SUBJECTS — U.S./1812 – 1865; Biography; Diversity/African-American;



AGE: 13+; MPAA Rating — PG-13 for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language;

Drama; 2012, 150 minutes; Color.

Give your students new perspectives on race relations, on the history of the American Revolution, and on the contribution of the Founding Fathers to the cause of representative democracy. Check out TWM’s Guide:

Warning to Teachers

Watching this film is such a strong experience that showing the movie without proper scaffolding risks leaving students with the misimpression that Emancipation consisted of a month of rancorous debate and political logrolling in the House of Representatives. This Lesson Plan provides the information, discussions, and assignments to allow teachers to use the film without students retaining that misimpression. The materials below present the movie as an integral part of a unit on the end of America’s nightmare dance with slavery.

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a well-researched work of historical fiction that conveys a reasonably accurate impression of the events of January 1865. The movie has many important strengths. Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of Abraham Lincoln is by far the best characterization of the man recorded on film. The acting and writing for the character of Thaddeus Stevens should lead to a new appreciation for this almost forgotten leader of the Radical Republicans. Stevens’ view of race relations was a hundred years ahead of its time. The movie contains one of the best historical extrapolations, whether on film or in print, of Lincoln’s reasons for demanding that the 1865 lame-duck session of the House of Representatives join the Senate in proposing the 13th Amendment to the States. The complications posed by the Confederate Peace Commission are well-represented, as are Mary Lincoln’s desperate efforts to prevent the Lincolns’ oldest son from enlisting in the army. The Lincolns’ grief at the death of their middle son, Willie, and the Lincolns’ sometimes difficult marriage are also shown.

The use of Lincoln as an aid to education is complicated by its narrow focus on the legislative process during January of 1865. The film ignores the fact that “Emancipation — like all far-reaching political change — resulted from events at all levels of society, including the efforts of social movements to change public sentiment and of slaves themselves to acquire freedom. . . . Slavery died on the ground, not just in the White House and the House of Representatives.” Professor Kate Masur.

Thus, the tremendous contributions to the anti-slavery cause made before 1865 by abolitionists, African-Americans (particularly black soldiers and the contrabands), the Congress, the Union Army, the Republican Party, and Abraham Lincoln himself are virtually ignored by the movie. The film also fails to mention the growing support for abolition among many in the American public that had, a few short years before, been overwhelmingly opposed to emancipation. There is scant mention of the change of position, due to conviction or political calculation, by a number of War Democrats who came to favor abolition. In fact, the historical record shows that before January 1865, so many blows had been struck against slavery that it would have been almost impossible for the nation’s “peculiar institution” to recover. This is not shown in the movie.

In order to maximize the educational benefits of the film, TWM has created a lesson plan that uses the movie for what it actually is, the story of an important but relatively short segment in the long and difficult struggle to emancipate the slaves. The lesson plan starts with student reports that will present the information necessary to understand how slavery was ended in the U.S. up to the point where the movie takes over. After students have seen the film and developed a strong personal identification with Abraham Lincoln, they will be required to read on their own or out loud in class excerpts of Lincoln’s important speeches and writings. This will: (a) enhance students’ appreciation of Lincoln’s eloquence; (b) review basic historical lessons of the Civil War period, and (c) turn students’ attention from the movie toward the historical record. Finally, the lesson plan takes the emotional interest generated by the film to promote class discussion and drive assignments.

This lesson plan will require approximately two to three weeks of class time and substantial preparation by teachers. However, the benefits will be great because it will focus students' attention on what is probably the most important event in the first hundred years of the republic. For those educators who would like to use the movie, the introduction is necessary to avoid exaggerating the importance of the legislative battle of January 1865, thereby introducing historical error in the presentation of the history of emancipation.


One of the Best! This movie is on TWM’s short list of the best movies to supplement classes in United States History, High School Level.




This lesson plan covers efforts in the U.S. to emancipate the slaves culminating in the 13th Amendment and the removal of Constitutional protections for slavery.


Selected Awards:

2013 Academy Awards: Best Actor (Day-Lewis); Best Achievement in Production Design, 2012 Academy Awards Nominations: Best Motion Picture of the Year, Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role (Tommy Lee Jones), Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role (Sally Field), Best Achievement in Directing (Steven Spielberg), Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay (Tony Kushner), Best Achievement in Cinematography, Best Achievement in Film Editing, Best Achievement in Costume Design, Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score, Best Achievement in Sound Mixing.

2013 Golden Globe Awards Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama Daniel Day-Lewis; 2013 Golden Globe Awards Nominations: Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture (Tommy Lee Jones), Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture (Sally Field), Best Director – Motion Picture (Steven Spielberg) Best Screenplay – Motion Picture (Tony Kushner), Best Original Score – Motion Picture (John Williams).

Featured Actors:

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln. David Strathairn as William Seward, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Lincoln, James Spader as W.N. Bilbo, Hal Holbrook as Preston Blair and Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens.


Steven Spielberg.


The decision to emancipate the slaves and to reject the bargain between North and South that gave Constitutional protection to slavery is one of the most important developments in U.S. history. President Abraham Lincoln is among the three greatest Presidents in U.S. history. The film Lincoln provides visual and emotional depth as well as a dramatic high point to the unit.

This lesson plan allows teachers to use the film Lincoln without introducing errors of historical perspective.

Students will understand the broad social movement that resulted in the emancipation of the slaves. They will retain striking visual images of Abraham Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens, and the passage of the resolution sending the 13th Amendment to the States for ratification — all within the context of the broad effort to end slavery in the U.S. They will understand why the 13th Amendment was necessary to invalidate protections for slavery written into the Constitution by the Founding Fathers. Students will be motivated to do their best on research and writing assignments.


Watch the movie with your child. Tell your child that the effort to abolish slavery was a social movement by abolitionists and black Americans that took decades and a bloody civil war to accomplish. The Civil War, in which 620,000 Americans died, roughly 2% of the population of the country, was the costliest war in American history. In today’s terms, that would be six million Americans dead. This movie is about one of the last acts in the struggle for emancipation.


Click the three sections below to expand.

1. Putting the Events of January 1865 in Context: Student Reports or Lecture.

27 Student Reports: In preparation for showing the movie, have students present short reports on the following topics. If a particular report does not include the “Important Facts,” teachers should supply the missing information along with any additional insights that the teacher believes will be helpful. For a list of report topics click here. Omit reports on those topics that the class has already studied. In the alternative, teachers can provide the necessary background for the film through direct instruction using the “Important Facts” as the starting point for the lecture.

The End of Slavery in Great Britain and the British Empire

Important Facts:

In 1772, four years before the American Revolution, England’s highest ranking judge ruled that the Common Law did not allow slavery and that since there was no statute permitting slavery on English soil, no slave could be held against his will. The case concerned James Somerset, a slave brought to England from Virginia by his master. Somerset ran away but was captured and confined on board a ship that would soon sail for Jamaica where Somerset was to be sold. Friends of Somerset filed an application in the English courts for a writ of habeas corpus. Lord Chief Justice Mansfield issued the writ requiring the captain of the ship to bring Somerset to the court and to justify his detention. Somerset’s master appeared in the case and tried to claim his “property.”

Lord Chief Justice Mansfield noted that, “The power of a master over his slave has been exceedingly different, in different countries.” He held that since common law judicial decisions had to be based on the values of the community and since for the people of England slavery was “odious,” Somerset could not be held in slavery under the common law. The only other way for slavery to be imposed in England was by positive law, that it is, by a decree of the King or a law passed by Parliament. Since no such positive law permitting slavery existed in England, Lord Mansfield held there was no basis to deny Mr. Somerset his freedom. This decision effectively abolished slavery in Britain because any slave who ran away could not be compelled to return to his or her master. The Somerset decision was known to the slave owners in the American South. While it only applied to slaves in the British Isles, the handwriting was on the wall, and slave owners worried that eventually slavery would be outlawed throughout the British Empire. Thus, in addition to their desire for a republican form of government, the Southern slave owners had another contradictory reason for joining the American Revolution; ensuring that the benefits of freedom did not apply to their slaves.

The prediction of Southern slave owners that slavery would be banned in the British Empire proved correct. After years of abolitionist protests the international slave trade was outlawed by Great Britain in 1807 and slavery was abolished in most of the Empire by 1833.


The Role of Slavery in the American Revolution and the South’s Bargain with the North to Protect Slavery

Important Facts:

In 1776, the cause of abolition was gaining strength in the United Kingdom. Slavery in Britain itself had been effectively abolished by judicial decision in 1772 in Somerset’s Case. In 1776 when the South joined with the North to declare independence and also in 1787, when the constitution was drafted, it was apparent to the planter class in the Southern states that the British Empire was moving to abolish slavery in the colonies. The Southern Colonists agreed to participate in the American Revolution, in large part, to avoid the abolition of slavery and required the North to agree to let slavery alone if the nation and later the Constitution was to come into existence. Southern concern over the fate of slavery in the British Empire was well-founded. Britain outlawed slavery in the colonies in 1833.


Constitutional Protections for Slavery

Important Facts:

The original Constitution never used the words slave, slavery, involuntary servitude, or bondage. However, there were several provisions that protected slavery. Art. I, Section 2, Clause 3 prohibited Congress from banning the importation of slaves until the year 1808. Article 4, Section 2, Clause 3 protected slavery even in free states: If a slave escaped to a free state, his status remained that of a slave, and he had to be returned. The Three-Fifths Rule provided that each slave was to be counted as three-fifths of a person in determining representation in the House of Representatives and votes in the Electoral College, although only whites could participate in elections. This gave the South a strong advantage in Congress and a disproportionate say in the election of the President. Finally, Article V, which required that amendments be proposed by 2/3rds of each House of Congress and ratified by 3/4s of the states, indirectly, protected the other pro-slavery provisions of the Constitution by making it impossible to amend the Constitution without the agreement of the South.

In short, at the request of Southerners, the framers of the Constitution built several layers of protection for slavery into the framework of government. Northerners agreed to these provisions for the purpose of getting the Constitution adopted, expecting that the institution of slavery would wither away. In 1776 and 1787, with the slave economy under stress, that appeared to be happening.

Many northerners who were opposed to slavery recognized that it was protected by the Constitution in the slave states. These included Lincoln (see his First Inaugural) and even such radical anti-slavery men as Thaddeus Stevens. See Korngold, 47 and Excerpts from the debate on the 13th amendment.


Some of the Consequences of Slavery for the Slave, the Master, and Southern Society

Important Facts:

Life-long servitude and status as property sometimes deprived slaves of “life” and always took away their “liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Examples include loss of the following: the right to the fruits of their labor; the right to maintain a family (raise their children, choose a spouse, and live with that person); the right to choose an occupation; freedom from undeserved punishment; the right to defend oneself from aggression by the master or by white men; access to justice in the courts, and, primarily for women, the right to resist sexual advances by white men. In addition, slaves were prohibited from becoming educated. In every slave state except Tennessee, slaves were not permitted to learn to read or write.

For the masters, the power over slaves contributed to the following: it denigrated the value of work (if a slave could do it, the task was too menial for a white man); loss of empathy and indifference to the suffering of others by being the agents and beneficiaries of the denial of the slaves’ liberty (e.g. while it’s much worse for the slave family, the person who causes the family to be split up or who stands by and profits from it becomes hardened and less empathetic to others); sadistic tendencies (e.g., beating slaves or having them be whipped to coerce obedience); for the white men who had sexual relations with slave women, the act diluted if it did not destroy the meaningfulness of sexual relations with their wives and required them to deny any affection for the children born of their sexual exploitation of female slaves.

For Southern society slavery denigrated the value of work, led to a division of wealth in favor of the planter class, and retarded the development of industry, which is one of the reasons why the South lost the Civil War against a much more industrialized North.


George Washington and Slavery

Important Facts:

Although George Washington owned slaves most of his life, he supported the gradual abolition of slavery. In fact, in his will, he freed his slaves upon the death of this wife Martha, and established a trust fund to assist them in the transition to lives as free men and women. Washington was the only founding father to free his slaves.

