Remembering Lincoln
Robert Elder

“It’s all now you see. Yesterday won’t be over until tomorrow and tomorrow began ten thousand years ago. For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863…”

William Faulkner on Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, from Intruder in the Dust (1948)


The first time that Abraham Lincoln appears on the screen in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, he is sitting on a bench under a canopy in a rainstorm with his famous stove-pipe hat sitting beside him. Sitting in a darkened theater, I felt the hair on the back of my neck rise as he appeared. I felt a little as if I had encountered a long-dead relative, the memory of whose physical presence lay housed deep in my mind, nearly forgotten, until now. The feeling owed little to Daniel Day-Lewis’s overwhelming performance as our sixteenth president, which really had yet to begin, or to Spielberg’s attention to historical detail, a trait that, while appreciated by historians such as myself, rarely raises the hair on the back of my neck no matter how expertly executed. Instead, I think the feeling happened because of how the Civil War and its characters, Lincoln in particular, occupy the same mental territory in the American mind as the quasi-religious construct of the nation itself. They prompt the same subterranean responses elicited by symbols of the nation such as the flag. Robert Penn Warren once wrote that the Civil War is not only the “great single event” of American history, but that “it may, in fact, be said to be American history.” The war, Warren famously wrote, is our only “felt” history. This is one of the reasons that the film Spielberg and Day-Lewis have so lovingly and carefully crafted is so powerful, and yet as we sit in the darkened theater we must recognize that we have left the realm of history, strictly understood, behind, and entered the deep and murky pool of memory.

lincolnMost responses to Spielberg’s masterpiece from historians have focused on the extent to which it gets the history right or wrong. There is a lot to like about the film in this regard, most of it revolving around Day-Lewis’s portrayal of Lincoln. From his squeaky tenor voice to his plodding, springless gait, there is ample evidence that Day-Lewis did the research on his subject; these characteristics are drawn directly from contemporary descriptions of Honest Abe. In one scene, the film’s passion for historical detail even extends to the ticking sound of a watch, which Spielberg reportedly captured by recording a watch once carried by Lincoln. My own favorite part of the marriage between Tony Kushner’s script and Day-Lewis’s portrayal was the way Lincoln often broke into extended stories to make a point, a trait of Lincoln’s that contemporary observers sometimes recorded with frustration. In addition, several of the casting decisions in the film are inspired, particularly David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward (the physical resemblance between Strathairn and Seward is uncanny) and James Spader as the wheeling and dealing W. N. Bilbo, a character based on a Tennessee lawyer who helped lobby for the Thirteenth Amendment and who serves in the film as the embodiment of the era’s horse-trading style of politics. In particular, historians have applauded Spielberg’s recreation of Lincoln’s political style, which mixed a fierce pursuit of ultimate goals with a remarkable flexibility and awareness of the limits and possibilities of the political moment. 

Other historians have taken Spielberg to task for a wide array of alleged historical inaccuracies and half-truths in the film. One intrepid historian analyzed Tony Kushner’s script using the Google Ngram project, which tracks word usage over time in all the print materials digitized by Google. He found a variety of anachronisms in the film, including words and phrases such as “racial equality,” “bipartisan,” “peace talks,” and a soldier named Kevin, a name that was not in wide usage in the mid-nineteenth century.

Some of the more significant half-truths in the film concern the issue of race and the agency of African Americans. Some point out that the film ignores the fact that it was the self-emancipation of hundreds of thousands of slaves who escaped to northern lines during the war that eventually forced Lincoln’s administration to consider the abolition of slavery as a war aim that would weaken the Confederacy and keep the English, who sympathized with the Confederacy but had recently abolished slavery throughout their empire, out of the war.

Still others have decried the lack of complex black characters in the film. Elizabeth Kleckley and William Slade, the White House servants who are the film’s central black characters, were in real life leaders of the free black community in Washington and members of societies aimed at aiding fugitive slaves and supporting economic opportunity for freed blacks, but you would never know this from the movie. It would have added a great deal of dramatic depth to the film to show Kleckley and Slade as leaders in their own community while at the same time serving in the White House, but this might have detracted somewhat from the film’s depiction of Lincoln as a champion of equality and human rights.

