Steven Spielberg's Lincoln - Study Guide

We enthusiastically recommend the new motion picture, Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg. 

The film-making is suburb with great direction by Spielberg and Academy-award worthy performances from Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, and Tommy Lee Jones as Republican Representative Thaddeus Stevens.  The film is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography of Lincoln, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

The movie concerns efforts made by the Lincoln Administration to gather enough votes in the House of Representatives to pass the resolution on the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. The resolution has already been approved by the Senate, but must be approved by the House before it can be presented to the States for ratification.  The back-room campaign to gain votes from the Northern War Democrat minority becomes the focus of this political thriller. 

Unfortunately, the viewer may not get the full appreciation of the movie without a guide and identification.  The following guide is offered in the hope of clarifying the events and characters and thus increasing the understanding if the drama. 


The Story

The story begins in January 1865.  Lincoln has just defeated George B. McClellan in the November 1864 election. Lincoln did  felt  he had little chance of being re-elected. Confederate forces had triumphed at the Battle of Mansfield, the Battle of the Crater, and the Battle of Cold Harbor. In addition, the war was continuing to take a very high toll. The prospect of a long and bloody war started to make the idea of "peace at all cost" offered by the Copperheads look more desirable. Because of this, McClellan was thought to be a heavy favorite to win the election.  The Copperheads were Northern Democrats  who opposed the War and  wanted an immediate peace  with the Confederates. Republicans started calling antiwar Democrats "Copperheads", likening them to the venomous snake. The Peace Democrats accepted the label, but for them the copper "head" was the likeness of Liberty, which they cut from copper pennies and proudly wore as badges.  Lincoln won the election with 55% of the popular vote and 212 electoral votes (117 needed to win).  Lincoln viewed the victory as a mandate by the country to defeat the Rebels.

In December 14, 1863, a bill to support an amendment to abolish slavery throughout the entire United States was introduced by Representative James Mitchell Ashley (Republican, Ohio). This was soon followed by a similar proposal made by Representative James F. Wilson (Republican, Iowa).

Eventually the Congress and the public began to take notice and a number of additional legislative proposals were brought forward. On January 11, 1864, Senator John B. Henderson of Missouri submitted a joint resolution for a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery. The abolition of slavery had historically been associated with Republicans, but Henderson was one of the War Democrats. The Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Lyman Trumbull (Republican, Illinois), became involved in merging different proposals for an amendment. On February 8, 1864, Senator Charles Sumner (Radical Republican, Massachusetts), submitted a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery as well as guarantee equality. As the number of proposals and the extent of their scope began to grow, the Senate Judiciary Committee presented the Senate with an amendment proposal combining the drafts of Ashley, Wilson and Henderson.

The Senate passed the resolution on April 8, 1864, by a vote of 38 to 6. However, the House rejected the proposal.  After it was reintroduced by Representative Ashley, President Lincoln took an active role in working for its passage through the House by ensuring the amendment was added to the Republican Party platform for the upcoming Presidential elections.

Lincoln also viewed his victory as approval for the party plank to abolish slavery.  He had to act fast to get the House to ratify the 13th  Amendment resolution.  The  Emancipation Proclamation, which  "freed" slaves in those parts of Confederate states not under control by the Union was passed as a military measure based on Lincoln's war powers.  When the war ended, the legality of slavery would return to the states. While most Republicans would vote for the measure, it would not pass unless the Administration could convince some War Democrats to join them. 

Lincoln and Seward's task was very complicated.  There were many competing factions within both parties.  The Democrats were represented by War Democrats (The War Democrats demanded a more aggressive policy toward the Confederacy) and Peace Democrats or Copperheads (The Copperheads opposed the war and wanted an immediate peace settlement with the Confederates. Republicans started calling antiwar Democrats "Copperheads", likening them to the venomous snake. The Peace Democrats accepted the label, but for them the copper "head" was the likeness of Liberty, which they cut from copper pennies and proudly wore as badges.) The Republicans were likewise divided into the Radical Republicans (Republicans who were opposed to Slave power in the South and wanted the Rebels punished after the war. Lincoln's cabinet was composed of  Radicals like Salmon P. Chase [Secretary of the Treasury], James Speed [Attorney General] and Edwin M. Stanton [Secretary of War].) Another political faction was the Unconditional Union Party which supported the preservation of the Union at all costs. Members included Southern Democrats who were loyal to the Union, as well as elements of the old Whig Party and other factions opposed to a separate Southern Confederacy.

