Tommy Lee Jones plays radical congressman Thaddeus Stevens, an advocate of not just emancipation but also full equality for blacks.

A Quick History Refresher before You See “Lincoln”

InThePastLane                      November 21, 2012                       Edward T. O’Donnell

Here’s a historian’s guide to getting the most out of “Lincoln.”

Stephen Spielberg’s latest film, “Lincoln,” has been hailed by reviewers as a masterpiece (this historian agrees).  Daniel Day-Lewis’s depiction of the 16th President has likewise been described (for good reason) in rhapsodic terms. Given this hype, it’s likely that you’ll either want to go see the film, or you’ll be dragged to the theater by friends and family.  To increase the chances you’ll enjoy it, here’s a quick history refresher on the context of the film.

The film opens in late 1864 – that means the war has been going on for three and a half years. Hundreds of thousands have already died (toward a total of more than 700,000 by war’s end in April 1865).  No one imagined such a prolonged and bloody war when it began in April 1861.  Nor did they imagine that the war to preserve the Union would expand to become a war to eliminate slavery.  Lincoln had announced the Emancipation Proclamation in Sept. 1862 and it took effect on Jan 1, 1863.  The Proclamation declared free some slaves, but not all, leaving the ultimate fate of slavery unclear.

Two key issues dominate Washington, DC during this period:

1) should Lincoln agree to meet with Confederate commissioners to discuss a negotiated peace?
2) can Lincoln and the more radical wing of the Republican Party pass the 13th Amendment that will abolish slavery?

To complicate matters, the two issues are intertwined.  Many congressman who might support the 13th Amendment as a war measure that would demolish the southern economy, would pull back from such a radical measure if they thought a negotiated peace between North and South was imminent.

So when the Confederates send three commissioners North in early 1865 to discuss a possible negotiated peace, it puts Lincoln in a bind. He is determined to win the war and thereby preserve the Union, a goal he believes the Constitution requires of him.  Having long been a foe of slavery (and in recent years warming to the idea of black equality), he is also determined to abolish slavery by seeing to the passage of the 13th Amendment.  But he knows the Confederate commissioners will insist on totally unacceptable peace terms that will recognize Confederate independence (goodbye Union) and maintain slavery (moral imperative bungled).  Still, Lincoln cannot outright reject the Confederate peace commissioners because the Northern public is tired of war and inclined toward accepting any negotiated settlement that will end it.

The central challenge then is: Can Lincoln keep the peace commissioners at bay long enough to gain passage (via a relentless full-court press by key Republicans to garner 30 votes in the House) of the 13th amendment?

Lee Pace plays Fernando Wood, Copperhead Congressman from New York. Copperheads were conservative Northern Democrats who sympathized with the South and bitterly opposed emancipation and racial equality.

Opposing Lincoln and the 13th Amendment are conservative Democrats (many with strong ties to the South) and conservative Republicans who are opposed to wholesale emancipation of four million slaves.  It’s important to keep in mind that racism runs deep in the North in this period.  While many Northerners want to end slavery because they understand that it makes a mockery of American republican ideals of liberty and equality, most adamantly reject the idea that freed slaves will live among them as equal citizens.  In other words, it is possible to be both an abolitionist and a racist; to hate slavery and the enslaved.  Many Northerners fit this description and they envision a post-Civil War America in which slavery continues to exist (ideally fading away over time) and where those slaves emancipated during the war are sent back to Africa.

The most vociferous opponents are Democrats known as Copperheads.  The character in the film who declares on the House floor that (paraphrasing) “Congress cannot make equal those whom God himself has made unequal!” is Fernando Wood (played with exquisite malevolence by Lee Pace), the former Mayor of New York.

Tommy Lee Jones plays radical congressman Thaddeus Stevens, an advocate of not just emancipation but also full equality for blacks.

