When Lincoln first came out, critics, trivial pursuit fanatics, and history buffs flocked to theaters, legal pads in hand, ready to call out all the lies and dramatizations of the movie. But as we discussed in class, Spielberg made a conscious decision to use fiction to create truth. Many of the “lies” in Lincoln were purposeful choices to get at greater themes and metaphors, using the story as an allegory for the historical legend that has become ingrained in our national memory. In this post, I will take a look at some of Spielberg’s “lies” and consider why he chose to include them.
- The black and white soldiers reciting the Gettysburg Address: It is inconceivable that any soldier, Union or Confederate, black or white, could have memorized this speech, however ingrained on modern public memory. Spielberg put this in the movie to demonstrate Lincoln’s desire to unite the country, setting the plot up for the Thirteenth Amendment. It also demonstrated the commitment of both black and white soldiers to fight together for the birth of a new nation, one without slavery.
- Mary Todd watching the passage of the amendment from the House Gallery: This could never have happened in 1865. The First Lady, much less any woman, had no place in this sacred political chamber. So why put this scene in the movie? Spielberg frequently used the portrayal of Lincoln’s unhappy, torn-apart family as a greater metaphor for the unhappy country torn apart by the civil war. A crucial plot point was the necessity of the passage of the thirteenth amendment before completing any peace talks with the Confederacy. Thus, the thirteenth amendment would start the healing process for the nation, and having Mary Todd there signified the beginning of the healing process for Lincoln’s family. Furthermore, keeping Mary Todd in the House Gallery while her husband stayed at home emphasized how intertwined the family’s public and private life had become.
- Lincoln’s cabinet advising him against the Thirteenth Amendment: By 1865, Lincoln had swapped out his most unruly cabinet members for loyal men dedicated to serving the president. Those remaining from the original cabinet — Secretary of State William Seward, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles — were all fiercely loyal to Lincoln. Drama aside, Spielberg probably put the debates between the cabinet and the president in the movie to show that Lincoln made a risky decision when he chose to back the Thirteenth Amendment in his re-election campaign. The cabinet from the movie was thus able to voice all of the concerns and counterarguments of the time, demonstrating the roadblocks that the amendment faced and starting the difficult journey to its passage.
- Roll call by state for the Thirteenth Amendment: Roll call is and was alphabetical. This was merely a dramatic device since the audience can easily understand that southern states had Democratic representatives. Also the amendment wasn’t called the Thirteenth Amendment, but again, this was solely to help the audience.
Equally interesting, here are three “facts” from the movie that were true in 1865:
- Thaddeus Steven’s “marriage” to his housekeeper: This was Washington’s worst-kept secret.
- Lincoln made corrupt bargains to pass the 13th amendment: Also true, though Lincoln was not as directly involved as in the movie. He did give Steward broad instructions to generate votes, who in turn hired a group of New York lobbyists to do the dirty work.
- Lincoln told Congressman James Alley, “I am the President of the United States, clothed with immense power, and I expect you to procure those votes.” This is perhaps one of the most poignant scenes in the movies, and one of the few times when Day Lewis becomes almost terrifying. Also, it actually happened, though Lincoln probably didn’t shout the words.