Washington signed the law in 1790 that reaffirmed the ban on slavery in the Northwest Territory, but he also authorized military and financial aid to Haitian slaveholders during the revolt by slaves in Haiti in 1791. Washington also signed the nation’s first fugitive slave law allowing for the capture of slaves who had fled to northern states.


Thomas Jefferson and Slavery

Important Facts:

Thomas Jefferson understood the evil of slavery and proposed ending the practice all of his life. Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration of Independence included the following passages among the list of outrages by George III. [The phrases in brackets are changes either by Jefferson or by John Adams. Note that at the time of the Revolutionary War, the British were offering freedom to slaves who turned on their masters and joined the British Army.]
[H]e has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation hither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. [Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold,] he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce … and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he had deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

This clause was deleted at the behest of the Slave Power in the Continental Congress.

However, Jefferson did not believe in freeing slaves as a general rule because he thought that it led to insurrection or race war. Jefferson wrote that slavery was like holding “a wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.” As Secretary of State Jefferson wrote the Northwest Ordinance that prohibited slavery in the Northwest Territories.

Slavery financed Jefferson’s very expensive life-style. Jefferson freed only a few slaves, including Sally Hemings’ two older brothers and her children. Sally Hemings and another slave were informally freed at his death by Jefferson’s daughter who gave them “their time.” The rest of Jefferson’s slaves were sold at his death to pay his debts.

Jefferson has been strongly criticized for his unwillingness to free his slaves during his life or at his death.


Benjamin Franklin on Slavery

Important Facts:

Early in his adult life, Franklin owned two slaves, an accepted practice in Philadelphia at the time. He assumed, as was the common belief, that Africans were sub-human. This began to change in 1759 when he visited a school for young blacks and observed that they were studious and intelligent. Over time his attitudes toward slavery and blacks changed and he began to see slavery as a system that caused black degradation. Franklin freed his slaves and, in 1770, began to attack the institution. When Franklin returned from France in 1785, he became President of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and the Relief of Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage. However, in 1787 he supported the new constitution that accepted and protected slavery. Otherwise, for the rest of his life Franklin was a participant in efforts to abolish slavery.


How Northern Ingenuity Strengthened Slavery in the South and Help Set the Preconditions for Civil War

Important Facts:

Before 1794 cotton was not a particularly profitable crop in the American South. It could have been. Cotton doesn’t spoil and even before refrigeration could be easily stored for long periods and shipped long distances. However, cotton has small black seeds intermixed with the cotton fibers. Even with slave labor it was difficult and time-consuming to remove the seeds. This changed when Eli Whitney (1765-1825) an inventor from Westboro, Massachusetts, invented a machine that automated the separation of cottonseed from cotton fiber. A cotton gin could generate up to fifty-five pounds of cleaned cotton daily. Suddenly, cotton production became profitable, cotton cultivation expanded, and there was an increased demand for slaves to work the cotton fields. A thriving textile industry grew up in New England and in Britain to turn Southern cotton into cloth for the American and European markets. This changed the economy of the American South, strengthening the economic foundation of slavery. The cotton gin was one of the key inventions of the industrial revolution. Cotton came to represent over half the value of U.S. exports from 1820 to 1860.

Before the invention of the cotton gin, slavery was on the decline in the South and many of the Founding Fathers expected that it would eventually whither away no matter how many protections it had in the U.S. Constitution. However, with the invention of the cotton gin and the vast expansion in the cultivation of cotton, the wealth and power of the Southern planter class increased. This led to what abolitionists and Republicans called “the Slave Power.” In this indirect way, a Yankee inventor was a major contributor to the political and economic power of the slaveholders.

The cotton gin was widely copied and Eli Whitney was unable to make money from his invention. However, he did become famous. This helped him get a contract to manufacture muskets for the U.S. Army. To fulfill the contract, Whitney invented a system for manufacturing muskets by machine, making the parts interchangeable. This led to faster assembly and easier repair. For this work, Whitney became famous again as a pioneer of American manufacturing. He also made a fortune. Eli Whitney continued to create new inventions for the rest of his life.


The Political Power of Slaveholders Before the Civil War

Important Facts:

“Slavery . . . was the most powerful institution in the nation from 1830 to 1860 . . . . It elected every President of the United States, except four, until the new era. It completely dominated the Senate and the Supreme Court, and nearly every Congress prior to 1861. West Point was ancillary to it; both the army and the navy were its auxiliaries. The social life at Washington obeyed its behests; . . . Statesmanship was its servitor; and diplomacy its handmaid. Exponents of the effete Southern aristocracy swarmed in the departments. . . ” Henry C. Whitney, a friend and biographer of Lincoln, writing nearly four decades after Lincoln’s death. From Life on the Circuit with Lincoln, pp. 376-377 by Henry Clay Whitney.

Before the Civil War, ten of the fifteen Presidents owned slaves and some of those who didn’t, such as James Buchanan and Martin Van Buren, were beholden to or associated with the Slave Power. One of the reasons why the national capital wasn’t located in the population and commercial centers of the North, such as New York and Philadelphia, was that those states restricted slavery. Instead, it was carved out of two slave states, Virginia and Maryland. Slavery was legal in Washington, D.C. until 1862.

In 1860 “[t]he economic value [the slaves], when considered as property, exceeded the combined worth of all the banks, railroads, and factories in the United States. In geographical extent, population, and the institution’s economic importance, the [American] South was home to the most powerful slave system the modern world has known.” Foner, p. 17


What Life was Like for Free Blacks in the U.S. Before the Civil War

Important Facts:

It depended upon where they lived. In many places, North and South, free blacks couldn’t vote or hold public office nor could they travel or live where they pleased. Some states prohibited the entry of free blacks. In most states free blacks were subject to seizure as fugitive slaves. In some states they were prohibited from owning real estate, testifying against whites, entering into contracts, maintaining lawsuits or enrolling their children in school. Free blacks in the South were under the most restrictions. In some places they were not permitted to assemble even for religious services. Tsesis, pp. 21 & 22.


Attitudes Toward Slavery in the South from the time of the Revolution through 1865

Important Facts:

At the time of the Revolution many leaders of the South, including Founding Fathers George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and James Madison disliked slavery and were aware of its evils. However, they couldn’t figure out a practical way to end slavery. As the production of cotton and slavery became more profitable and abolitionists became more strident in their denunciation of slavery, Southerners reacted by elevating slavery to a God-sanctioned necessity for a civilized nation. Local voices against slavery were severely punished and therefor stilled.


The Abolition Movement in the U.S.

Important Facts:

Vermont abolished slavery in 1777, and by 1804 all of the other Northern states had done the same. In most states, emancipation was gradual, with, for example, no living adult slaves being emancipated but children attaining freedom after working well into adulthood. Foner, pp. 14 & 15. However, the movement to abolish slavery nation-wide did not gain momentum until the 1820s. Abolition came to the fore as the Great Awakening accelerated. America during this period came to celebrate individualism and the self-made man who rose from humble beginnings to wealth and positions of prominence. (Abraham Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens were self-made men who grew up in poverty.) Some Americans, like Lincoln and Stevens, disliked slavery and believed in free labor. They believed that a person should be able to benefit from the fruits of his labor. In that environment, the fact of slavery became all the more galling, and the immorality of slavery began to penetrate the consciousness of some people in the North.

The aim of the abolitionist movement was to alter public opinion and bring about a much needed moral transformation among white Americans so that they recognized the inhumanity of slavery and that all people should be equal before the law. Most abolitionists also believed in racial equality. Foner, p. 20. By that standard, the abolition movement was only partially successful, achieving freedom for blacks but not its other goals. Equality of all races before the law and the moral transformation that eliminates racism is still a work in progress.

Many Americans, including Lincoln and his idol, Henry Clay, wanted to colonize the slaves in Africa believing that the two races could never live together in peace. As late as 1862, Lincoln was proposing colonization. However, the idea died because, very simply, freed African-Americans didn’t want to leave the United States. Foner, pp. 19 & 130.

While the abolitionists made gains from the 1820s onwards, at the beginning of the Civil War most Americans were not abolitionists and most Northerners would have let the Southern states keep enslaving blacks. Unlike the abolitionists who wanted a complete ban on slavery, Lincoln’s position, and that of a majority of the North in the 1860 elections, was that the Constitution protected slavery in the South. What they were against was the expansion of slavery into new territories.

In fact, most Americans disliked abolitionists, either they supported slavery or they feared abolitionists would drive the South out of the Union. Working class whites feared that free blacks would come North and take their jobs. Abolitionist meetings were often disrupted by crowds of angry whites, and occasionally abolitionists were killed. During the war, there were riots in New York in which blacks were hunted down and killed. Lincoln, despite his antipathy to slavery, repeatedly distanced himself from the abolitionists, understanding that identification with abolitionism would be a great obstacle to Republican success at the polls. Until emancipation of the slaves in the South became a military necessity, Lincoln advocated leaving slavery alone in the South. As the war continued, Lincoln came to adopt the abolitionist position on freedom for African-Americans, if not on the equality of blacks and whites. Foner, p. 24, 25 & 89 – 91.


The Dred Scott Decision

Important Facts:

Dred Scott was a slave from Missouri whose master, an army doctor, had taken him to live in the free state of Illinois, then to the free territory of Wisconsin, and finally back to the slave state of Missouri. With his wife and two daughters (ages 14 and 7 at the time of the Supreme Court ruling), Scott brought a lawsuit claiming that since they had resided in a free state and a free territory, they were now free even though they had been moved back to Missouri, a state that recognized slavery.

Chief Justice Roger Taney, who wrote the opinion of the Supreme Court, was from an old planter family in Maryland; he had manumitted his own slaves in the 1820s. However, he was a firm believer in black inferiority. In the Dred Scott decision, the Court had held that all blacks, including free men, were not citizens of the United States and never could become citizens. It held that the words “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence did not apply to blacks. The decision found that African-Americans were considered merely as property by the Founding Fathers.

Thus, blacks, slave and free, could not be citizens of the United States even if a state made them citizens and granted them certain rights. Those rights would not extend beyond the bounds of the state. Six of the other eight justices joined in Judge Taney’s decision, thus the vote on the case was 7 to 2.

In the Dred Scott decision, the Supreme Court also ruled that Congress had no power to outlaw slavery in the territories. Click here for excerpts from the Dred Scott decision.

Justice Taney had hoped that the decision in the Dred Scott case would settle the issue of slavery once and for all. Instead, the ruling angered the North, emboldened the South, and indirectly helped to cause the Civil War. Foner, pp. 92 – 94. It is now regarded as the worst decision ever made by the U.S. Supreme Court and was effectively overruled by the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments.


The Election of 1860

Important Facts:

Seward expected to be the Republican nominee for President in the 1860 elections, but Lincoln was more moderate on slavery, pledging to leave slavery alone in the states in which it was legal but to prevent its expansion into the territories. He was viewed as more electable than Seward precisely because of his position on slavery. The Democrats split into a Northern faction which supported Stephen A. Douglas and favored popular sovereignty and the Southern Democrats who contended that under the Constitution Congress could not forbid slavery anywhere (see the Dred Scott decision). A fourth party, the Constitutional Union party of John C. Bell, didn’t take a position on slavery but supported maintaining the Union.

Republicans campaigned on halting the expansion of slavery. They downplayed the threat of secession contending that it was not legal. They supported the rights of free labor. Foner, pp. 142 & 143. Lincoln was elected with the solid support of the North, which gave him a strong victory in the Electoral College with no votes from the South. He wasn’t even on the ballot in some Southern states. Even the South’s advantage from the 3/5ths rule could not stem the tide of a solid North. If all of the votes of the three other candidates had been combined into one, Lincoln would have won in the Electoral College. Foner, p. 144.

Lincoln was a minority, President. However, there was a clear preference for maintaining the Union because both Bell and Douglas were Unionist candidates.


