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(Having seen the Lincoln film, and mini-reviewed it on MillersTime, I got to wondering what folks who ‘know Lincoln’ and spend lots of time getting to know him even better would say about the film. I asked Richard Margolies, an active member of the DC Lincoln Group and one of those folks who spends a good deal of time increasing his knowledge of Lincoln, about the validity of Spielberg’s film and whether the Lincoln presented is one we can believe in. Here’s his response, with a few edits)

Abraham and Mary Todd In Context

by Richard Margolies

Spielberg’s Lincoln is masterful.  It shows our greatest leader during a few weeks in January, 1865 working to gain the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in the House of Representatives.  It focuses on his relationships, as portrayed by Doris Kearn Goodwin’s fine study, Team of Rivals.

Yet, like the story of blind people touching parts of an elephant, it is difficult to understand the whole person from a touch.  A few examples.

Mary Todd is seen as a demanding, vexatious wife, infuriating her husband.  To understand her would it not be helpful to see her life in context?  In the standards of the time she was a beauty, with red hair and blue eyes, though small of stature, she was self-possessed and driven.  Like Lincoln she was a Southerner.  Unlike him, she was born to a wealthy family, with slaves.  Moving to Springfield she was immediately in the highest circle of society because her sister had married into the governor’s family.  Mary Todd was actively courted by both lawyer Lincoln and Stephen Douglas.  She was ambitious and had aspirations to be politically influential, not a path open to a woman via elective office at the time.  Douglas was Lincoln’s opponent whom he spoke, wrote, organized and debated against continually from 1854 to 1860.  When she turned her attention to the gawky, towering Abe their relationship was on and off for a long time.  He considered marrying some one else. They were an unlikely couple.

An observer would see a beautiful and well-bred woman, though how could one know that inside she was troubled by what had happened?  Life had dealt her misfortunes that undermined her composure.  She and Abe lost three of their children before they got out of their teenage years.  She was devastated, and never recovered.  She showed symptoms that today would be described as depression, paranoia, migraines, explosive anger, shopping addiction.  The film depicts the wonderful, and humorous, scene of Mary Todd ranting and dressing down Representative Thaddeus Stevens in the White House receiving line in front of others waiting to shake the First Lady’s hand.

The context was that Rep. Stevens had been investigating the White House budget, since she had been vastly overspending what Congress had allotted.  And she also had stolen money out of the White House gardener’s budget to pay for her shopping trips to Philadelphia and lied to her husband.  It was not uncommon for her to return to the People’s House with lavish refurnishing bolts of material and personal purchases, such as one trip’s 50 pairs of fine gloves.

After Abraham’s murder what thin hold she had on reality slipped away.  Robert, her one surviving son, had her committed to an asylum.  She never spoke to him again.  Once released, she returned to her sister’s house in Springfield and rarely came out of her room.  She died poor and alone in the city where her murdered husband lay buried.

Another example – this one involving some of the context in which Abraham rose to the Presidency.

When he traveled to Washington he had to be disguised since there were already threats on his life.  By the time he got to the White House many states were well along in their maneuvering to withdraw from the Union.  He knew war was the likely result, as he was not of a mind to pander and appease the slave states, though he had worked continually to hold their loyalty.  He was informed that the US Army had only 13,000 troops, scattered across the US, and they were untrained for war.  He was facing vehement denunciations from abolitionists, and progressives in his own party, as well as strong forces in the North for appeasement with the slave states.  The North made much money from the cotton trade also, through trading companies and banking.

Further, the executive branch had few powers that we take today as a normal part of the Presidency.  Lincoln created those powers.  Many considered his assumption of those powers to show that he wanted to be a dictator.  The political cartoons, and much rhetoric in the country, often portrayed him as a gorilla, a snake, a liar, a person of no breeding, a hick who was a threat to proper society and ‘the way things work’.  We see little of this context in this brilliant film, but this is expecting too much from a mere two and a half hours based largely on one book.

And from the film, did Abraham slap his son Robert in his attempt to discourage him from enlisting, as the film portrayed?

I have only dipped into the 15,000 books on Lincoln (there are more books written about him than any other person in history, with the possible exception of Jesus, with most of those books about his theology).  However, I have not come across this slapping event.  Yes, Abraham got furious at times.  But he knew this was a problem to be contained.  He would usually write a letter to the person who aroused his anger, then put it in his desk and never send it.  After his desk was cleaned out, the letters were found.

In this case, it was true that the father did not want his son to enlist.  He had been on the battlefields where he had sent many sons to fight and die.  He had walked among, and ridden through, the rotting and bloated carcasses of the dead boys.  He had smelled the stench of those honored bodies, and he loved his son.  But Abraham was a person aware of the people around him, mindful as we say today.  He was continually learning and revising his own thoughts and letting his new understanding override his feelings.  He saw that his son, who had come back from Harvard to enlist, was determined to be a part of what his father was doing.  Robert wanted to be a part of creating the country on a new basis of equality.  The father relented in his own wishes to spare his son, and he told his wife that their son would never forgive them if they stood in his way of being the man he wanted to be.

Spielberg worked for seven years on the film and gave us a work of art, albeit it is just a slice of Lincoln’s life.

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Photo By Patrick Semansky

(Other notes from Richard Margolies:

Director Spielberg spoke at the Nov. 19th celebration at the Gettysburg National Cemetery about the importance of memory if we are to understand meaning in life and in our nation. This annual event commemorates Abraham’s short address, which many consider one of the finest examples of American literature.  Doris Kearns Goodwin and Harold Holzer also spoke there last month.

For those who are interested in pursuing more context and joining with others who are doing so, there are ten Abraham Lincoln groups around the country – one is the Lincoln Group of the District of Columbia (http://www.lincolngroup.org).  One activity currently underway is a book discussion, reading closely chapter by chapter, Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery which received the Pulitzer Prize.)