The most vociferous champion of not only emancipation but also black equality is Thaddeus Stevens (played by Tommy Lee Jones, or the dude in the wig), Congressman from Pennsylvania.  He is easily the most radical man in Congress, for as noted above, many Americans opposed BOTH slavery and black equality.  Stevens is a key player in the struggle for the 13th Amendment, but he’s also a huge liability because his radical views on black equality are easily demagogued by Wood and the Copperheads to scare Congressmen away from supporting the Amendment.

A few small points to be aware of:

Lincoln did indeed have a high-pitched, nasal voice as depicted by Daniel Day-Lewis.

Lincoln also loved telling stories (likewise depicted to perfection by Day-Lewis), a habit that many loved but many others (Secretary of War Stanton, played by Bruce McGill) hated.

Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln

Lincoln and his wife Mary did have a turbulent marriage, but there’s a lot of evidence that they cared for each other. Furthermore, while Mary Lincoln has long been characterized as “crazy” and a major problem for Lincoln, more recent scholarship takes a more balanced view: she appears to have been somewhat mentally unstable (perhaps even bipolar), but this condition was heightened by the strains of the presidency (during a civil war no less) and the loss of their son.

  • markdouglas

    the movie was okay, but didn’t show anything about Southern War Ultimatums — nor their killing sprees from 1856 on, but then, it was about the end of the war, not the start.

    Still, Frederick Douglass was a BFD, and the movie didn’t show or mention him either.

    If you think “:scholarship” is balanced, I disagree. Since coming across Southern War Ultimatums in Southern newspapers at the time, and Southern speeches where leaders boasted of killing for GOD, killing to spread slavery, I have tried to find one damn “historian” who even mentions Southern War Ultimatums.

    Actually I found a “historian” who mentioned it, but never told what they were, or what a huge BFD they were, and and how Southern leaders were already killing, already torturing, already bragging they would keep killing and keep torturing until slavery was spread North West and South.

    How the hell do you leave that out? Seriously, I wanna know.

    We need to learn WTF history is — and quit the bulllshit. Who killed who, and why, is real history,. Everything else is bullshit.

    By the way, bullshit can be true — or not. But bullshit is just the crap “historians” and others say, because they think that sounds impressive. Human nature –see the book “On Bullshit” by Frankfurt.

    Bullshit is ubiquitous, not evil. But get who killed who, and why, right first. THEN add your bullshit. Then make your momma proud with all your clever compound sentences and references to drivel.

    The problem is– drivel is 90% of most “history”” books. For example, more people probably know the name of Robert E Lee’s pet chicken (Pearl) that know Lee purchased kidnapped women from the North and recorded the information in his slave ledgers.

    Which is more important? The name of his pet chicken?

    Why even put such drivel in any book? Because the author hopes you will think they know a lot of shit. Maybe they do, but I doubt it. If they knew a lot of shit, they would not have time to yap about the damn chicken.

    Bruce Catton is one of the absolute worst at this. Endless self absorbed bullshit about which briggades came from the West, what the belt buckles were in such a such state. Holy Sh*t, Yet he never once mentions that the US Senator that passed Kansas Act immediately went to Kansas and started terrorizing and later killing, IN Kansas.

    Nor will he tell you that Charles Sumner was beaten on the Senate floor for speaking for two days about that!! The speech Sumner was beaten for, do you know what he was talking about? He was talking specifically about Davis Rice Atchison, who passed KS Act (with Stephen A Douglas) and his men, and listed dozens upon dozens of documented tortures and killings.

    Do you know what Catton said about this? He characterized Sumner’s amazing speech as “nothing special”. WTF — he just outted another US Senator, who passed the KS act, then going to KS and there killing and terrorizing. A BFD if there ever was one.

    How many people even know factually who David Rice Atchison was? Not many.

    How many know he and Stephen A Douglas got Kansas Act passed?

    How many know Atchison boasted he had Douglas pass it, and it was common knowledge how Douglas flipped from entirely against KS act, to emphatically maniaclly for it, instantly. Both men – Atchison and Douglas — claimed the KS act was to provide for the “citizens of Kansas to be PERFECTLY FREE to choose their own domestic instittiions.

    WHich was fucking hilarious because as Sumner said, Atchison left immediately, went to Kansas and there started terrorizing people, even killing, to PREVENT them from even speaking against slavery.

    How do you miss this? Very basic . How do you miss this?

    Easy, you focus on bullshit.

    Learn who killed who, and why.

    You won’t be so stupid. And you wont say such crap as “scholarship” in regard to US history about that era.

  • Ed Murphy

    More on Thaddeus Stevens and Lydia Hamilton Smith

    Was Lydia Hamilton Smith a Catholic of Irish descent?

    Answer. Maybe. Carl Sandburg said she was. I’ll get more information in time.

    But more important is Stevens’ will which provided seed funding to establish a school “for the relief and refuge of homeless, indigent orphans.” The successor school survives today as a 2-year college, Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in Lancaster PA (Steven’s old constituency). It functioned over the years as a “trade school,” but (thankfully) lost its identity as “refuge of homeless, indigent orphans.” It still functions today as a trade school (carpentry, bricklaying, construction management, etc. ); but now it seems to be more of a community college.

    I’m told Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology has a football team, but since I’m not a fan of competitive sports …

    So there you have it.

    Ed Murphy

  • Ed Murphy

    Reply to Dorothy Cloherty.

    Thaddeus Stevens was a life-long bachelor.

    The lady in question is Lydia Hamilton Smith, a mixed race widow. But I couldn’t guess her race from looking at her photo (find one in cyberspace). Mrs. Smith or Lydia (as she was addressed by Stevens) was widow of a free black, Jacob Smith. She and Jacob had two sons: William and Isaac Smith.

    She loyally served as Stevens’ housekeeper, property manager, administrative assistant, confidant, hostess, and other duties as assigned.
    Lydia was at Stevens’s bedside at the time of his death, and was taken care of in Stevens’ will.

    She and Stevens were certainly close friends. But was she his mistress or common-law wife? Maybe. Some feel she was. And certainly the recent movie, Lincoln, implies she was. But the exact nature of their relationship is inconclusive.

    It’s more interesting to note that Stevens in his personal deportment — unlike some other abolitionists — regarded blacks as equals.

    Smithsonian magazine had an interesting article about Stevens a couple of years back.

  • Dorothy Cloherty

    Ed: I really enjoyed your synopsis, however, Jack and I saw the movie last week so I wish I had read it before. I have one question: Who was Blair (& what was his role). I think Hal Holbrook played the part.

    Also, was it true that Thaddeaus’ housekeeper was his mistress? (No hurry, just wondering) Thanks!

  • David Lynch

    Thanks, very useful and succinct! I just finished reading, “Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensible Man”, by Walter Stahr. I found that it gave great perspective on the period in the movie, but also, the years before and after. I came away believing that in many ways, Seward was a very important figure apart from Lincoln.


    I love that Thaddeus was living with a black woman. Is that historically correct? Did those in Congress and Senate know?

  • Jacqueline Brathwaite

    Dear Ed,
    I’m unfortunately seeing your very fine, “refresher,” after seeing the film on November 27th. I enjoyed reading, Team of Rivals a few years back; and I must say was impressed by the level of scholarship provided by this Presidential historian. Now I need to re-read the book since I wasn’t sure of some of the movie details. What a stellar cast. Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones was quite intriguing!
    Certainly needs to be seen more than once!
    Retired Teacher
    PS 153

  • Claire Buff

    Great synopsis, Ed. Thanks so much. I loved Team of Rivals, and thought the movie, which I saw Thanksgiving Eve with the girls, was fantastic. Still, this addled old brain appreciated the clear-cut run down, and I’ll be sure Tim reads it before he sees it.

  • Ed Murphy

    Thanks Ed!

    Good commentary.

    I read Team of Rivals, and I plan to see Lincoln withing the next several days.

    Ed Murphy

    • InThePastLane

      I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. I’m heady back for a second look with my girls this weekend.