The Scorpion’s Sting – Why the South Seceded When Lincoln Was Elected

Important Facts:

Before 1860, many abolitionists had a plan for ending slavery without war. It included the following: respect the constitutional right of the slave states to determine for themselves whether to permit or prohibit slavery; prevent the expansion of slavery into any new territory, specifically, the new territories of the West; encircle the slave states with a cordon of free territory; repeal or water-down the fugitive slave law so that slaves who reached free territory could not be arrested and returned to their masters; make Washington, D.C., an enclave bordering Maryland and Virginia, free territory; and cooperate with Great Britain in suppressing the already illegal transatlantic slave trade. The hope and prediction of the abolitionists was that within a few decades of the application of their policies by the federal government, slavery would die out and the Southern states would abolish it of their own accord. Oaks pp. 1 — 50.

By 1860, there was a popular metaphor by which Americans, North and South, described this plan. The metaphor was based on the myth (or perhaps it’s true) that if a scorpion is completely surrounded by fire, it will eventually sting itself in its head and die. Ibid. p. 25. Thus, in the words of Sherrard Clemens, a Congressman from Virginia, the plan was “to encircle the slave States of this Union with free States as a cordon of fire, and that slavery, like a scorpion, would sting itself to death.” Congressional Globe, 36th Cong., 1st Sesess., p. 586 quoted by Oaks at pp. 23 & 24.

While there is no record of Lincoln himself mentioning the Scorpion’s Sting (so far as TWM as been able to determine), his positions as a moderate Republican would stop the spread of slavery and slowly degrade the institution. The election of 1860 saw the first time that the federal government was under the control of a political party whose policies aggressively, if peacefully, sought the end of slavery. The leaders of the Slave Power agreed with the abolitionists that the policies of the Scorpion’s Sting would sap slavery of at least some of its vitality. The Slave Power saw that with the policies of the Scorpion’s Sting in place, the North’s advantages in numbers and manufacturing power would only grow. So, 1860 was the best time to resist. And, due to the superior leadership of its generals, such as Robert E. Lee, and the difficulty that the North had in finding generals who could match Southern military leadership, the Slave Power almost pulled it off.


Why Most People in the North Supported the War — Was the U.S. the only surviving democracy in 1860?

Important Facts:

Most Northerners supported the war only for the purpose of preserving the Union. This was not just out of American patriotism, but to ensure “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” In 1860, most of Europe was in the hands of a resurgent aristocracy; the promise of the French Revolution had been blunted. Napoleon III had been elected “Emperor” by universal male suffrage but ruled France as a dictator without interference from other democratic institutions. While Britain had a Parliament, only men with substantial property could vote. This excluded six out every seven adult males and did not change for several decades. The U.S. was the world’s only major democracy, and if it could not hold itself together, the cause of democracy throughout the world would have been set back for generations, if not discredited entirely.

Abraham Lincoln referred to this in the Gettysburg Address when he said,

  • Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
  • Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. . . . It is . . . for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us . . . that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

From the beginning of the Civil War, the abolitionists fought to end slavery as well as to save the Union, but they were a minority. Foner, p. 163. It was only as the war progressed, with unbelievably high casualties and black troops making a significant contribution to the Northern War effort, that Lincoln and a majority in the North realized that the cancer of slavery had to be eradicated for the nation to come together and progress. In addition, the elimination of slavery was a reason for the war and the incredible carnage that was holy as preserving modern democracy. This became a commonly presented theme, expressed, for example, by Stevens in his January 5, 1865 speech on the House Floor supporting the 13th Amendment and by Lincoln in his Second Inaugural.


Actions Before January 31, 1865, Taken by Lincoln, Congress, the Army, and the Various States to Restrict or Eliminate Slavery

Important Facts:

  • In August 1861, Congress passed the First Confiscation Act freeing slaves used for military purposes by the South and prohibiting the Army from returning captured or runaway slaves who had been used in the Confederate war effort. Lincoln signed the bill into law.
  • In March 1862, Congress passed a law forbidding the Union armed forces from returning fugitive slaves. Lincoln signed the bill into law.
  • On April 10, 1862 Congress pledged the federal government to pay for any slave freed by a slaveholder.
  • On April 16, 1862 Congress freed the slaves in the District of Columbia and provided for compensation to loyal owners. Lincoln signed the bill into law.
  • In June 1862, Congress adopted Thomas Jefferson’s proposal to prohibit slavery in the territories. This law repudiated the Dred Scott decision and Stephen A. Douglas’ popular sovereignty. Lincoln signed the bill into law.
  • In July 1862, Congress passed the Second Confiscation Act freeing all slaves owned by masters who participated in the rebellion. Lincoln signed the bill into law.
  • On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation gave hope for freedom to the three to four million slaves still under Confederate control. It encouraged them to run away from their masters and to cross Union lines. The Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in areas then in open rebellion, excluding slaveholding states that had stayed loyal to the Union: Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware. It did not include the state of Tennessee which was under Union control, the District of Columbia, the dissident counties of Virginia that would form the state of West Virginia, and those areas of New Orleans and its suburbs that were under Union control. As a practical matter, the Proclamation freed no more than 50,000 slaves, but as Union Armies advanced throughout the rest of the war, all the slaves they encountered were freed. Lincoln worked to increase the number of slaves crossing Union lines.
  • Slaves who enlisted in the Union Army were promised, first freedom for themselves and later freedom for their wives and children; this policy greatly reduced the number of slaves in the border states, particularly in Kentucky.
  • By the end of the war, the Army’s policy concerning contrabands, following the orders of the Congress and the President, had allowed approximately 400,000 slaves to cross Union lines to freedom.
  • In February 1864, the Women’s National Loyal League, an organization of abolitionist feminists headed by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, submitted to Congress a petition containing 400,000 signatures seeking a Constitutional amendment abolishing slavery. On April 8, 1864, the Senate adopted a resolution proposing the 13th Amendment to the States. It was forwarded to the House of Representatives for concurrence, a necessary step in the Constitutional amendment process. However, on June 15 the House was unable to muster the 2/3rds majority to join the Senate. The 13th Amendment then languished until January of 1865.
  • States, with Lincoln’s active encouragement, were banning slavery. These included, in early 1864: restored Union governments in Virginia and Arkansas; in August 1864, the border state of Maryland; in September 1964, restored governments in Tennessee and Louisiana, and on January 11, 1865 the border state of Missouri. On the eve of the vote on the 13th Amendment, if the Emancipation Proclamation was a valid exercise of Presidential power, slavery was legal only in Kentucky, with between 60,000 and 100,000 slaves, and in Delaware with less than 1,000 slaves. (Note that even in Kentucky slavery had been severely undermined because some 24,000 black Kentuckians had enlisted in the Union Army, securing freedom for themselves and their families.)
  • By 1865, Lincoln had appointed a majority of the justices who sat on the Supreme Court. The new Chief Justice, Salmon P. Chase, had been Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury and was a committed abolitionist.


What actions did African-Americans, slave and free, take which set the stage for passage of the 13th Amendment?

Important Facts:

Here are some of the major actions taken by blacks that supported the cause of Emancipation:

1) About 179,000 men had enlisted in the Union Army and constituted about 10% of the entire Army. Another 19,000 black sailors served in the U.S. Navy. This was more than 1/5th of the adult black male population younger than 45. About 40,000 African-American soldiers died during the war, 30,000 from infection or disease. Foner, p. 252 & National Archives. While discrimination in the Northern Army often kept black soldiers from the battlefield, by January of 1865, black soldiers had fought bravely many times in some very hard fights. These men fought to end slavery.

2) 400,000 slaves had fled to Union lines and were classified as “contrabands.” They were initially housed in Union forts, but when their numbers became too great they were moved to Contraband camps. There were more than 100 of these camps by the end of the war. The contrabands were often employed as laborers by the Union Army and Navy. After 1863, the men were encouraged to enlist in the Union Army or Navy.

3) Free blacks in the North were active in the abolition movement.

What would all of these people have done if there had been a move to return them to slavery? The soldiers, still organized in their units would have revolted, the Contrabands would have rioted, and the free blacks in the North would have protested. A strong argument could be made that once blacks, about 200,000 strong, had served in the Union military, fought hard, and had been promised their freedom, and also once about 400,000 contrabands had crossed Union lines under a promise of freedom and lived freely for a time, the country could not go back on its promises and re-enslave them. Similar reasoning applied to the 3 to 4 million slaves in the South who had all heard about the Emancipation Proclamation and its promise of freedom. Moreover, the United States (that is white America) had a moral duty to keep its promises. This was an argument frequently used by Lincoln when he spoke or wrote to War Democrats and conservative Republicans.


Some War Democrats Changed their Position On the Amendment Out of Conviction – Including John Rollins, Samuel S. Cox, and Tammany Hall,

Important Facts:

Democratic politicians changed positions on slavery before the vote on the 13th Amendment. (Vorenberg pp. 203 & 204: “Without the change of heart of slavery’s former defenders, Congress would not have passed the amendment at this moment.”) It was changed in position by War Democrats, many of them concerned that continued opposition to slavery would mean electoral defeat for their party, that brought Lincoln and Seward to within striking distance of winning. They then used patronage to convince other lame duck Democratic Congressman to vote for the Amendment. John Rollins, who claimed to represent the strongest slave district in Missouri and who owned many slaves, changed his mind and voted for the Amendment. Lincoln recruited Samuel S. Cox of Ohio, a respected War Democrat, to lobby his colleagues in favor of the Amendment. Cox was credited with changing six votes for the measure but ended up voting against it himself because he came to believe that passing the amendment would scuttle peace negotiations and prolong the war. However, had his vote been crucial it is believed that he would have voted for the Amendment. Tammany Hall, for the good of the Democratic Party, switched its position and supported the Amendment, although some Representatives associated with it maintained their opposition.


At the end of this series of reports, teachers should note for the class the following:

  • After January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation freed more and more slaves as the Union Army liberated ever greater swaths of Confederate territory. Even as the Amendment was being debated, Sherman’s army was advancing through the Carolinas and freed slaves were burning plantations. Some 400,000 contrabands had freed themselves by crossing Union lines. Congress had passed laws abolishing slavery in Washington D.C. and the territories in 1862 and 1863. Border states of Missouri and Maryland had emancipated their slaves. The 13th Amendment actually freed only the slaves in Kentucky, about 60,000–100,000, and the slaves in Delaware, less than 1000.
  • For many, the purpose of the Amendment was to remove from the Constitution an important defect, i.e., the protections given to slavery, and prevent the possibility of another civil war by eliminating the one issue that the normal processes of the Constitution had been unable to resolve. Charles Francis Adams, U.S. Ambassador to Britain during the Civil War, son of President J.Q. Adams, and grandson of President John Adams wrote that the “class of slave owners with their old democratic allies of the north [may] . . . . attempt to re-establish the Union as it was [with a constitution that protected slavery]…. Not that I doubt the fact that in any event slavery is doomed. The only difference will be that in dying it may cause us another sharp convulsion, which we might avoid by finishing it now.” Vorenberg p. 59.
  • The Amendment was less about granting freedom to people still enslaved than about making sure that the gains made in abolishing slavery could not be rolled back. The Amendment ensured that the Emancipation Proclamation would not be revoked or declared unconstitutional, and it eliminated the constitutional and legal framework for slavery throughout the country. It prevented more turmoil and perhaps another rebellion when the North would later seek to abolish slavery. Lincoln and the Republicans backed the 13th Amendment to protect anti-slavery gains, remove protections for slavery in the Constitution, and prevent civil strife in the future.


A few more reports:


Elizabeth Keckley — Entrepreneur, Modiste, and Confidante of Mary Lincoln

Important Facts:

Elizabeth Keckley was born into slavery in 1818. Mrs. Keckley was a mulatta and her son, George, had been fathered by a white man through a forced sexual encounter. Mrs. Keckley avoided having other children because they would have been slaves. She was a talented seamstress and an entrepreneur who for many years supported the family of her otherwise financially distressed owner. When she was living in St. Louis, Missouri, Mrs. Keckley demanded to be able to purchase her freedom. In 1855, some of her white customers advanced the $1200 required by her owner, and she paid them back with the earnings from her dressmaking business. She then moved to Washington, D.C. and served the wives of the city’s elite. She made dresses for Mrs. Jefferson Davis, whose husband served as a U.S. Senator and Secretary of War before Secession. She sewed for the wife of Robert E. Lee, at that time an officer in the U.S. Army. When Abraham Lincoln was elected president, Mrs. Lincoln hired Mrs. Keckley as her dressmaker. Mrs. Keckley soon became the First Lady’s confidante.