Others point out that Spielberg felt the need to massage the historical details in order to set up the dilemma that Lincoln struggles with throughout the film: whether to negotiate with the approaching Confederate peace commissioners and possibly end the war with slavery still intact or to prolong the bloody conflict in order to bring the peculiar institution to its final and definite demise through a constitutional amendment. The best reading of the available evidence concerning the Hampton Roads Conference, the meeting between Lincoln and Confederate officials such as Vice President Alexander Stephens that occurred in February of 1865, only a few days after the House of Representatives approved the Thirteenth Amendment, suggests that Lincoln never truly considered the possibility that the meeting might end the war. Instead, as David Herbert Donald, Lincoln’s most famous biographer, suggests, Lincoln appears to have viewed the conference as an opportunity to give ammunition to Southerners who favored surrender and peace. Lincoln’s consistent and constantly proclaimed position was that the war could be ended instantly, but only by an immediate cessation of hostilities and a willingness to rejoin the Union on the part of the Southern states. However, he was fully aware that Jefferson Davis had irrevocably committed himself to Southern independence. Thus Lincoln proclaimed to Congress in December of 1864 that the issue “between him and us... can only be tried by war, and decided by victory.” The conference, in other words, was inconsequential.

Spielberg himself has been quick to concede that his creation is not completely historically accurate. Speaking at the 149th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg last year, Spielberg thanked all the historians who served as consultants for the film, while clearly delineating their work from his own. Standing on a dais erected near where Lincoln gave his famous address, Spielberg said, “You gave us the history from which we made our historical fiction.” He then eloquently described the difference between history and art. “One of the jobs of art is to go to the impossible places that other disciplines like history must avoid,” he declared. “Through art we enlist the imagination to bring what’s lost back to us, to bring the dead back to life. This resurrection is of course just an illusion, it’s a fantasy, and it’s a dream. But dreams matter somehow to us.”

Spielberg clearly considers his work art, not history, and yet this distinction does not completely capture the complexity of Lincoln. The unique combination of art and history that Lincoln represents, and which distinguishes it from other kinds of art, identifies it as an example of historical memory, an attempt to put the past to work in the present. Hollywood has a long history of producing this sort of memory, beginning in 1915 with D. W. Griffith’s anti-Reconstruction, pro-Klan screed The Birth of a Nation, which represented Reconstruction as a misguided attempt to impose the national will and black rule on a noble, conquered South. This particular way of remembering Reconstruction later undergirded resistance to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. In his own day, Griffith’s art was considered history, pure and simple. Woodrow Wilson reportedly likened the film to “writing history with lightning,” while a number of academic historians at the time generally embraced and propagated Griffith’s view of Reconstruction. While most viewers today can instantly recognize the agenda behind Griffith’s particular way of remembering the past, reviewers of Lincoln today busily assess its historical accuracy and often forget to ask what the stakes of this particular form of remembering might be. Historical memory, as recent political movements as various as the project to recover a Christian America, the Tea Party, and Occupy Wall Street have proved, is a potent motivator in the field of popular politics, and viewers would do well to consider the particular implications of Lincoln as an artifact of historical memory, rather than as simple history.

As the epigraph at the beginning of this review attests, there have always been different ways of remembering the Civil War and its aftermath. Robert Penn Warren divided these streams of historical memory into two great rivers. Writing in the mid-twentieth century, Warren wrote that for the South the war would always be “the Great Alibi,” the explanation and excuse for all the South’s problems. Equally pernicious wrote Warren, was the way the war functioned in Northern memory as “the Treasury of Virtue,” a moment of national righteousness that could cover a whole host of sins and justify a thousand crusades. It was just this sense of historical righteousness, the sense of being redeemed and justified by history, that theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, writing a few years before Warren, had identified as the myth of American innocence that fueled an arrogant approach to foreign policy during the Cold War. This particular myth reared its head again after the events of September 11, 2001 and arguably sent us careening into two wars from which we have yet to extricate ourselves. Lincoln represents a furthering of this particular myth. In this regard, Spielberg’s decision to focus his film on the last year of the war and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment serves the interests of both art and memory well, but it serves the interests of history poorly and possibly to our peril. By focusing on the culmination of Lincoln’s and the country’s long and winding journey to emancipation, and obscuring the costs and historical exigencies of that moment, Spielberg has constructed a potent parable of political courage for the present. But, as he himself said in his speech at Gettysburg, “history forces us to acknowledge the limits of memory.” And, one might add, its dangers.


Robert Elder is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts at Valparaiso University.

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