The obvious targets for persuasion  were the those Democrats who would soon be out of office. These lame-duck legislators quickly became candidates for Lincoln's campaign.  He reasoned that the defeated candidates had no reason to be loyal to the desires of their constituency or their wing of the party.  Under the supervision of Secretary of State William Seward, he initiated a campaign to win their votes by granting patronage positions in the Lincoln government.  Lincoln refused to use more obvious bribes such as money. 

The House of Representatives finally passed the 13th Amendment on January 31, 1865, by a vote of 119 to 56. On February 1, 1865, President Lincoln signed a Joint Resolution submitting the proposed 13th Amendment to the states. [See John Nicolay telegram to Lincoln - click on image to enlarge]

The Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery and gave Congress the power to enforce the Amendment:

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

See Thirteenth Amendment for an explanation of the amendment. [See resolution with Lincoln's signature - click on image to enlarge]

After the resolution was passed, Lincoln and Seward met with Vice President Alexander H. Stephens, Senator Robert M. T. Hunter, and Assistant Secretary of War John A. Campbell representing the Confederate States of America. The Hampton Roads Conference was held on February 3, 1865, near Fort Monroe in Newport News, Virginia, aboard the River Queen. The conference lasted for four hours, but no agreements were produced. President Lincoln dominated the proceedings. The three men who represented the Confederacy made little or no impression on those who represented the Union, and were not authorized to accept any offer other than independence. The Confederate commissioners immediately returned to Richmond at the conclusion of the conference. The war was to continue.


The People

  • Sally Field as First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. Mary Lincoln suffered from severe headaches, described as migraines, throughout her adult life as well as protracted depression. During her White House years, she also suffered a head injury in a carriage accident, after which her headaches seemed to become more frequent. A history of mood swings, fierce temper, public outbursts throughout Lincoln's presidency, as well as excessive spending, has led some historians and psychologists to speculate that Mary suffered from bipolar disorder.

  • David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward. According to John Hay, "The history of governments affords few instances of an official connection hallowed by a friendship so absolute and sincere as that which existed between these two magnanimous spirits", namely Seward and Lincoln.

  • Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln's oldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln. Robert Lincoln had recently left his studies at Harvard Law School and was newly named a Union Army captain and personal attendant to General Grant. He returned to the White House on April 14, 1865 to visit his family. His father was assassinated that night.

  • James Spader as Democratic Party operative William N. Bilbo.  Bilbo had been imprisoned but was freed by Lincoln, and then lobbied for passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.

  • Hal Holbrook as Francis Preston Blair. Blair was an influential Republican politician who tried to arrange a peace agreement.  Francis Blair was father of Montgomery Blair, a member of President Lincoln's cabinet. The elder Blair took it upon himself to advise Lincoln. On April 17, 1861, just three days after the surrender of Fort Sumter, Lincoln asked Francis Blair to convey his offer to Colonel Robert E. Lee to command the Union Army. The next day, Lee visited Blair across Lafayette Square from the White House. Lee blunted Blair’s offer of the Union command by saying: “Mr. Blair, I look upon secession as anarchy. If I owned the four millions of slaves at the South, I would sacrifice them all to the Union; but how can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native State?” After Lincoln's re-election in 1864 Blair thought that his former close personal relations with the Confederate leaders might aid in bringing about a cessation of hostilities, and with Lincoln's consent went unofficially to Richmond and induced President Jefferson Davis to appoint commissioners to confer with representatives of the United States. This resulted in the futile "Hampton Roads Conference" of February 3, 1865. After the Civil War Blair became a detractor of President Andrew Johnson's reconstruction policy, and eventually rejoined the Democratic Party.