Mrs. Keckley’s son, George, passed as white and enlisted in the Union Army in 1861, two years before blacks were permitted to serve as Union soldiers. He was killed in action shortly after he enlisted.

Mrs. Keckley founded and headed the Contraband Relief Organization, a group of middle and upper class African-Americans and abolitionists who sought to improve conditions and provide education for the thousands of contrabands who flocked to Washington, D. C. during the war.


Seward and Lincoln

Important Facts:

When Lincoln was elected President, his only experience was serving in the Illinois Legislature and one term in the U.S. House of Representatives. Seward, who had been governor of New York and a U.S. Senator, was much more experienced than Lincoln. He had been Lincoln’s chief rival for the 1860 Republican Presidential nomination. When Lincoln asked him to be Secretary of State, Seward assumed that he could control the President. Soon Seward saw that Lincoln was a master politician and statesman. He came to respect and admire the President, serving him loyally. “The President is the best of us,” he wrote to his wife. Brodie p. 195. The two men became close friends, and Lincoln often walked the short distance from the White House to Seward’s elegant home for an evening of laughs, wine, and song.

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln was part of a conspiracy to kill several high government officials. On the night of the assassination, one of Booth’s co-conspirators invaded Seward’s home and seriously wounded the Secretary of State with a knife. He also stabbed Seward’s son when the younger Seward tried to stop the man from killing his father. Seward eventually recovered and served out his term as Secretary of State.

2. Watching the Film.

Watch the film with the class. There is no need for note-taking during the movie or to interrupt the film to explain events shown on the screen.

3. Turning Students Toward the Historical Record.

Teacher Comments to the Class:

Before the 1860s, the federal government was considered the greatest potential danger to liberty. The experience of the repressive policies of the British government that had led to rebellion only 85 years before was still fresh in the minds of Americans. Most of the first eleven amendments to the Constitution limited the powers of the federal government, and the Twelfth Amendment corrected a technical flaw in the operation of the Electoral College. It was not until the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments and the Civil Rights Act of 1866 that the Federal Government first became a protector of rights of individuals, including African-Americans. Since that time, several important reforms advancing the rights of oppressed classes were attained through federal action. These include national women’s suffrage, which was enacted through the 19th Amendment in 1920, court decisions and civil rights legislation which assisted the black civil rights movement beginning in the 1960s, the 26th Amendment that gave the right to vote to 18-year-olds in 1971, and the American’s With Disabilities Act of 1990.

With the need to protect Americans from terrorist attacks, with the advent of the Internet and cell phones, and the capacity of the government to collect and sort vast quantities of information about our daily lives, the federal government under Presidents Bush and Obama has created what many call “the Surveillance State.” The question arises whether the historic alignment of the federal government with individual liberties is changing, and whether, as it was in the first 85 years of our nation, the federal government is now the greatest potential danger to liberty. Only time will tell.

Lincoln Readings:

Immediately after showing the movie and the teacher comment, TWM recommends having students read selected excerpts of Lincoln’s speeches and writings either individually or out-loud as a class activity. These readings use the strong identification that students will feel toward Daniel Day-Lewis’ characterization of Abraham Lincoln to (i) enhance their appreciation of Lincoln’s eloquence; (ii) review and provide additional context for basic historical lessons of the Civil War period; and (iii) turn students toward the historical record. Click here for TWM’s suggested readings in word processing format. Teachers should feel free to add their favorite Lincoln speech or writing and to delete passages as appropriate for their classes.


Final Student Reports


A Biographical Sketch of Thaddeus Stevens Through the end of 1864 focusing on his abolitionist beliefs, his relationship with Mrs. Smith and his Charity

Important Facts:

Thaddeus Stevens was born with a clubfoot that caused him to limp all his life. Like Lincoln, Stevens was from a poor family and due to his hard work and intelligence became a successful lawyer.

In one of his early cases, Stevens represented a slaveholder who was seeking a court order to return a slave to the South. He had taken her to Pennsylvania, a free state, and she claimed her freedom, based on a Pennsylvania law that liberated any slave who had been in Pennsylvania for more than six months. Stevens took the case to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court arguing that the slave didn’t meet the requirements of the statute because she had stayed in Pennsylvania only a few months on each occasion but never more than six months at any one time. Stevens convinced the Court that the woman and her two children had to be sent back to the South and to slavery. Brodie p. 33. Afterward Stevens bitterly regretted what he had done and became a dedicated abolitionist for the rest of his life. He often defended accused runaway slaves without charge.

Stevens’ “housekeeper,” Mrs. Lydia Smith, was a pretty woman of mixed race, and she was rumored to be his common-law wife. It was said that their relationship was the worst kept secret in all of Washington. While Stevens denied that they were intimate, the circumstantial evidence shows a close relationship in which he treated Mrs. Smith with respect and insisted that others treat her in the same way. He insisted that she be referred to as “Mrs. Smith” by his family and friends, rather than by her first name, as would be usual in those times for a black housekeeper. Stevens had no children but was close to his niece and raised two of his nephews when his brother died. His niece, in a letter after a visit, wrote, “. . . . much love to you and Mrs. S. How is she. I’d like to hear from her — she was so kind to us and made our visit so pleasant. I always think of her with many pleasant thoughts.” Stevens had a portrait of Mrs. Smith painted by a prominent artist, and he displayed it in his house. Brodie p. 88. She was the hostess when he entertained, personally addressing the invitations. Mrs. Smith stayed at Stevens’ side during his final illness. When he died, Stevens left her $5,000, a large sum for that time. Historians debate whether Stevens had a romantic relationship with Mrs. Smith as implied in the movie; some think that he did. Brodie, pp. 90 & 91.

Stevens found his strong abolitionism and developed his belief in the equality of African-Americans long before he met Mrs. Smith. Their relationship was an outgrowth of his feelings about race and slavery, not the cause of it. Whether Mrs. Smith and Stevens had a romantic relationship is interesting but not the important point about their relationship. It was the respectful way that Stevens treated Mrs. Smith that provides insight into his character.

Stevens was an idealist in seeking to overthrow slavery and promoting fair treatment for African-Americans. However, he was also a misanthrope, who had a low opinion of people. In one speech he said, “I do not believe, sir, inhuman perfection, nor in the purity of human of human nature.” Brodie p. 54.

Stevens became the leader of the Radical Republicans and of the House of Representatives. At that time, the most powerful member of the House of Representatives was the Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, a post which Stevens held.

Stevens was incredibly charitable, giving away hundreds of thousands of dollars — the equivalent of many millions in today’s dollars. Once, while riding from a trial, he came upon a foreclosure sale in which a widow was about to lose her farm. He won the bidding at $1,600, wrote out the check, and told the Sheriff to deed the farm to the widow. Then he got on his horse and continued on his way. Brodie p. 51. But there were also hundreds of smaller acts of charity that no one knew about. Unknown during his lifetime and only discovered by preservationists in 2003 was a secret tunnel and hiding place in Stevens’ home. He and Mrs. Smith had apparently used it as a station in the Underground Railroad. Stevens was contemptuous of organized religion and heaped most of his abuse on the many preachers in the South who were vociferous in their defense of slavery. Brodie 189.

By the end of 1864 Stevens’ health was not good and he lost all of his hair to a fever. As shown in the film, he wore a wig.


Thaddeus Stevens 1865 and Beyond including his speech in support of the Thirteenth Amendment disavowing racial equality and whether Lincoln, had he lived, would have moved toward supporting Stevens’ less forgiving position on reconstruction.

Important Facts:

Stevens was a Radical Republican who seldom agreed with Abraham Lincoln. However, Lincoln’s positions on slavery and voting rights for at least some African-Americans eventually, after an important delay, followed the same path as the Radical Republicans. Foner, p. XIX Lincoln’s timing was crucial to his ability to lead the nation forward, and had Stevens been President, the Slave Power would have won and slavery would have survived, at least for a time. One of the most accurate scenes in the movie that never actually happened shows Lincoln and Stevens talking in the White House basement. Lincoln points out that had he advocated emancipation from the beginning of the war, the South would have won because the border states would have fled the Union and the North would not have supported the war. Stevens had no answer.

Stevens would have imposed a harsher brand of reconstruction on the South than Lincoln was advocating when he was killed. Stevens tried to protect the interests of the newly freed slaves and to thoroughly destroy the power of the former slave owners. However, in this he was not successful, and after Reconstruction, the planter class reasserted its racist hold on the South. As a result, oppression of African-Americans continued for a hundred years after the Civil War in the form of Jim Crow laws and terrorist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. Whether Lincoln would have again followed the lead of Stevens and the other Radical Republicans on Reconstruction with better timing and better results (as had always happened in the past) and saved black Americans from another hundred years of oppression will never be known for sure.

Eric Foner, one of the leading Lincoln scholars of our time has written:

[When the newly established Southern states] “passed laws . . . severely limiting the ability of the former slaves to choose their employment, acquire property, and enjoy the other basic rights that Republicans believed essential to freedom, Lincoln undoubtedly would have listened carefully to the outcry for further protection for the former slaves. . . . Perhaps confronted by a united Republican party and a President willing to enforce the law, white southerners would have learned to acknowledge the rights of the former slaves. Had they done so, blacks and the nation might have been spared the long nightmare of disenfranchisement, segregation, and racial violence that followed the end of Reconstruction.” Foner, p. 335. See also Trefousse p. 150.


Teachers: After this report relate the following anecdotes to the class:

Stevens was an excellent orator and, as shown in the film, had a sharp wit. When a Louisiana senator proclaimed that slaves were the “happiest, the most contented, and the best-fed people in the world”, Stevens countered with the following proposal: “If this be so, let us give all a chance to enjoy this blessing. Let the slaves who choose, go free; and the free who choose, become slaves.”

A story about Stevens demonstrates his personal commitment to end slavery, his strong personal connections with people, and the corrosive influence of slavery on slaveholders. As his law practice grew, Stevens needed a set of law books to help him with his research. He saved up $300 and started out for Baltimore to buy the books. On the way, he stopped at an inn for the night. Stevens knew the owner and his staff, having stopped there several times before. One of the servants was a mulatto young man, known to Stevens to be the son of the proprietor and a slave. As Stevens went to his room, he heard a woman crying and inquired what was the matter. She was of mixed race and told him that her husband, the young mulatto man who was the son of the proprietor, was going to be sold South because the owner/father needed money. Stevens went to the owner of the inn and offered him $150 if he wouldn’t sell his son. The man refused insisting on the full price for the young man. Stevens finally paid the $300, manumitted the innkeeper’s son, and returned home without the law books. Korngold p. 45. For another version, see Brodie p. 52.

Finally, show students a picture of the real Thaddeus Stevens and have them read the following excerpts. Click here for a version to print and hand out to the class.

