Steven Spielberg’s new movie about Abraham Lincoln is heightening interest in a president who is often held up as a mirror reflecting different definitions of leadership and the role of government.
The movie Lincoln is based in part on noted presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's book 'Team of Rivals', which studied how Lincoln and his cabinet of political opponents governed the country together in a time of crisis.
The film, starring Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role, takes place during the process of abolishing slavery in the months following Lincoln being re-elected president in 1864. And while it is not the first time a filmmaker has attempted to depict the real Lincoln, historians are excited about how it humanizes and familiarizes the American icon.
A president with humble beginnings
Although young Lincoln had a thirst for knowledge, he had only 18 months of formal education.
Lincoln was famously born to humble beginnings, in a log cabin in Kentucky in 1809. At only nine years old Abraham lost his mother to illness, but his father’s new marriage proved to be significant as his stepmother encouraged him to read. Abraham grew to be six feet four inches tall: lanky, yet physically strong. During the casting of the movie, Daniel Day-Lewis told the Los Angeles Times he constantly asked how tall the other actors were because he felt it important to emphasize Lincoln’s towering figure.
After serving as captain in the Black Hawk War of 1832, he became a lawyer and began his political career. Less than thirty years later he was elected president. By then he had married Mary Todd, and they had four boys. But only one of their sons made it to adulthood.
In 1863, Lincoln freed all the slaves living in the Confederacy with the Emancipation Proclamation. The Civil War ended in 1865 and five days later, he was assassinated by actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth: shot in the head while watching the play Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C.
The myth of Lincoln
And so, the legend lives on.
Lincoln holds a pop cultural status unprecedented by any other American president. He is often portrayed as a hero and an example of goodness. In the two other films featuring Lincoln this year alone he for instance fights zombies and vampires. He has appeared in Batman and Star Trek. To this day he frequently appears in children’s movies and cartoons. In Night at the Museum, the massive statue of him at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., comes to life. In The Simpsons, Lisa seeks advice from that same statue. And in Futurama he is, well, a head in a jar advertising cars.
Several documentaries have tried to capture the real Lincoln. A PBS documentary focused on the famous assassination.
His almost mythological status often leads to an image that is not necessarily accurate. Another PBS documentary addressed the controversial issues and myths surrounding Lincoln: race, equality, religion, politics and depression.
His characteristic stovepipe hat and cane intact, Spielberg’s addition pushes America’s understanding of Lincoln further. So far, the film has received a lot of attention for the way the president sounds. His voice in the movie is neither deep nor authoritative, but rather high-pitched. This might be unexpected, but according to experts this is what he actually sounded like. You can see the trailer for the movie here:
How Lincoln shaped America
Abraham Lincoln was the first president not to be born in one of the original 13 colonies.
According to presidential historian Richard Norton Smith, the tragedies surrounding Lincoln, like the death of his mother and children, as well as his troubled marriage, make him relatable to everyone. But his most enduring influence has been on the presidency itself.
Almost every president has used Lincoln to justify controversial decisions. “You can take away from Lincoln almost anything that you want,” Norton says. “Presidents in wartime, embattled presidents, unpopular presidents, they all look to Lincoln.”
“Theodore Roosevelt hung his picture in the president's office and said, whenever I have a major decision to make, I always ask myself what Lincoln would do… Richard Nixon as a 12-year-old was given a portrait of Lincoln that he hung over his bed. Nixon also justified what would later be seen as abuses of power by comparing America in the Vietnam era to the country during the Civil War.”
Most recently, President Barack Obama referenced Lincoln in a State of the Union Address: “I'm a Democrat. But I believe what Republican Abraham Lincoln believed, that government should do for people only what they cannot do better by themselves, and no more.”
In some ways Lincoln’s story began with his death, Norton continues, “the story of what we want Lincoln to be, which Lincoln are we talking about, the evolution of the posthumous Lincoln. It's like a mirror held up to the evolution of the country itself.”
See some of the ways Lincoln has shaped American politics and pop culture after his death here: