Harold Holzer: What’s True and False in “Lincoln” Movie

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Harold Holzer is one of the country’s leading authorities on Abraham Lincoln and the political culture of the Civil War era. His new book is Lincoln: How Abraham Lincoln Ended Slavery in America: A Companion Book for Young Readers to the Steven Spielberg Film Lincoln, published this month by Newmarket Press for It! Books, an imprint of HarperCollins.

...To be sure, there is no shortage of small historical bloopers in the movie. First Lady Mary Lincoln, for example, never planted herself in the House Gallery to observe the final tally on the amendment. (Michelle Obama may routinely attend the State of the Union address each year, but such a visit would have been unthinkable in 1865.) Nor did congressmen vote by state delegations—a device that conflates the traditions of national political conventions with those of the House of Representatives. (Until the advent of machine voting, the House voted alphabetically by name; this I know from experience—I once worked for Representative Bella Abzug, number two on the roll call, and it was always a challenge to move her considerable frame from her congressional office to the House floor in time to answer the roll right after James Aboureszk.)...

Lincoln’s presidential office was never adorned with a lithographic portrait of William Henry Harrison, of all people, the old Whig president who died in 1841, just a month after delivering the windiest inaugural address on the windiest inaugural day in American history. Lincoln may have given short, unmemorable speeches at countless flag-raising ceremonies in Washington, but never was he ever seen, as he is in the movie, fetching his manuscript from the lining of his top hat, or for that matter using a crank, not a system of ropes, to pull the flag up a pole. (At one such real-life ceremony, the halyards got tangled and Lincoln said he hoped it wasn’t a bad sign for the future of the country.)

The list of such oops-moments can easily go on. In one of the movie’s most riveting scenes, a trio of smarmy political operatives tells Lincoln they are having a hard time bribing undecided Congressmen to vote “yes” on the amendment because so many 50-cent pieces of the day bear the president’s unpopular likeness. Good joke, to be sure, but Lincoln’s face did not actually appear on 50-cent currency until four years after his death, and even then on paper notes, not coins. In yet another scene, Lincoln’s young son Tad plays with glass negatives on loan from photographer Alexander Gardner’s gallery. But Gardner would never have sent one-of-a-kind, fragile plates to the rambunctious little “sprite” of the White House. Not long before, Tad had shown his contempt for photography by locking a camera operator out of a White House closet where he was developing portraits of the president, angry that he had appropriated one of his private hiding places without permission. By the time Lincoln fetched the key, the images had been all but ruined. Tad liked photos all right—paper prints—and his souvenir picture of Fido, the pet dog the family left behind when they headed to Washington, was, shall we say, dog-eared....

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