  • Tommy Lee Jones as Radical Republican Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens. A fervent abolitionist, Stevens feared that Lincoln would "turn his back on emancipation." Stevens "excoriated him on the floor of the House" for meeting with a Confederate peace delegation.

  • Jackie Earle Haley as Confederate States Vice President Alexander H. Stephens. Stephens had served with Lincoln in Congress from 1847 to 1849. He met with Abraham Lincoln on the steamboat River Queen at the unsuccessful Hampton Roads Conference on February 3, 1865.  Stephens served as a Representative from Georgia (both before the Civil War and after Reconstruction) and as the 50th Governor of Georgia from 1882 until his death in 1883.

  • Bruce McGill as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Stanton oversaw the conduct of the war and was in charge of the investigation of the Lincoln assassination plot.

  • Joseph Cross as John Hay. Hay was assistant and secretary to Abraham Lincoln. Nicolay and  Hay collaborated on the official biography of the 16th President. (See John Nicolay below).

  • Jared Harris as Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. Commanded the Union Army from March 1864 and directed the strategy that led to Union Victory. Grant conducted a tenacious and bloody campaign against Lee that eventually forced the Army of Northern Virginia to surrender.

  • Lee Pace as Democratic Congressman Fernando Wood. A former Mayor of New York City, Wood became a Copperhead Democratic Congressman sympathetic to the Confederacy. Fernando Wood served a second mayoral term in 1860-1862. Wood was one of many New York Democrats sympathetic to the Confederacy. During his second mayoral term in January 1861, Wood suggested to the New York City Council that New York secede and declare itself a free city, to continue its profitable cotton trade with the Confederacy. Subsequent to serving his second mayoral term, Wood served again in the House of Representatives from 1863 to 1865, then again from 1867 until his death in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

  • Peter McRobbie as Ohio representative George H. Pendleton. Pendleton was a leader of the peace faction of the Democratic party. He voted against the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude. He ran in the 1864 U.S. presidential elections for Vice President, together with George McClellan.

  • Gulliver McGrath as Tad Lincoln. Tad was 12 years old, and toured Richmond, Virginia, with his father. Thomas "Tad" Lincoln (April 4, 1853 – July 15, 1871) was the fourth and youngest son of Abraham and Mary Lincoln. The nickname "Tad" was given to him by his father who found Thomas "as wriggly as a tadpole" when he was a baby. Tad was known to be impulsive and unrestrained, and did not attend school. He had free run of the White House, and there are stories of him interrupting Presidential meetings, collecting animals, and charging visitors to see his father. Tad outlived his father, but died of heart failure at the age of 18 on July 15, 1871, in Chicago.

  • Gloria Reuben as Elizabeth Keckley. Keckley was a former slave who was dressmaker and confidant to Mary Todd Lincoln. Keckley published Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House. She had been born into slavery, purchased her freedom and that of her son, and become a successful businesswoman in Washington, DC. Although this book provides valuable insight into the character and life of Mary Todd Lincoln, at the time the former First Lady (and much of the public and press) regarded it as a breach of friendship and confidentiality. Keckley was widely criticized for her book, especially as her editor had published letters from Mary Lincoln to her.

  • Jeremy Strong as John George Nicolay. Nicolay was secretary to Abraham Lincoln. In 1861, Lincoln appointed Nicolay to be his private secretary, which was the first official act of his new administration. Nicolay served in this capacity until Lincoln's death in 1865. Nicolay and John Hay, who had worked alongside Nicolay as assistant secretary to Lincoln, collaborated on the official biography of the 16th President. It appeared in The Century Magazine serially from 1886 to 1890 and was then issued (1890–94) in book form as ten volumes, together with the two-volume Complete Works of Abraham Lincoln. The resulting biography is a definitive resource on Lincoln and his times. Nicolay and Hay also edited Lincoln's Works in twelve volumes (1905). Finally, Personal Traits of Abraham Lincoln was published by Helen Nicolay in 1912.