On January 5, 1865, Thaddeus Stevens gave a speech on the House floor in support of the 13th Amendment. The high point of those remarks were:

Those who believe that a righteous Providence punishes nations for national sins believe that this terrible plague is brought upon us as a punishment for our oppression of a harmless race of men inflicted without cause and without excuse for ages. I accept this belief; for I remember that an ancient despot, not so cruel as this Republic, held a people in bondage — bondage much lighter than American slavery; that the Lord ordered him to liberate them. He refused. His whole people were punished. Plague after plague was sent upon the land until the seventh slew the firstborn of every household; nor did they cease until the tyrant ‘let the people go.’ We have suffered more than all the plagues of Egypt; more than the first-born of every household has been taken. We still harden our hearts and refuse to let the people go. The scourge still continues, nor do I expect it to cease until we obey the high behest of the Father of men. We are about to have another opportunity to obey this command. We are about to ascertain the national will by another vote to amend the Constitution. If gentlemen opposite it will yield to the voice of God and humanity and vote for it, I verily believe the sword of the destroying angel will be stayed and this people be reunited. If we still harden our hearts and blood must still flow, may the blood of the victims sit heavily on the hearts of those who cause it. Congressional Globe, 38 Cong. 2 session, January 13, 1865, p. 124

Stevens’ fellow congressman, Isaac Arnold, wrote of the final debate on the 13th Amendment, January 13, 1865:

And now, on the 13th of January, came Thaddeus Stevens, Chairman of the Committee of Ways and Means, and the recognized leader of the House, to close the debate. As he came limping with his clubfoot along down the aisle from his committee room, the members gathered thickly around him. He was tall and commanding in person, and although venerable with years, his form was unbent and his intellect undimmed. The galleries had already been filled with the most distinguished people in Washington. As the word ran through the Capitol that Stevens was speaking on the Constitutional Amendment, senators came over from the Senate, lawyers and judges from the court rooms, and distinguished soldiers and citizens filled every available seat, to hear the eloquent old man speak on a measure that was to consummate the warfare of forty years against slavery.”

Stevens’ discourse was more reflective than argumentative:

From my earliest youth I was taught to read the Declaration and to revere its sublime principles. As I advanced in life and became somewhat enabled to consult the writings of great men of antiquity, I found in all their works which have survived the ravages of time and come down to the present generation, one unanimous denunciation of tyranny and of slavery, and eulogy of liberty. Homer, Aeschylus the Greek tragedian, Cicero, Hesiod, Virgil, Tacitus, and Sallust, in immortal language, all denounced slavery as a thing which took away half the man and degraded human beings, and sang paeans in the noblest strings to the goddess of liberty.

When, fifteen years ago, I was honored with a seat in this body, it was dangerous to talk against this institution, a danger which gentlemen now here will never be able to appreciate. Some of us, however, have experienced it; my friend from Illinois on my right [Mr. Washburne] has. And yet, sir, I did not hesitate, in the midst of bowie knives and revolvers, and howling demons upon the other side of the House to stand here and denounce this infamous institution in language which possibly now, on looking at it, I might deem intemperate, but which I then deemed necessary to rouse the public attention, and cast odium upon the worst institution upon earth, one which is a disgrace to man, and would be an annoyance to the infernal spirits…

I recognized and bowed to a provision in that Constitution which I always regarded as its only blot…. Such, sir, was my position … not disturbing slavery where the Constitution protected it, but abolishing it wherever we had the constitutional power, and prohibiting its further expansion. I claimed the right then, as I claim it now, to denounce it everywhere….

So far as the appeals of the learned gentleman [Pendleton] are concerned, in his pathetic winding up, I will be willing to take my chance, when we all molder in the dust. He may have his epitaph written, if it be truly written, ‘Here rests the ablest and most pertinacious defender of slavery and opponent of liberty;’ and I will be satisfied if my epitaph shall be written thus: ‘Here lies one who never rose to any eminence, and who only courted the low ambition to have it said that he had striven to ameliorate the condition of the poor, the lowly, the downtrodden of every race and language and color.’ Congressional Globe, 38 Cong. 2 session, January 13, 1865, pp. 265-267.


Abraham Lincoln’s Views of African-Americans

Important Facts:

At the beginning of his life, Lincoln, like most others in the communities in which he lived, apparently viewed blacks as inferior. Part of Lincoln’s large repertoire of funny stories and anecdotes were racist, although some stressed the humanity of African-Americans. Foner, 257. Lincoln’s one black friend was his barber, William de Fleurville, an emigrant from Haiti. “Billy’s” shop was located near the capital building in Springfield and was a meeting place for politicians. Billy tended Lincoln when he was ill and gave Lincoln the special shave for his wedding. Billy was reputedly a great storyteller. Lincoln represented him in some property dealings, and Billy was comfortable enough in his relationship with Lincoln to write at least one friendly and encouraging letter to Lincoln in the White House.

Lincoln had little contact with African-Americans before he became President. For example, despite the fact that he was a prodigious worker for both the Whig and Republican parties, traveling all over Illinois and giving hundreds of speeches in several electoral campaigns, Lincoln never attended a political meeting with free Negros. Foner, pp. 131 & 133.

Democrats repeatedly charged that the Republicans and Lincoln supported the end of slavery in the South, black suffrage, racial equality, and miscegenation. They accused Republicans of intending to “Niggerize” America. Politically, it was important to conservative Republicans (led by Blair) and moderates (led by Lincoln) to distinguish themselves from the radicals (like Thaddeus Stevens) who did advocate emancipation, suffrage for African-Americans, and racial equality. See, e.g.,Foner, p. 204. Thus, there are some statements by Lincoln against emancipation in the South, black suffrage, and racial equality. Foner, p. 31. From 1858 through the secession of the Southern states, Lincoln’s bedrock position was that so long as there was no expansion of slavery into the territories, everything else was up for negotiation and that under the Constitution slavery would not be touched in the states in which it was legal. Foner, pp. 152 – 154. During the war, the position of Lincoln and Republican moderates and conservatives slowly changed. They began to support emancipation as a war measure, for blacks who had served in the Union military and for the District of Columbia. By the 1864 elections, Lincoln and the Republican party as a whole supported nation-wide emancipation. Later, Lincoln came to support limited black suffrage. Brodie p. 194. However, Lincoln never supported true racial equality.

One of the great strengths of Lincoln as a person and as a politician was that he grew and changed all during his life. Thus, when blacks volunteered to fight and rendered excellent service to the Army and when he met Frederick Douglass and other accomplished African-Americans, it appears that Lincoln’s racial views began to change. Brodie p. 194. Like Lincoln, Douglass was self-made. Lincoln described him as “one of the most meritorious men in America.” Foner, p. 256. Lincoln invited Douglass and other black leaders to the White House as no American President had ever done. Foner, pp. 256 & 257. Lincoln called Douglas his friend and after the Second Inaugural, he asked Douglass’ opinion of the speech.

Lincoln never gave a definitive statement of his views on black Americans, except that he believed they should be free and that some African-Americans should be allowed to vote. It was only at the end of the war that Lincoln had abandoned the idea of colonization, (Foner, p. 260)

In summing up Lincoln’s views on blacks and slavery, Frederick Douglass said,

Had he put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union, he would have inevitably driven from him a powerful class of the American people and rendered resistance to rebellion impossible. Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined. Though Mr. Lincoln shared the prejudices of his white fellow-countrymen against the Negro, it is hardly necessary to say that in his heart of hearts he loathed and hated slavery.” Douglass on Lincoln The New York Times. April 22, 1876. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times, p. 3

Cutting Out the Cancer: The Thirteenth Amendment

Important Facts:

The text:

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

The Thirteenth Amendment governs private as well as public conduct, the first Constitutional Amendment to do so. In addition, Section 2 gives Congress the power to pass laws to enforce the ban on slavery. This was the first extension of the powers of Congress in the Amendment process.

Section 2 was intended to permit Congress to prohibit the “badges or incidents of slavery,” which are actions aimed at a previously enslaved group that have the potential to lead to their de facto re-enslavement or legal subjugation. Badges and incidents of slavery include:

denial of the right to participate in society, e.g.: denial of citizenship; the right to vote; freedom of speech, petition and assembly; access to the courts to obtain justice; and denial of the right to an education, which is necessary for the effective exercise of all the other rights; and

restrictions on personal liberty at the whim of another person e.g.: being subject to violations of the body (beatings, torture, dismemberment, and forced sexual relations); violation of the sanctity of the family and of parental rights; violation of economic rights such as restrictions on owning property; the inability to benefit from the fruits of one’s own labor; restrictions on the accumulation of wealth; and restrictions on passing wealth to one’s heirs at death.

Pursuant to Section 2 of the 13th Amendment, Congress enacted the 1866 Civil Rights Act, which provides that, “All citizens of the United States shall have the same right, in every State and Territory, as is enjoyed by white citizens thereof to inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property.” This shows the powerful reach of the 13th Amendment into the sphere of private action.

Teacher comment: The original Constitution with the Bill of Rights had a major failing as a framework for the government because the mechanisms provided for resolving political differences were not successful when it came to issues relating to slavery. In the Dred Scott decision, the Supreme Court tried to impose the Southern position, i.e., African-Americans were not citizens and that the property interests of whites trumped the rights of the Congress to ban slavery in the territories. When a President was elected who would not abide by the Southern position, the South seceded and we had a Civil War. The 13th Amendment cured the deficiency in the Constitution by prohibiting slavery. For more than a century and a half, the Constitution has worked, providing a way for the people of the U.S. to resolve the political questions that have confronted them.


Enforcing Liberty: The Fourteenth Amendment

Important Facts:

The important provisions of the 14th Amendment are:

Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Section 2. Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State . . . .

Section 5. The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

The original Bill of Rights operated only to limit the powers of the federal government. The “due process” clause of the 14th Amendment has been interpreted by the Supreme Court to incorporate most of the limits of the Bill of Rights and make them applicable to the states. For example, under the 14th Amendment, as a matter of federal constitutional law, states cannot: restrict freedom of speech or of the press (1st Amendment); restrict the right of the people to have guns (2nd Amendment); quarter soldiers in people’s homes (3rd Amendment) or conduct unreasonable searches and seizures (4th Amendment).

Teacher Comment: Congress only has the powers delegated to it in the Constitution, primarily in Article I. The amendments to the Constitution constituting the Bill of Rights had restricted the power of the federal government generally or of Congress specifically. The Civil War amendments, the 13th, 14th, and 15th, were the first which gave additional powers to the Congress. Seeing Congress and the Federal government as a protector of civil liberties was something new to American law.


Voting Rights for Black Men: The Fifteenth Amendment

Important Facts:

The important provisions of the 15th Amendment are:

Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Conservative Supreme Court decisions narrowly interpreted the 15th Amendment, and it did not prevent devices such as poll taxes and literacy tests from effectively preventing blacks from voting in the South. In the 20th century, the Supreme Court changed its tack, and the Amendment now has more clout. Coupled with the Voting Rights Act, it has greatly improved the chances for black Americans to vote.

Teacher Comment: Before the Civil War many abolitionists also sought the vote for women. For example, Susan B. Anthony worked for both abolition and women’s suffrage. Frederick Douglass was a supporter of women’s suffrage all of this life. The Liberty Party, organized by abolitionists in the 1840s, also supported voting rights for women. During the Civil War, a tactical decision was made by progressives to first focus on getting a Constitutional Amendment passed protecting the right of black men to vote and to postpone the effort to pass women’s suffrage. After the 15th Amendment was ratified in 1870, America turned away from voting reform and the Women’s suffrage movement didn’t gain traction until early in the 20th century. [Teachers – for more on women’s suffrage, see TWM’s Learning Guide to Iron Jawed Angels.]

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1. Why was President Lincoln anxious to get the joint resolution from the House and Senate proposing the Emancipation Amendment to the states passed by the end of January of 1865? The character of Lincoln in the movie tells us. What does he say?

Suggested Response:

(1) He knew that that Emancipation Proclamation was on shaky legal grounds once the war was over. (2) He knew the great strength of the Slave Power and its allies in the North; he didn’t know if promises of emancipation would be honored by governments that came after he left office unless slavery was abolished by the Constitution. (3) While he had appointed Republican judges to the Supreme Court, including the abolitionist Salmon P. Chase as the Chief Justice, he knew that courts can come up with unexpected decisions (for example a determination that the Emancipation Proclamation applied only to those who had crossed Union lines during the war or that it didn’t apply to children of the former slaves); (4) the nation needed to get beyond the issue of slavery before it could progress or as the Lincoln character in the movie said,
. . . I can’t accomplish a goddamned thing of any human meaning or worth until we cure ourselves of slavery and end this pestilential war, and whether any of you or anyone else knows it, I know I need this! This amendment is that cure! We’re stepped out upon the world’s stage now, now, with the fate of human dignity in our hands! Blood’s been spilt to afford us this moment!


