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We Ask A Historian: Just How Accurate Is 'Lincoln'?

Nov 22, 2012
Originally published on November 22, 2012 10:20 pm

A great many families going to the movies over this Thanksgiving weekend will probably see Lincoln, Steven Spielberg's new film starring Daniel Day-Lewis and an impressive cast.

Based on a biography by Doris Kearns Goodwin, but scripted by playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner, it's been very well-reviewed, but here's a question: How true to history is it?

Ronald White, author of A. Lincoln: A Biography, tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer that if a ninth-grader were to write a school paper based on the film, she'd find that its "dramatic core" is basically on target.


Interview Highlights

On the film's overall historical correctness

"The dramatic core of this remarkable four months of trying to pass the 13th Amendment [which banned slavery] is true. Is every word true? No. Did Lincoln say, 'And to unborn generations ...'? No. But this is not a documentary. And so I think the delicate balance or blend between history and dramatic art comes off quite well."

On William Seward and the three lobbyists he employs

"I think the movie is wanting in one way to disabuse us of the sense that Lincoln is this high-minded idealist who wouldn't stoop to using the machine to get votes. And [Secretary of State] Seward — remember, he was Lincoln's chief rival for the Republican nomination for president — is a shrewd politician. He's in this with Lincoln; he's not an unwilling co-conspirator. And he's willing to do things sort of outside the box, that Lincoln perhaps can't do. I doubt that Lincoln actually met these three men, but Seward delivers the votes [on the 13th Amendment] in a variety of ways."

On the over-the-top drama of House debates in the film

"You don't hear anything in the House anymore; you only hear someone giving an address for C-SPAN. I mean, one of the wonderful parts of the movie is that all of them are there, they're listening; some of them are going to be persuaded. It suggests an earlier time of a much more active Congress."

On radical Republican leader Thaddeus Stevens, played as a hero by Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln, but as a villain in 1942's Tennessee Johnson

"The earlier movie ... was produced before the civil rights movement, or in the Gone With the Wind movement, when yes, abolitionists were evil guys. Now, since the civil rights movement, we see them as courageous leaders advocating rights for African-Americans, and so we have a different viewpoint on Thaddeus Stevens. I think the movie gets it right here."

On Kate Maser's New York Times op-ed, which criticized the film for keeping black people quietly in the background

"I think that's a point well taken. And what the audience doesn't fully understand, in the final scene — almost the final scene — where suddenly African-Americans arrive in the balcony as the final vote is to be taken, that one of those is Charles Douglass, the son of Frederick Douglass. Charles had fought in the famous Massachusetts 54th; he will write to his father after that climactic vote: 'Oh, Father, how wonderful it is. People were cheering, they were crying tears of joy.' So that had the potential for more black agency, but it doesn't come to full fruition in the film."

On whether freeing the slaves was the prime motive of Abraham Lincoln, as the film suggests

"I think we still don't understand, sadly, although historians have been telling us this for a generation — that slavery really was a cause of the war. However, Lincoln did start the war to save the Union; he did not start the war originally to free the slaves. But that became a purpose for him when he realized that he could no longer move forward without a true understanding of liberty and union. He ran in 1864 for re-election on the slogan 'Liberty and Union,' and so it becomes the second purpose of the Civil War."

On Daniel Day-Lewis

"I was very pleased with Daniel Day-Lewis' depiction of Lincoln. He does a delicate balance between the homely Lincoln — the homespun Lincoln — and the high Lincoln of the second inaugural address. He walks like Lincoln, the way he puts his feet down one at a time. He talks like Lincoln — not the baritone voice of Disneyland, but the high tenor voice. Daniel Day-Lewis studied Lincoln intensely, and what comes out is a very accurate depiction of the spirit of the man."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

The way historical events are represented in the movies can be far more powerful, and more memorable, than reality. For generations of Americans, discussions of the Civil War evoked scenes from "Gone with the Wind." Now, this generation is being exposed to a new vision of that time in our nation's history, through the eyes of Steven Spielberg. A great many families going to the movies over this Thanksgiving weekend might see "Lincoln," Spielberg's new film with an impressive cast, and Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role.

The movie's been very well-reviewed. We wondered how true to history it is, and what it might mean for our understanding of how slavery was abolished. We asked Ronald White, a Lincoln biographer, to sit down with us and talk about that. He joined us from our studios at NPR West. Welcome to our program.

RONALD WHITE: Thank you, Linda. Wonderful to talk about Lincoln.

WERTHEIMER: Now, let me just ask you to give us a kind of overall assessment. If a ninth-grader were to write a history paper based on this movie, would she be in trouble?

WHITE: She, or he, would get the basic story correct. The dramatic core of this remarkable four months of trying to pass the 13th Amendment, is true. Is every word true? No. Did Lincoln say, "and to unborn generations"? No. But this is not a documentary, and so I think the delicate balance, or blend, between history and dramatic art comes off quite well.

