Is The “Lincoln” Movie Historically Accurate?
The “Lincoln” movie has been drawing raves from critics and tremendous audience all around the world. It has been nominated for numerous Oscars. Since, as a historian, I often speak to audiences about Lincoln’s life and his murder, I have been receiving a lot of questions about the new film. One of the most common questions I have been receiving from college audiences is, “Is the movie historically accurate?”
The answer is, in general terms, that it is quite accurate!
My answer is based on a general reaction. There are a number of errors scattered throughout the film. For instance, Mary Lincoln (whose teeth are far too bleached and perfect) refers to her fear that Robert will be killed by a “sniper.” That word was not used during the Civil War; the more accurate word would be “sharpshooter.” Is that a significant error? Of course not. One of the larger historical errors is the portrayal of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. Grant is shown in the movie in a dress uniform, when in fact he was muddy and somewhat unkempt, in contrast to the majestic Lee. The actual surrender took place face-to-face in a quiet room. While they had only met once before, they each respected the other. I don’t know why the film swings and misses on this very important and iconic moment, but it is still not, in my mind, a major focus of criticism.
The questions I’ve received generally center around several key moments or themes in the film which I will address below. If you have a question which I do not answer, please feel free to add it in the comments section and I will do my best to provide an answer. If you need to cite me as a source for a school project or media story, click here for my credentials.
LINCOLN AS A STORYTELLER: Throughout the film, Lincoln is shown telling stories, often to the exasperation of his more formal staff. This is absolutely true. Lincoln was a noted jokester and storyteller, who often used stories to make a point indirectly, and often used humor to defuse a difficult situation. Abraham Lincoln’s storytelling ability was noted in his personality even as a young man. The film “Young Mr. Lincoln” shows this off quite brilliantly as well.
THE ETHAN ALLEN STORY: One of Lincoln’s longest stories in the film concerns the patriot Ethan Allen and a British outhouse. While the veracity of the story is impossible to establish, it is undeniably true that Lincoln often told that specific story! It was one of his favorites! And yes, Lincoln would have said s**t for a laugh in telling the story. See the next answer for more…
DID LINCOLN SWEAR SO MUCH: No. The script veers from truth in this regard. Lincoln would use an off-color word in telling a humorous story (see answer above) but he did not swear and would not have taken God’s name in vain as shown in the film. In anger, of course, anyone can say anything, but his contemporaries often remarked that Lincoln did not swear or curse and regularly objected when others did.
DID THADDEUS STEVENS HAVE AN AFRICAN-AMERICAN MISTRESS? Yes. It was widely believed that Thaddeus Stevens was sexually involved with his devoted housekeeper, a mixed race woman named Lydia Hamilton Smith.
It is impossible to know for certain the exact nature of their private relationship; in public they were always very proper. However, their romantic/sexual involvement was talked about quite often by people who knew Stevens well and is accepted by most historians as true. Stevens, like Abraham Lincoln, was extremely cordial to individual African-Americans and Thaddeus Stevens’ deep and unwavering belief in the importance of better race relations is absolutely unquestionable. Even more important, from a historical point of view, is that Smith and Stevens worked together to protect numerous escaped slaves on the famed “Underground Railroad!”
DID ABRAHAM LINCOLN ALLOW BRIBES/JOBS BE OFERED IN EXCHANGE FOR SUPPORT OF THE 13th AMENDMENT? Again, this is an area in which the screenwriter, drawing upon historical sources, offers conclusions which are neither completely supported by fact nor easily dismissed. Lincoln’s people DID employee the equivalent of today’s political lobbyists to try and persuade reluctant Democrats to support the amendment to ban slavery. However, we do not know their specific conversations or interactions. Therefore, it is safe to say that those scenes are historically correct in general terms but should not be taken literally in all regards.
WAS THADDEUS STEVENS A SARCASTIC AND INSULTING DEBATER? Yes! While some of the specific putdowns he utters in the film are not recorded as such in contemporary journals, every one of them is consistent with his personality and speaking style. Some scholars of Thaddeus Stevens say that he was even more sarcastic than is portrayed in the film!
DID LINCOLN OFTEN HAVE A RECURRING DREAM BEFORE A MAJOR EVENT? Yes. While it is not recorded that he had that dream and related it specifically to the passage of the amendment, the dream itself was often referred to by Lincoln, but generally as a portent to some military action.
DID LINCOLN MEET WITH REBEL ‘PEACE COMMISSIONERS’? Yes. However, because Lincoln did not recognize the leaders of the rebellion as a legitimate government, his meeting with them was more of a public relations move than anything else. The film captures this perfectly. To read a scholarly analysis of the meeting, click here.
DID THADDEUS STEVENS TAKE HOME A COPY OF THE THIRTEENTH AMENDMENT? Most probably not. It is rather inconceivable that that particular scene had any grounding in truth. More likely, it was an invention of the screenwriter.
DID LINCOLN HAVE A COOL RELATIONSHIP WITH HIS SON ROBERT? Yes. Lincoln adored children, especially his beloved Tad and deeply mourned Willie. However Lincoln, who was not close with his own father, did not have a particularly warm or close relationship with his eldest son.
DID LINCOLN SLAP HIS SON ROBERT? No. Lincoln could be cool and dismissive of his oldest son, but nothing in Lincoln’s background, history or nature would give credence to this fabricated film moment. Biographies of Lincoln often point out how slow he was to anger and how dearly he avoided personal violence unless attacked. This scene was invented by the screenwriter.
DID THADDEUS STEVENS REALLY WEAR SUCH AN AWFUL LOOKING WIG? Yes! He was completely bald and photographs of him show that the costumers re-created his ratty looking hairpiece very accurately!
DID REPRESENTATIVES FROM CONNECTICUT OPPOSE THE AMENDMENT? No. The screenwriter admitted that he changed the historical facts on that one, Here is his defense.
DID LINCOLN’S VOICE REALLY SOUND LIKE THAT? Our best guess is that it did. A definitive answer is not completely possible, since there are no actual recordings of Lincoln’s voice. However the screenwriters and the brilliant Daniel Day-Lewis did a tremendous amount of research into how Lincoln actually sounded.
Many people who knew or merely heard Lincoln commented on distinctive characteristics of his voice. Based on everything we know, the performance is highly accurate!
It is a testament to the filmmaking prowess of Steven Spielberg that he and his production team worked miracles in re-creating a historically accurate portrait of Lincoln. As a film, it is nicely bracketed by the 1939 classic “Young Mr. Lincoln” directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda as Abraham Lincoln before he entered public consciousness. Click here to read my blog entry about that great Lincoln film.
Wonder what happened to the others who were with Lincoln when he was shot? Read my article, “The Curse Of Ford’s Theater.”
Have A Question? Need A Speaker?
If you have a question, use the comments section below. If you need a quick response due to a deadline, click here. If you would like me to present my nationally acclaimed presentations on Lincoln’s life or his assassination to your school, group or class, click here.