2. Was Lincoln justified in offering federal offices to Democratic Congressmen in return for their votes for the 13th Amendment? In the present day, this conduct would be illegal. See 18 United States Code § 201 paragraphs (b) and (c).

Suggested Response:

See Optional Assignment #1 below.


3. [This question is particularly appropriate for schools in the eleven States that seceded from the Union.] In the late 1800s and most of the 20th century, many in the South subscribed to a view of history that romanticized the “Lost Cause of the Confederacy.” This was the idea that the Civil War and Reconstruction saw a virtuous, chivalrous, heroic South crushed by the overwhelming force of a coarse and industrial North. It accused the North of cultural and economic aggression seeking to destroy the Southern way of life. Many popular books and movies, such as Gone With the Wind were based on this theory. Is the “Lost Cause of the Confederacy” myth or reality? Defend your position.

Suggested Response:

Strong answers will deal with the following issues: The alleged right to secede was a retrograde regionalism and an unworkable political theory that would have resulted in the country splintering into many parts and, possibly, to anarchy. (See Lincoln’s First Inaugural.) It protected a barbaric and utterly evil institution, that of slavery. In fact, the Southern slaveholding class was perpetrating crimes against humanity by maintaining slavery. As for the North, it can be said that the war was the effort of an industrialized region to impose its values on a primarily agrarian, slaveholding region. However, in 1861 most Northerners supported the war to preserve the Union, not to abolish slavery. In 1861 most of Europe was in the hands of a resurgent aristocracy and the democratic promise of the French Revolution was in retreat. The U.S. was the world’s only major democracy. See Why Most People in the North Supported the War — Important Facts. If the U.S. could not hold itself together the cause of democracy, not only in America but in the World, would have been set back for generations, if not discredited entirely.


4. Some historians view the U.S. Constitution before the 13th Amendment as having been a defective instrument for governing the nation. Do you agree or disagree?

Suggested Response:

(There are good arguments on both sides. Here are a few of them.) The purpose of a system of government is to resolve disputes. In a dictatorship, the dictator decides. In an oligarchy, the aristocrats decide. In a direct democracy, the people vote (as they did in Ancient Athens). In a representative democracy, such as the British parliamentary system, the representatives of the people decide. In a modified representative democracy, such as the U.S., the representatives of the people (the House of Representatives) are but one part of the legislative branch. The Senate, which is not representative of the people, is the other part of the legislative branch. In addition, in the U.S. the legislature shares power with the Executive and the Courts. Despite many attempts such as the Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the Dred Scott decision, the U.S. Constitutional system could not resolve the issue of slavery, and eventually the South attempted to secede. Once the slavery issue was decided by the war and the 13th Amendment, the U.S. constitutional system has been able to resolve all issues of dispute in American politics. While Americans have disagreed about policies since that time and recently government has become gridlocked on several occasions causing temporary shutdowns of the government, since the Civil War there have been no issues which have caused a total break down of the system for governance.


5. Why was the second clause of the 13th Amendment an historical first, and what was its importance?

Suggested Response:

In the U.S. Constitution, Congress only has the powers specifically delegated to it. For example, before the 13th Amendment Lincoln and most Americans believed that Congress had no power to ban slavery in the states. In the Dred Scott decision, the Supreme Court held that Congress had no power to ban slavery in the territories. The second clause of the 13th Amendment gave Congress the power to enforce the abolition of slavery. None of the first twelve amendment to the Constitution had delegated new powers to the Congress, and most had restricted the power of the government generally or Congress specifically. The 13th Amendment was the first that delegated additional powers to the Congress.


6. In the movie, the character of Stevens says,

. . . [T]he inner compass that should direct the soul toward justice has ossified in white men and women, north and south, unto utter uselessness through tolerating the evil of slavery. White people cannot bear the thought of sharing this country’s infinite abundance with Negroes.

It has been often said that the people know more than the politicians about what is right and what is best for the country. However, from 1776 through just before 1865, most whites in the U.S. supported slavery. In January of 1865, a majority only supported emancipation as a war measure to hurt the Confederacy and bring an end to the conflict. Was the Stevens character right about American whites? What does this say to us about the wisdom and morality of majorities in democratic societies? If the Stevens character was right, why are majorities given the power to govern by choosing their leaders and to set policy by choosing their legislative representatives?

Suggested Response:

As Lincoln said, “If anything is wrong, slavery is wrong.” The support given by American whites to slavery and later to discrimination against African-Americans tells us that the people can be wrong and that majorities govern, not because they make correct decisions, but because in democratic societies, majorities have the right to govern. It is the responsibility of the people to choose representatives who will make the right choices.


Alternative Question for #6 Lincoln said, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” However, most of the American people North as well as South supported obedience to the Constitution which protected slavery in the South. In 1865, the Emancipation Amendment was supported by a majority of the American people only as a war measure. Seen from our time, this was a colossal failure of morality. What does this tell you about the role of the people in a democratic government.

Suggested Response:

In democratic societies majorities govern, not because they make correct decisions, but because they have the right to govern. It is the responsibility of the people to choose representatives who will make the right choices. This is a very important responsibility and every voter must think about this when he or she votes — or chooses not to vote.


7. Mrs. Keckley’s son, who was at least 3/4s white, had claimed to be a white man and enlisted in the U.S. Army when blacks were not permitted to enlist. Had the army recruiters known that his mother was a mulatta slave, he would not have been permitted to serve. Mrs. Keckley’s son was killed in battle early in the war. In the movie, when the Abraham Lincoln character says that he doesn’t know her people, she responds by saying:

As for me: My son died, fighting for the Union, wearing the Union blue. For freedom he died. I’m his mother. That’s what I am to the nation, Mr. Lincoln. What else must I be?

What does it mean that in 1865 a black woman would say that her significance to the nation was that she was the mother of a Union soldier who died in the war?

Suggested Response:

The service and heroism of the black troops during the Civil War was an important factor in changing the attitudes of white Northerners toward Emancipation and African-Americans in general. A mulatta former slave whose son had died for the Union brought home the fact that black men had fought and given the ultimate sacrifice for their nation and therefore deserved recognition as citizens.


8. Well into the Civil War abolitionists like Frederick Douglass saw Lincoln as a pro-slavery candidate. Why was that?

Suggested Response:

He recognized that the Constitution protected slavery in the South and, in his attempt to keep the Union together, had vowed not to seek to abolish slavery in the states in which it was legal.


9. For decades Thaddeus Stevens had been a supporter of racial equality, not just equality before the law. The movie celebrates him for compromising the principle of racial equality, something we take for granted, in order to get the Amendment passed. One critic of the movie, has pointed out that “. . . it is fundamentally reactionary to celebrate, as Lincoln does, a man of such strong progressive principles only in the moment when he was forced to compromise with political reality.” Do you agree with this comment or was Stevens’ false statement of his beliefs worth making in order to pass the resolution supporting the 13th Amendment in January rather than in the next Congress when then Amendment would probably have passed easily without the necessity of Stevens making a false statement of his beliefs?

Suggested Response:

There is no one answer to this question. Something is certainly wrong when a man is forced to deny his belief is something as basic as racial equality. Yet, the refusal to compromise breeds gridlock and leads to inaction. Lincoln is praised as a wise leader because while he hated slavery and knew it was wrong, until 1864 he supported the right of the Southern states to maintain slavery. It was only when the country was sick of war and ready to embrace an end to slavery in order to destroy the South’s ability to fight, that Lincoln began to lead the nation toward full emancipation. For the critique, see ‘Lincoln,’ Thaddeus Stevens and Why American Politics Still Needs Radicals by Richard Kreitner, The Nation, December 10, 2012.


Additional discussion questions can be found at TWM’s Film Study Worksheet for a Work of Historical Fiction.


Any of the discussion questions can serve as a research and writing prompt. Teachers should select an appropriate rubric for the essay. Additional assignments include:


1. Civil War Movies Homework Project: Have students watch one of the following movies at home and fill out TWM’s Film Study Worksheet for a Work of Historical Fiction: Glory, Gettysburg, or Little Women. Alternatively, students can watch at home any documentary on the Civil War era and fill out TWM’s Film Study Worksheet for an Informational Documentary. TWM has Learning Guides to the following documentaries on the Civil War era: The Civil War – A Documentary by Ken Burns; Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives; and Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided.


2. Have students research and debate or write research papers pro or con on the following proposition: “Resolved, that President Lincoln was justified in trading jobs for votes to get the House of Representatives to join the Senate in proposing the 13th Amendment to the States for ratification during the lame-duck House of Representatives in January of 1865.”


Based on TWM’s research, the following are some of the arguments for the proposition.

  • Trading federal jobs for votes was not illegal at the time.
  • The Emancipation Proclamation was on shaky legal ground, especially in peacetime — see Excerpt of Lincoln’s statement to the Cabinet in the movie relating to the legality of the Emancipation
  • Proclamation and the need for the 13th Amendment.
  • Without the 13th Amendment, the Constitutional protections for slavery would remain in effect.
  • Abolition of slavery passed with substantial Democratic support would be less divisive than if imposed only by a Republican majority.
  • In 1865 the war was nearing a conclusion and the Confederacy could have collapsed at any time.
  • Abolitionists in the North were still a minority; Northern support for the Emancipation Proclamation was based on the fact that it was necessary to win the war not on objections to slavery itself.
  • There had been consistent often violent resistance to abolition in the North from the Copperheads and others; this opposition would certainly rise when the exigency of the war was over.
  • See letter of Charles D. Robinson to Lincoln, August 17, 1864 and Lincoln’s draft reply which was never sent but which sets out his reasoning.
  • The risks of anger, insurrection, and rioting by disappointed African-Americans if the promise of freedom was pulled back and if some were re-enslaved was great. This would cause a strong and repressive reaction by whites. The groups of African-Americans who had been promised freedom and who were justified in expecting freedom were very large. They included the following:

More than 150,000 surviving black soldiers and sailors, most of whom were already armed and trained in how to use weapons and fight effectively. These men had risked their lives for the Union. Then there were their families who had shared the risk and the families of about 40,000 black soldiers in the Union Army who died in battle or from illness in the army camps. They were the most deserving and would have had the strongest and most dangerous reaction.

The 400,000 former slaves in the more than 100 contraband camps across the South and in Washington D.C. who had risked their lives to cross Union lines and who had been promised freedom if the undertook that risk.

The three to four million slaves in the South who had been promised freedom by the Emancipation Proclamation.

  • America was an extremely racist country; Northern Whites had historically tolerated slavery in the South.
  • Even without an insurrection by the African-Americans, if there were a serious effort to renege on the promise of freedom to any of the African-Americans who had been freed during the War, it would be a tremendous breach of faith by the white majority that would have had serious repercussions on the North itself. A society cannot function by betraying large portions of its people.
  • The future was uncertain; if the Congress acted in January of 1865, future changes in circumstances would be less likely to change the result.
  • At that time the Republicans were not a disciplined party; when the war was over, that lack of discipline would increase; the fact that the Republicans were in a strong majority would make discipline even harder; thus Lincoln would be less likely to command unanimous support from Republicans the longer he waited.


Based on TWM’s research, the following are some of the arguments against the proposition.

  • The House of Representatives elected in November 1864 that Lincoln could call into special session in a few short months, was overwhelmingly Republican and votes of the much-reduced Democratic Party were unnecessary for passage of the 13th Amendment in the new Congress. Thus, Lincoln’s concern that the Amendment be passed immediately was not justified.
  • Slavery had already been outlawed in two of the four border states that had remained in the Union, Maryland and Missouri. Only Kentucky with about 65,000 to 100,000 slaves and Delaware with only a few hundred retained their slaves.
  • Slavery had been abolished by statute in the U.S. territories and the District of Columbia.
  • The measures to abolish slavery already taken, especially the Emancipation Proclamation and the service of approximately 200,000 African-American soldiers in the U.S. Army and Navy, dictated that slavery be abolished.
  • The movement for abolition while still a minority was much stronger at the end of the war than it was before the war.
  • The Democratic support that put the Amendment over the top was purchased with offers of jobs to defeated representatives in a Lame Duck Congress; this was hardly a show of a truly bipartisan judgment by the elected representatives of the people.