WERTHEIMER: Let's talk about some of the people in the film and whether they, and their circumstances, were accurately represented - like, for example, Secretary of State William Seward. David Strathairn plays him as a kind of slinky, slippery guy who does what needs to be done, for his president. We have a little clip here, of Seward to talking to some people who we might politely call lobbyists, who were hired to put together the package of votes that Lincoln needs.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LINCOLN")

JOHN HAWKES: (As Robert Latham) Congressmen come cheap. A few thousand bucks will buy you all you need.

DAVID STRAITHAIRN: (As William Seward) The president would be unhappy to hear you dither.

HAWKES: (As Robert Latham) (Laughter) Will he be unhappy if we lose?

STRAITHAIRN: (As William Seward) The money I managed to raise for this endeavor is only for your fees, your food and lodgings.

TIM BLAKE NELSON: (As Richard Schell) Uh-huh. If that squirrel-infested attic you've boarded us in, is any measure, you ain't raised much.

WERTHEIMER: And this is a sort of balancing act between these guys, who are happy to buy the votes; and Seward, who is trying to sort of back them off of that, but not all the way off that. Is that what happened?

WHITE: It did, basically. I think the movie is wanting, in one way, to disabuse us from the sense that Lincoln is this high-minded idealist who wouldn't stoop to using the machine, to getting votes. And Seward - remember, he was Lincoln's chief rival for the Republican nomination for president - is a shrewd politician. He's in this with Lincoln. He's not an unwilling co-conspirator. And he's willing to do things sort of outside the box, that Lincoln - perhaps - can't do. I doubt that Lincoln actually met these three men, but Seward delivers the votes in a variety of ways.

WERTHEIMER: Now, here's an example of why I am always concerned about movies which depict real events. Thaddeus Stevens, who was a leader of the Radical Republicans in the House, and a hugely important figure in this movie - he's played by Tommy Lee Jones in a roaring, over-the-top performance. Let's listen to one of his big moments, in a debate in the House.

(SOUNDBITE FROM "LINCOLN")

TOMMY LEE JONES: (As Thaddeus Stevens) How can I hold that all men are created equal, when here before me stands, stinking, the moral carcass of the gentleman from Ohio; proof that some men are inferior, endowed by their maker with dim wits impermeable to reason, with cold, pallid slime in their veins instead of hot, red blood?

WERTHEIMER: OK, you hardly ever hear that going on in the House, anymore.

WHITE: You don't hear anything in the House, anymore. You only hear someone giving an address for C-SPAN. I mean, one of the wonderful parts of the movie is that all of them are there. They're listening. Some of them are going to be persuaded. It suggests an earlier time, of a much more active Congress.

WERTHEIMER: Now, some of the movies about this period, have portrayed Thaddeus Stevens as a villain. I believe that Lionel Barrymore played him that way. This movie treats him as a hero of the emancipation movement. Now, who got it right?

WHITE: The earlier movie - which you refer to - was produced before the civil rights movement; or in the "Gone with the Wind" movement when yes, abolitionists were evil guys. Now, since the civil rights movement, we see them as courageous leaders advocating rights for African-Americans. And so we have a different viewpoint on Thaddeus Stevens. I think the movie gets it right, here.

WERTHEIMER: One of the criticisms of the movie came from Kate Masur, in the New York Times. In an op-ed piece she wrote that she felt black people in the film are kept very quietly in the background. Do you think that's a fault, in the movie?

WHITE: I do. I think that's a point well-taken. And what the audience doesn't fully understand, in the final scene - almost the final scene - where suddenly, African-Americans arrive in the balcony as the final vote is to be taken - that one of those is Charles Douglass, the son of Frederick Douglass. Charles had fought in the famous Massachusetts 54th. He will write to his father after that climactic vote: "Oh, father, how wonderful it is. People were cheering. They were crying tears of joy." So that had the potential of more black agency, but it doesn't come to full fruition in the film.

WERTHEIMER: Now, this movie makes the case that freeing the slaves was the prime motive of Abraham Lincoln. A lot of history books - including American history textbooks that I read, as a kid - suggest that saving the Union was the only thing that was really important. What about that?

WHITE: Two points: I think we still don't understand, sadly - although historians have been telling us this, for a generation - that slavery really was a cause of the war. However, Lincoln did start the war to save the Union. He did not start the war, originally, to free the slaves. But that became a purpose for him, when he realized that he could no longer move forward without a true understanding of liberty and union. He ran in 1864 for re-election on the slogan "Liberty and Union," and so it becomes the second purpose of the Civil War.

WERTHEIMER: What do you think about Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln? He certainly looks the part.

WHITE: I was very pleased with Daniel Day-Lewis' depiction of Lincoln. He does a delicate balance between the homely Lincoln, the homespun Lincoln; and the high Lincoln, of the second Inaugural Address. He walks like Lincoln - the way he puts his feet down, one at a time. He talks like Lincoln - not the baritone voice of Disneyland but the high, tenor voice. Daniel Day-Lewis studied Lincoln intensely; and what comes out is a very accurate depiction of the spirit of the man.

WERTHEIMER: Ronald White's book is called "A. Lincoln: A Biography." Mr. White, we appreciate this tutorial.

WHITE: You're welcome, Linda. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.