  • Boris McGiver as Alexander Coffroth. Alexander Hamilton Coffroth was a Democratic member of the House of Representatives from Pennsylvania. He supported the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment

  • David Costabil as James Ashley. James Ashley was an active abolitionist who traveled with John Brown's widow on the date of Brown's execution and reported the event in the Toledo Blade newspaper. In 1858, he was elected to House of Representatives as a Republican. He served as the chairman to the Committee on Territories. He took an active role in supporting the recruitment of troops for the Union Army during the war. During his term, he wrote a bill to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, introduced the first bill for a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery, and initiated impeachment proceedings against President Andrew Johnson in 1867. He was defeated for re-election in 1868.

  • Walton Goggins as Democratic Congressman Wells A. Hutchins. Hutchins broke with his party to cast a decisive vote in favor of the Thirteenth Amendment.

  • David Warshofsky as William Hutton.

  • David Oyelowo as Ira Clark

  • Byron Jennings as Montgomery Blair. Blair was the son of Francis Preston Blair, was the former Postmaster-General and was a political opponent of the Radical Republicans. In 1860  Blair took an active part in the Lincoln's presidential campaign. After his election, Lincoln invited Blair to be part of his cabinet as Postmaster-General. Lincoln expected Blair, who advocated taking a firm stance with the southern states, to help balance more conciliatory members of his cabinet. Blair served as Postmaster-General from 1861 until September 1864, when Lincoln accepted an earlier offer by Blair to resign. Lincoln's action may have been a response to the hostility of the Radical Republican faction, who stipulated that Blair's retirement should follow the withdrawal of John C. Frémont's name as a candidate for the presidential nomination in that year. Regarding Lincoln's action, Blair told his wife that the president had acted "from the best motives" and that "it is for the best all around." After he left the cabinet, Blair still campaigned for Lincoln's re-election and Lincoln and the Blair family retained close ties.

  • Julie White as Elizabeth Blair Lee. Lee was the daughter of Francis Preston Blair, and wrote hundreds of letters documenting events during the Civil War.

  • Richard Topol as James Speed. Speed was United States Attorney General and brother of Joshua Speed, Lincoln's oldest personal friend. In December 1864, Lincoln appointed Speed Attorney General. After the assassination of Lincoln he became associated with the Radical Republicans and advocated the vote for male African Americans. Disillusioned with the increasingly conservative policies of President Andrew Johnson, Speed resigned from the Cabinet in July 1866 and resumed the practice of law.

  • Wayne Duvall as Radical Republican Senator Benjamin "Bluff Ben" Wade. Wade was highly critical of Lincoln; in a September 1861 letter, he privately wrote that Lincoln's views on slavery "could only come of one born of poor white trash and educated in a slave State." He was especially angry when Lincoln was slow to recruit African-Americans into the armies, and actively advocated for the bill that abolished slavery and had a direct hand in the passing of the Homestead Act of 1862 and the Morrill Land Grand Act of 1862. Wade was also critical of Lincoln's Reconstruction Plan; in December 1863, he and Henry Winter Davis sponsored a bill that would run the South, when conquered, their way. The Wade-Davis Bill mandated that there be a fifty-percent White male Iron-Clad Loyalty Oath, Black male suffrage, and Military Governors that were to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. It passed in the lower chamber on May 4, 1864 by a margin of 73 ayes to 59 nays; in the upper chamber on July 2, 1864 it passed by a similar percentage of 18 ayes to 14 nays and was brought to Lincoln's desk.  On July 4, 1864, Lincoln pocket-vetoed the bill by refusing to sign it. This action drove Wade to sign, along with Davis, the Wade-Davis Manifesto, which accused the president of seeking reelection by the executive establishment of new state governments.

  • Gregory Itzin as John Archibald Campbell. Campbell was a former Supreme Court Justice who had resigned at the start of war and then served as Assistant Secretary of War in the Confederate government. He was also a member of the Confederate delegation that met with Lincoln at the Hampton Roads Conference.

  • S. Epatha Merkerson as Lydia Smith. Smith was Thaddeus Stevens's biracial housekeeper. Stevens was a bachelor and Smith lived with him for many years.

Revised 11/22/2012