3. Take an important scene from the movie and evaluate it from the standpoint of historical accuracy and its importance in the history of the times. Select a scene from this list: (1) the opening scene of combat; (2) the interview of Mr. and Mrs. Jolly; (3) Lincoln discussion of the Emancipation Proclamation with his Cabinet; (4) the House debate in which Thaddeus Stevens states that he is not for racial equality in all things; (5) Robert and Lincoln visit the hospital.

TWM's detailed review of the historical accuracy of the movie.

“History is what the present chooses to remember about the past.” Historian Eric Foner


Steven Spielberg, commenting on the difference between history and historical fiction:

“It’s a betrayal of the job of the historian, to explore the unknown. But it is the job of the filmmaker to use creative ‘imagination’ to recover what is lost to memory. Unavoidably, even at its very best, this resurrection is a fantasy … a dream. . . . One of the jobs of art is to go to the impossible places that history must avoid.” What’s True and False in “Lincoln” Movie by Harold Holtzer on The Daily Beast, 11/22/12

For a summary of TWM’s conclusions about the historical accuracy of the film, see the first three paragraphs of the Learning Guide beginning with “Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a well-researched work of historical fiction . . . .”

The number of historical details that this film gets right are legion and too many to mention. For those who have studied Lincoln’s life, the film has repeated instances of delight when scenes previously only read about are presented on screen. In A Civil War Professor Reviews ‘Lincoln’ The Daily Beast 11/27/12, Professor Allen Guelzo states:
The pains that have been taken in the name of historical authenticity in this movie are worth hailing just on their own terms. Lincoln’s White House office (now the Lincoln Bedroom) meticulously replicates the marble fire-place, Lincoln’s stand-up pigeonhole desk, the scattering on the cabinet table of the Congressional Globe and a printed speech by Lincoln’s postmaster-general Montgomery Blair, the portrait of Andrew Jackson on the wall and the half-tone lithograph of British parliamentarian John Bright on the mantel. The theatre box in which Abraham and Mary Lincoln are listening to Gounod’s Faust has the same pattern of wallpaper as the fatal box at Ford’s Theatre, and Tad Lincoln learns of his father’s shooting while attending a performance of Aladdin. All the familiar figures appear: the staffers Nicolay and Hay, the 13th Amendment’s abolitionist floor-manager James Ashley, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles (“Neptune”), Secretary of War Edwin Stanton – even the clerk of the House of Representatives, Edward McPherson, is correctly situated. Ulysses Grant really did have reddish-brown whiskers, and his military secretary really was a full-blooded Seneca sachem, Ely S. Parker. Even the glass-cased amputated leg of the scoundrel-general, Dan Sickles, makes a quick appearance.

It is on Lincoln himself that the most demanding historical exactness is fitted. And Day-Lewis wears it uncommonly well. His reedy-pitched voice reflects the numerous descriptions of Lincoln’s voice which described it as a tenor, with almost squeaky accents. He walks flat-footedly, as Lincoln did, wraps himself in a shawl, features only a tuft of beard at his chin (the luxuriant chin-whiskers of his early presidency had been shaved-down by the time of the movie’s events, in 1865), and quotes Shakespeare between off-color stories. Day-Lewis captures Lincoln’s canniness and his awkwardness, his external simplicity and his internal complexity, a man easy to underestimate but dangerous in the outcome when you do. Even odd snatches of Lincoln’s words surface, and not just in the set-piece moments like the Second Inaugural – “flub-dubs” to describe Mary Lincoln’s over-budget redecorating projects, the recurring dream of the ship navigating toward an unknown shore, the theorems of Euclid, the desire to see Jerusalem.

This is not to say that the film is perfect and it is clearly not a documentary. However, on most occasions that the movie veers from the historical record there is a strong reason either to explicate an important historical fact or to satisfy the demands of telling a good story.


Notes on Critiques of the Movie

TWM has undertaken an extensive review of the critiques of the film. The most interesting and telling are summarized below.

By focusing on one month in the decades long fight for abolition and on the passage by the House of the resolution proposing the 13th Amendment to the States, the film will encourage the public to mislead itself about how important social change comes about. See the first three paragraphs of the Learning Guide which describes this criticism in detail. Modern-day Americans get most of their history from the movies and often a major film will set historical events in the public mind. Lincoln will probably be such a movie and therefore, the effect of the film, or rather the public’s misuse of the film, will be to distort history. However, this is more of a criticism of how most Americans learn their history than it is of the movie itself.

Some critics have pointed out that more balanced views of emancipation could easily have been incorporated into the film. For example, the two major black characters, Mrs. Keckley and the White House butler, Mr. Slade, could have been shown to be active in the effort to help the black community in Washington, D.C. In fact, Mrs. Keckley was instrumental in starting and running a charity that assisted contrabands with food and education. This could have been easily shown by the filmmakers, but it was not. This is a valid criticism, although the most important role of blacks during the Civil War in promoting emancipation is shown by the movie in the first scene. It was the fact that black men were willing to fight heroically and that thousands died in battle that was probably the most important factor changing the attitudes of white Amercicans about emancipation.

Another valid criticism of the movie is that “with the exception of Secretary of State William Seward . . . Lincoln presents almost every public figure as either comical, quirky, weak-kneed or pathetically self-interested. Only the president is able to rise above the moment and see the end game. This treatment does injustice to men like Rep. James Ashley, Sen. Charles Sumner, and Sen. Ben Wade . . . . These men were serious, committed legislators who fought a lonely fight for black freedom before the war, and a difficult struggle for black equality after it. They deserve better.” Fact-Checking ‘Lincoln’: Lincoln’s Mostly Realistic; His Advisers Aren’t by Joshua Zeitz, The Atlantic, 11/12/12. This criticism can also be applied to the character of Secretary of War Stanton whose abilities as an administrator were an important asset in winning the war but who is shown as a petty and ineffectual bureaucrat. Other than Seward, only the characters of Thaddeus Stevens and Preston Blair are presented as serious actors in the passage of the 13th Amendment. To the extent that this criticism is accurate, it is valid.

One interesting but flawed critique of the film is made by Richard Kreitner writing for The Nation magazine. Mr. Kreitner focuses on the characterization of Thaddeus Stevens and claims that “. . . it is fundamentally reactionary to celebrate, as Lincoln does, a man of such strong progressive principles only in the moment when he was forced to compromise with political reality.” See ‘Lincoln,’ Thaddeus Stevens and Why American Politics Still Needs Radicals by Richard Kreitner, The Nation, December 10, 2012. Mr. Kreitner’s insight misses the point that it was the greatness of Lincoln that he did not push for that abolition of slavery until the people were ready and that his public advocacy didn’t stress the reasons that Stevens was for it (that slavery itself was evil, which Lincoln also believed) but only that it was a war measure designed to strike at the heart of the Confederacy. We revere Lincoln not because he advocated what was right, for example unlike Stevens, he never argued for racial equality, but because he lead the country to victory in the Civil War and because he emancipated the slaves. (See Frederick Douglass’ evaluation of Abraham Lincoln). Thus, it is inconsistent to criticize Stephens (who did in fact make the compromize attributed to him in the film) while honoring Lincoln for the same type of conduct. Radicals should not be ashamed to compromise some of their positions to accomplish their first and most basic goal.

And that’s about it for insightful and important critiques of this movie.

Scene by Scene Comments — Errors and Observations

The division of the movie into scenes is TWM’s own arbitrary choice and is undoubtedly flawed and inconsistent.

1. Hard fighting by black troops and two African American and then two white soldiers talk to Lincoln and recite lines from the Gettysburg Address.
Black soldiers engaged in hard fighting on many occasions. It is extremely appropriate that a movie about emancipation begin with a scene of black soldiers in a hard fight. Time and time again Lincoln and other foes of slavery cited the bravery of black soldiers as an argument for emancipation. For many in the North, this fact alone changed their view of African-Americans.

The scene with soldiers quoting the Gettysburg Address has been criticized as unrealistic because of the claim that the speech was not as famous during the war as it is now. What’s True and False in “Lincoln” Movie by Harold Holtzer on The Daily Beast posted 11/22/12. While it may be true that in 1865 the Gettysburg Address was not universally venerated as one of the best speeches ever made by a statesman, as it is now, there were many people who knew immediately that Lincoln had given a great speech at Gettysburg. For example, Edward Everett, the famous orator who was the featured speaker at the Gettysburg cemetery dedication, wrote to Lincoln the next day saying, “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.” The speech was reprinted in many newspapers whose reactions were divided on party lines. Republican papers recognized the importance of the speech. For example, the Chicago Tribune stated that: “The dedicatory remarks by President Lincoln will live among the annals of man”, a prediction what turned out to be true. See Gettysburg Address: Ideas are always more than battles andexcerpt from the Chicago Trubune. In 1864 Lincoln was asked to write out a copy of the speech for sale at a benefit for soldiers. This is the so-called Bancroft copy. See Article on the Gettysburg Address from Lincoln Online. The speech marked a seminal point in the development of Lincoln’s thoughts on the purpose of the war, that it was also for the abolition of slavery as well as the preservation of the Union. This idea arose from an effort to find a reason for the horrendous loss of life caused by the conflict. Thus, it is not completely out of the question that a young white soldier who had lost two uncles at Gettysburg in July of 1863 would use the speech as solace and memorize it. Nor is it out of the question that an educated and politically aware African-American, like the corporal shown in this scene, would have memorized the speech in which the President, had clearly enunciated the end of slavery as a central purpose of the war.

In addition, like the corporal in this scene, many black soldiers were not shy about demanding equal pay. See Foner, pp. 253 & 254);

2. Lincoln talking to Mary. Lincoln tells her about a dream that he is on a ship rushing toward an unknown shore. Mary tells him that she thinks the carriage accident in which she was injured was an attempt to assassinate him. She advises him not to waste time on the 13th Amendment in this session of Congress because it is sure to be defeated. Mrs. Keckley is introduced in this scene.
Lincoln did have a recurring dream that he is on an phantom ship rushing toward an unknown shore. He usually interpreted the dream as being about military victory and spoke of it the night before he died while waiting with General Grant for word that General Sherman had defeated one of the last Southern armies, an army commanded by General Johnston. Diary of Gideon Welles, Vol. 2 pp. 282 & 283 and Abraham Lincoln: A Biography, By Benjamin P. Thomas p. 516. President Lincoln frequently quoted Shakespeare as he does in this scene. Mary Lincoln was convinced that the carriage accident was an assassination attempt.

3. Lincoln takes Tad to bed and looks at glass negatives of slave children that Tad had been playing with.
Some critics have complained about this and another scene with the glass negatives of the photos of slave children. They assert that glass negatives were too delicate and valuable to be given to Tad to play with. This may be correct but it is typical of the extremely minor observations that critics of this film would cite, looking for something to write or say. The scene in explains Lincoln’s feelings and focusing the audience’s attention on some of the effects of slavery. If the scenes with the glass negatives are a variation from the factual record, they are justified to explicate historical fact and advance the narrative.

4. Lincoln gives a short humorous speech followed by a band playing patriotic music. Lincoln takes his speech out of his hat.
Critics have pointed out that at this point in his career Lincoln would have had an assistant to hold the speech for him. This seems a valid criticism but again it is minor. Lincoln would keep speeches in his hat in earlier days. This scene is meant to harken back to those times. What seems odd about this scene is that this late in the war when victory was in sight and Lincoln was idolized by so many, that he would have to project a down-home persona. But that apparently, is a true characterization of the man and the way he at times presented himself.

5. Lincoln and Seward talk about strategy while riding in a carriage. Seward states that they are 20 votes short in the House of Representatives which he describes as a rat’s nest. Lincoln, the leader who needs to motivate his subordinate, likes the chances of passage.


6. Lincoln works with assistants in his office. Seward is there.


7. Lincoln and Seward interview Mr. and Mrs. Jolly. Mr. Jolly is for emancipation as a war measure if Lincoln is for it but would be against emancipation when the War is over. He doesn’t want former slaves taking his job. Lincoln tells the story of Jefferson City lawyer.

