The celebration of the two hundredth anniversary of Abraham Lincoln bore great presents in form of Steven Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’ movie and Eric Foner’s book, ‘The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery’. Both the book and the movie attempt to give their separate portrayal of America’s greatest protagonist, the sixteenth president, Abraham Lincoln. Revered and respected by Americans from all over the country for his stand against slavery, Lincoln was a figure to respect, a politician to fear and a grand dramatist. Both Spielberg’s movie and Foner’s book attempt to reveal as much politically accurate account of the president’s life but differ in some aspects.
Despite the fact that a couple of movies have been made in the recent past to commemorate the life and contribution of President Lincoln, Edward Zwick’s ‘Glory’ (1989), ‘Gone With The Wind’ (1939), John Ford’s ‘Young Mr. Lincoln’ (1939), ‘Abe Lincoln in Illinois’ (1940) and Robert Sherwood. Steven Spielberg’s movie is set in early1865 as Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president fights to take the thirteenth amendment of the constitution through the senate. After the passing of the bill in 1864, Lincoln was accosted by bigger troubles, with Democrats such as Fernando Wood who was rooting for the secession of New York City. Republicans such as Thaddeus Stevens are also painted in the film as an enduring pain to Lincoln with their racist views.
Differences between written history and cinematic accounts
Spielberg’s movie explores the life of Abraham Lincoln and portrays his life as a family man, a politician and even in his dying moments in a hospital ward. The movie portrays his melancholic persona and the intricacies of his life as a husband and a family man trying to balance family and politics. Other scenes exhibit the widespread politicking and betrayal that goes on in the country with the vice president of the confederate travelling secretly to the North to sign a peace agreement.
Eric Foner’s account of Lincoln’s life in ‘The Fiery Trial’ is a strict non-fiction account of events that took place in Lincoln’s life after signing the Emancipation Proclamation. The book analyses Lincoln’s public life, his political career and speeches during his tenure that gained his widespread popularity. The book investigates his personal views regarding slavery and the difficult position he found himself in as president during the Civil War.
Intellectual and Emotional Power
Movies and cinematic media are acclaimed and highly popular in modern culture for their emotional power. Spielberg is known as a producer and director for his ability to create tear jerking scenes. His melodramatic account of Lincoln in the movie enabled the viewer’s to experience a president in new mind shifting perspectives. The emotional power of the movie is experienced in conflicting situations such as Lincoln reading to his young son Tad, and scenes of physical violence such as the murderous opening scrap between black and confederate regiments and the corpse littered battleground.
Foner concentrates on giving a non-fictional account of Lincoln’s life with explanations for his behaviour and the effect of nurture on his value system. Foner is quick to note the impact that Lincoln’s father had on the family and that he also held a zero tolerant policy regarding slavery. Lincoln’s father moved his family from Kentucky, to Indiana and finally to Illinois, which was believed to be a slave free state. The book provides intellectual knowledge regarding the life and value held by the sixteenth president. Unlike Spielberg’s movie, Foner desists from dwelling into family matters and the life of Lincoln outside the political arena, to provide only fact-backed, authoritative information that satisfies the intellectual mind. This sort of information is provided in a chronological account that does little to evoke the emotions of the reader, but instead focuses on providing an error-free historical account.
The Politics of Anti-slavery
Foner’s account of Abraham Lincoln’s life covers some of the most important events in shaping the current state of the American nation. The books goes through the secession of southern states, the civil war, formation of the confederacy, the emancipation proclamation, the Appomattox and the effect of these events on the politics practiced by President Lincoln. These major events are used as a background to explain the changes that occur in Lincoln’s life and their impact on his political career. Foner’s main agenda is not only to paint to the readers the developing views regarding slavery in the nineteenth century, but also to place Lincoln in the middle of the most divisive and consequential political conflict in the history of America.
In the movie ‘Lincoln’, Spielberg attempts to express the expansive dominion of slaveholders in the political system of the country and the obstacles that anti-slavers faced. In the movie, Spielberg notes that in the nineteenth century, slaveholders were not a minority group of radical Republicans, nor was slavery on the decline. Slavery was deeply entrenched in all corners of the American nation and slaveholders controlled significant proportions of the economy. Spielberg therefore tries hard to trace the development of Lincoln from an unpredictable, enthusiastic “anti-slaver” to the voice of a nation. The story shows that Lincoln was as much changed by the arising historical opportunities regarding the anti-slavery enterprise, as he worked to transform the history of the nation.
Other Notable Characters
The role of Mary Todd Lincoln, played by Sally Field in the movie, had great impact on the emotional power of the movie. Mary, Todd, the wife of Abraham Lincoln is known to have been married from a line of strict slaveholders with heavily racist perspectives. As the wife of President Lincoln, she was expected to play the complicated, yet colourful role of a first lady. The pressure of being married to a public figure is explored in the movie, with Mary Todd suffering under the immense pressure of holding her family together. Her lavish spending and expensive taste is subjected to the microscope, leading to a misinformed scene where Mary Todd causes a scene in front of the White House reception.
Thaddeus Steven, the congressional representative of Pennsylvania, also plays a significant role in the movie. His radical republican views make a significant proportion of the movie and are created to provide a background for Lincoln’s own budding views regarding the subject of slavery. Stevens was a fervent abolitionist who was afraid that Lincoln would not be strong enough to front the anti-slavery enterprise and may be easily compromised.
In Foner’s book, Stevens’ fears are affirmed by the fact that Lincoln held the values and beliefs of the Whig Party. This means that Lincoln supported the constitutional right of slave owners to hold slaves in states where slavery was legalized, though he fought against the expansion of slavery into new states. Eventually, Foner expresses the development of Lincoln’s value system and budding political thought that the founding fathers of the American nation intended for all men to be free.
Foner is particularly interested in painting the grim picture that Lincoln’s win in the election of 1860 had on the survival of the country. Slaveholders from the southern states had even before the election threatened to secede from the confederacy in case of a Republican victory. This means that Abraham Lincoln faced a difficult task trying to convince the militant southern states to remain part of the confederacy. As a show of goodwill, Lincoln supported the first Thirteenth amendment, which barred the Federal government from interfering with the activities of Southern states regarding slavery.
Steven Spielberg’s movie was a difficult attempt to avoid depicting Abraham Lincoln as a legendary figure. The movie portrayed him as a family man, showed his weaknesses, his life as a husband, failures in the political arena and even at his deathbed. This powerful account of the sixteenth president of America, and arguably the most notable political figure in the history of the country serves well as a commemoration of one hundred and fifty years since the Civil War.
Foner creates a chronologically correct, non-fictional account of the life of Abraham Lincoln. The book focuses heavily on his political career and his beliefs regarding slavery. However, Foner shows a different, more human side of the president where he interacts with slave owners, represents slave owners in judicial proceedings and his compromising agreements with the militant Southern States after the 1860 election. Foner’s account of the post war period helps readers to relate directly with the founders who created the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments of the constitution, thus transforming America to a free nation.
Spielberg, S. (2012). Lincoln. Touchstone Pictures.
Foner, E. (2010). The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. J. Wiley: New York