln: How Abraham Lincoln Ended Slavery in America: A Companion Book for Young Readers to the Steven Spielberg Film Lincoln, and a consultant on the movie, picks out what’s true and false in Spielberg’s movie—and says in the end it’s not the details that matter.

David James, SMPSP / Everett

When the House of Representatives finally, dramatically votes to approve the 13th Amendment to the Constitution abolishing slavery, Washington erupts in celebration. Members of Congress weep, throw themselves into each other’s arms, and begin singing “Battle Cry of Freedom.” Men parade through the streets and church bells chime.

And then, at least according to Steven Spielberg’s new film Lincoln, the widely despised old liberal lion of the House, Thaddeus Stevens, limps home through the throngs on his malformed club foot, serenely enters his house, removes an extravagant black wig to reveal a shiny bald dome, and then crawls into bed with his African-American housekeeper—clearly, we are meant to infer, his mistress—where they kiss and exult in the historic events of the day. Spielberg’s Thaddeus Stevens summarizes the extraordinary events of the day with this remarkable quote: the most liberating constitutional amendment in history, he alleges, had been “passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America”—meaning Abraham Lincoln.

With the widely praised film overflowing with such startling scenes, it is little wonder that scholars, nitpickers, trivial pursuit pursuers, and history buffs have all been crowding their local movie theaters this week, many armed with legal pads, in a massive competition to unearth and report every factual error that has crept into the film.

To be sure, there is no shortage of small historical bloopers in the movie. First Lady Mary Lincoln, for example, never planted herself in the House Gallery to observe the final tally on the amendment. (Michelle Obama may routinely attend the State of the Union address each year, but such a visit would have been unthinkable in 1865.) Nor did congressmen vote by state delegations—a device that conflates the traditions of national political conventions with those of the House of Representatives. (Until the advent of machine voting, the House voted alphabetically by name; this I know from experience—I once worked for Representative Bella Abzug, number two on the roll call, and it was always a challenge to move her considerable frame from her congressional office to the House floor in time to answer the roll right after James Aboureszk.)

Lincoln’s presidential office was never adorned with a lithographic portrait of William Henry Harrison, of all people, the old Whig president who died in 1841, just a month after delivering the windiest inaugural address on the windiest inaugural day in American history. Lincoln may have given short, unmemorable speeches at countless flag-raising ceremonies in Washington, but never was he ever seen, as he is in the movie, fetching his manuscript from the lining of his top hat, or for that matter using a crank, not a system of ropes, to pull the flag up a pole. (At one such real-life ceremony, the halyards got tangled and Lincoln said he hoped it wasn’t a bad sign for the future of the country.)

The list of such oops-moments can easily go on. In one of the movie’s most riveting scenes, a trio of smarmy political operatives tells Lincoln they are having a hard time bribing undecided Congressmen to vote “yes” on the amendment because so many 50-cent pieces of the day bear the president’s unpopular likeness. Good joke, to be sure, but Lincoln’s face did not actually appear on 50-cent currency until four years after his death, and even then on paper notes, not coins. In yet another scene, Lincoln’s young son Tad plays with glass negatives on loan from photographer Alexander Gardner’s gallery. But Gardner would never have sent one-of-a-kind, fragile plates to the rambunctious little “sprite” of the White House. Not long before, Tad had shown his contempt for photography by locking a camera operator out of a White House closet where he was developing portraits of the president, angry that he had appropriated one of his private hiding places without permission. By the time Lincoln fetched the key, the images had been all but ruined. Tad liked photos all right—paper prints—and his souvenir picture of Fido, the pet dog the family left behind when they headed to Washington, was, shall we say, dog-eared.

As for the Spielberg movie’s opening scene, in which a couple of Union soldiers—one white, one black—recite the words of the Gettysburg Address to the appreciative Lincoln, who is visiting the front toward the end of the war—it is almost inconceivable that any uniformed soldier of the day (or civilians, for that matter) would have memorized a speech that, however ingrained in modern memory, did not achieve any semblance of a national reputation until the 20th century. Finally, Lincoln’s last moments—in a deathbed at the Peterson House across the street from Ford’s Theatre on April 15, 1865—look little like period descriptions of the gripping scene. Spielberg places his character in a nightgown, lying in what appears to be fetal position. In fact the tall victim was placed diagonally in the too-small bed, and was under a cover, naked, when he breathed his last (doctors had removed his clothes to search for other possible wounds). Perhaps Daniel Day-Lewis does not do nude scenes.

Point of full disclosure. I served not only as author of the young-adult companion book to the movie (also called Lincoln), but as a “Content Consultant” for the Spielberg film, as the director himself graciously acknowledged earlier this week as he delivered the Dedication Day Address at the National Soldier’s Cemetery in Gettysburg on the 149th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. But he was far too generous. The book tries to tell the real story of passage of the 13th Amendment, but where Tony Kushner’s extraordinary, beautiful screenplay was concerned, not all of my suggestions were adopted. Not all of my advice was taken. And with my name up there on the credits (albeit nine minutes into the scrolling list), I know I’m going to be held to account for some of the bloopers.

For a few weeks, I haven’t known quite how I would respond. But yesterday at Gettysburg, Steven Spielberg provided the eloquent answer. “It’s a betrayal of the job of the historian,” he asserted, to explore the unknown. But it is the job of the filmmaker to use creative “imagination” to recover what is lost to memory. Unavoidably, even at its very best, “this resurrection is a fantasy ... a dream.” As Spielberg neatly put it, “one of the jobs of art is to go to the impossible places that history must avoid.” There is no doubt that Spielberg has traveled toward an understanding of Abraham Lincoln more boldly than any other filmmaker before him.

Besides, those soldiers who recite the Gettysburg Address may simply represent the commitment of white and black troops to fight together for its promise of “a new birth of freedom.” Mary Lincoln’s presence in the House chamber may be meant to suggest how intertwined the family’s private and public life have become. The image of “Old Tippecanoe” Harrison in Lincoln’s office may be an omen for his own imminent death in office. In pursuit of broad collective memory, perhaps it’s not important to sweat the small stuff. From time to time, even “Honest Abe” himself exaggerated or dissembled in pursuit of a great cause. Just check out the shady roads he took to achieve black freedom as “imagined” so dazzlingly in the movie.

As for that most audacious of scenes—a bald-headed Thaddeus Stevens in bed with his African American mistress, and acknowledging that Lincoln had made corrupt bargains to win passage of the 13th Amendment. Not a false note. He may not have pronounced those words to his housekeeper, but pronounce them he absolutely did. And his “housekeeper” indeed doubled as his common law wife—perhaps the worst kept secret in Washington. Sometimes real history is as dramatic as great fiction. And when they converge at the highest levels, the combination is unbeatable.