Historian’s don’t have a clear perception of why Lincoln was so anxious to have the 13th Amendment passed in January of 1865. The film presents three reasons. First, that he was concerned that public opinion would not support the amendment once the war was over. This is not accepted history, but it is consistent with all of his public statements. Opinionator: Steven Spielberg, Historian by Philip Zelikow, New York Times, 9/28/12. It is very likely correct. Second, Lincoln did know and talked about the fact that the legal grounds for the Emancipation Proclamation were shaky and might not hold up in peacetime. He knew that without the 13th Amendment, successor governments might seek to re-instate slavery. He also knew that courts can come up with unexpected decisions (for example a determination that the Emancipation Proclamation was illegal or applied only to the contrabands who had crossed the Union lines or that it didn’t apply to children of the former slaves; as to the latter, see Goodwin p. 686). See Scene #10. Third, Lincoln states that the country had to get the war finished and also to put the slavery issue behind it before it could move forward. (See scene #46). While, we have not read historical support for this idea, it does seem logical. The slavery question had dominated American politics and caused a civil war. Thus, the reasons presented in the film stand up to historical analysis and may “advance the way historians will consider this subject.” Zelikow.

This scene is a good example of Lincoln’s well-documented story telling prowess. See Goodwin, p. 8.

Abraham Lincoln was never universally popular with the American people. There was still strong Copperhead sentiment as shown in the House debates. Lincoln became a revered icon only when he was assassinated.

8. Lincoln with Seward after the Jollys leave. Lincoln tending the fire. Tad’s distress signal.


9. Lincoln visits Preston Blair asking for the support from conservative Republicans. Blair’s price is that he wants to go to Richmond to ask jhis old friend Jefferson Davis to send peace commissioners. The character in the film saya, “Conservative members of your party want you to listen to overtures from Richmond. That above all. They’ll vote for this rash and dangerous amendment only if every other possibility is exhausted.”

TWM can find no evidence of a quid pro quo between Lincoln and Frank P. Blair, exchanging the peace feeler for support to the amendment. Such an agreement would, most likely be kept private. We do know that Lincoln gave no terms for Blair to offer. Blair’s trip was a purely private enterprise, although Lincoln knew of it and gave Blair a pass to pass through the Lincoln lines. This is a reasonable “use creative ‘imagination’ to recover what is lost to memory.”

10. Cabinet meeting about the assault on Wilmington. Discussion of Lincoln’s position on the Emancipation Proclamation and questions of its legality.
This is one of the clearest explanations anywhere of Lincoln’s reasoning behind issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, his doubts about its Constitutionality, and his fears of how it would fare in peacetime courts. This is one of two reasons given in the film for Lincoln’s urgency about getting the 13th Amendment passed by the House in January of 1865. The other reason, that public support for the amendment would wane, is described in scene #7, the interview with Mr. and Mr. Jolly. Scene #10 is suitable to be shown to classes that don’t see the entire movie as an explication of Lincoln’s thoughts about the Emancipation Proclamation. It is shown at minutes 23.17 to 26.13 of the film.

Note that we see only a shadow of the independent and fractious cabinet that Lincoln assembled and which is described in Goodwin’s A Team of Rivals. This is because “by January 1865 the president had grown weary of the incessant squabbling and back-stabbing. He scrapped his Team of Rivals for a Team of Loyalists. Those who couldn’t find comity, like Salmon P. Chase, the fiercely antislavery [and ambitious] Treasury Secretary, and Postmaster Montgomery Blair, a cantankerous conservative, were out, replaced by men who understood that they served at the pleasure of the president. Attorney General Edward Bates retired to his home in Missouri, replaced by James Speed, a Lincoln loyalist and slavery foe. Interior Secretary John Usher was swapped out for James Harlan, one of Lincoln’s staunchest supporters in the Senate. Of the original cabinet, those remaining—Secretary of State William Seward, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles—were deeply loyal to the president.” Fact-Checking ‘Lincoln’: Lincoln’s Mostly Realistic; His Advisers Aren’t by Joshua Zeitz, The Atlantic, 11/12/12.

11. Lincoln speaks with Representative Ashley and instructs him to bring the Amendment up for a vote and get it passed.


12. Republican Congressmen discussing the Amendment in Stevens’ office.


13. Seward with lobbyists. His instructions are that nothing should be done that is strictly illegal and that the lobbyists can only offer patronage jobs. Under today’s campaign finance laws offering a Congressman a job in return for a vote would be illegal.
The scenes show lobbyists employed by Secretary of State Seward trading government jobs for votes on what today seems such an obvious human rights issue are creative constructs of events which the participants kept secret. The events in these scenes are obviously exaggerated for their comedic value.

14. House Debate January 9, 1865.
There are three changes from historical fact in this and all other scenes of House debates. First, in the movie, Mary and Mrs. Keckley are watching from the gallery. In fact, Mary Lincoln never attended a House of Representatives debate. This is a fiction writer’s device to heighten interest in the scene. Second, the speakers in the House never address each other directly but instead address the Speaker. This is still the custom today. These changes were made to heighten the emotion in the scene. Third, Stevens did not chiefly rely on the type of ad hominem attacks shown in the film. He was a devastating debater but usually employed logic to destroy his opponents. See Remarkable Radical Thaddeus Stevens by Steve Moyer, HUMANITIES, November/December 2012. Had Stevens called another member a “fatuous nincompoop” he would probably have been ruled out of order. The purpose of these scenes is to show Stevens’ wit and ability to make another member a laughing stock, but when he did it, he did not use invective, instead he used logic.


15. Robert comes home to the White House. Mary thinks it’s for the party. He intends to leave school and enlist.


16. Blair reports to Lincoln about the peace commissioners.


17. Lobbyists talk while walking and in various places with Seward and others.


18. Seward and Lincoln talk. Seward confronts him about rumors of the Commissioners.


19. Scene of Commissioners crossing no man’s land.

There were no black soldiers in the welcoming party. It would have been seen as an affront and the commissioners would have probably immediately returned home. The timing of the arrival of the commissioners has also been changed. They actually did not cross Union lines until January 29, two days before the vote. Their presence behind Union lines was extended in the film to add tension.

20. Back to Lincoln and Seward talking.


21. The commissioners are shown arriving at U.S. Army headquarters, City Point, Virginia.


22. Robert and Lincoln are with Slade and Tad. Robert wants to quit school and join the army. As shown here, Lincoln did not have a particularly close relationship with his oldest son.


23. Lincoln with Mary in Willie’s room. Willie’s death was a tragedy for both of the Lincolns and it was a wound that never healed.

24. The Grand Reception January 15, 1865. Mrs. Lincoln did not like Stevens. Actually, she probably hated him because he had investigated her for over-spending on redecorating the White House. However, she would not have berated him in public at a White House reception. This scene was apparently placed in the movie to show not only to refer to the investigation and her anger, but also Mrs. Lincoln’s wittiness, feistiness and political savvy, all of which she possessed. Mary Lincoln, following the lead of her father, disliked slavery, although her family had owned slaves when she was growing up and she had many relatives who fought for the Confederacy. Foner, p. 13. Mary Lincoln was a strong supporter of her husband’s efforts to abolish slavery. National First Lady’s Library – article on Mary Todd Lincoln;

25. Lincoln and Stevens talk in the White House basement. There is no record of this meeting. It’s a way to explicate their different positions over reconstruction. Some critics claim that at this point Lincoln didn’t have a reconstruction plan but to the best of TWM’s knowledge that is not correct. Lincoln’s attitude toward the Republican Radicals is shown in this statement to one of his assistants “They are nearer to me than the other side, in thought and sentiment, though bitterly hostile personally . . . They are utterly lawless—the unhandiest devils in the world to deal with — but after all their faces are set Zionwards.” Tyler Dennett, ed., Lincoln and the Civil War in the Diaries and Letters of John Hay (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1939) page 108. Thaddeus Stevens was a misanthrope, although he was also an idealist in his belief in abolition and racial equality. It is doubtful, however, that Stevens would have actually used the words, “I shit on the people.” Stevens was an educated and eloquent man. He probably would not have used profanity because, as Oscar Wilde said, “The expletive is the refuge of the semi-literate.” That, most clearly, was not Thaddeus Stevens. Moreover, in his personal and public life Stevens had always wanted to help the poor, oppressed and downtrodden. He was called “The Old Commoner” for that reason.


26. Lincoln and Mary talk after the party. They discuss Robert’s desire to join the army.


27. Lincoln at the War Department telegraph office. Lincoln tells the Ethan Allen story. This is an example of Lincoln using stories to defuse tension and to make a point. He loved to tell the tale of Ethan Allen and the British outhouse. He would have used the word “shit” for emphasis, although he generally did not swear and objected when others did it too frequently.


28. House of Representatives debate. Representative Yeaman announces he will vote against the Amendment. Democrats accuse Lincoln of trying to “Niggerize” the nation.
Democrats frequently attacked the Republicans and Lincoln accusing them of supporting racial equality, miscegenation, etc. This scene represents that line of attack.

29. Wood, Pendleton and other Democrats against the Amendment meet with Representative Hawkins. Hawkins talks with a lobbyist.


30. Lobbyists and Seward talking with flashback off lobbyist getting shot at. The rumors of the delegation from Richmond are ruining the effort to get Democrats to change their votes. If Davis wants to cease hostilities, no democrats would care about the Amendment.


31. Grant talks to the commissioners. They have the two countries vs. one country discussion. Grant met the commissioners and spoke with them. He was impressed by their sincerity. See Lincoln’s Report to Congress Concerning Meeting With The Confederate Representatives. One of the obvious reasons is that Stevens had been advocating for peace for years.

32. Lincoln with Seward who is reading Grant’s telegram outloud. Grant did send the telegram asking the President to meet with the Commissioners. However, it was on February 2, after the vote on the Amendment. Ibid.

33. Lincoln in the office thinking; clock ticking.


34. Lincoln waking his secretaries talking about clemency for a young cavalryman who tried to avoid combat by hobbling his horse. He also discusses the visit of the Secesh Commissioners.
Lincoln was often at odds with Secretary Stanton and his generals on the subject of clemency for ordinary soldiers who deserted or avoided combat. Mr. Lincoln’s Office: Pardons & Clemency from Mr. Lincoln’s White House;

35. Lincoln at the War Department telegraph office deciding whether to bring the Commissioners to D.C. and philosophizing.


36. House of Representatives Debate January 27, 1865. Stevens must say that the amendment has nothing to do with racial equality. There’s nothing he wouldn’t say to abolish slavery.
Stevens’ compromise and the speech in which he said he was for legal equality and not racial equality actually occurred on January 13, 1865. For Stevens’ speech on the Amendment on January 13, see Congressional Globe, 38 Cong. 2 session, January 13, 1865, pp. 265-267. The chronology has been re-arranged for the purposes of the story.

37. Robert and Lincoln visit the hospital. Lincoln greets wounded soldiers and Robert vomits when he sees dismembered limbs. Robert insists upon his intention to enlist.


38. Mary and Lincoln talking about their grief at Willie’s passing.


39. Mary and Lincoln at the opera. She tells him that since her son is in the army he had better get the amendment passed to stop the war.


40. Lincoln returning home talking with Mrs. Keckley.


41. Lincoln visits the lobbyists’ room. They tell him to deny the rumors. Lincoln was active in the lobbying effort. For help in executing his strategy, Lincoln turned to Charles A. Dana, a former journalist who the president and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton often deployed as their personal eyes and ears at the front — and for discreet political missions. Now, maneuvering to admit Nevada to the Union to guarantee a three-quarters majority of the states required for ratification of the amendment, Lincoln called on him again. “Dana,” said Lincoln,”I am very anxious about this vote. It has got to be taken next week. The time is very short. It is going to be a great deal closer than I wish it was.”

According to Dana, Lincoln “mentioned three particular congressmen who might be susceptible to persuasion.” “What will they be likely to want?” Dana asked. “I don’t know,” said Lincoln. “It makes no difference, though … [W]hatever promise you make to them I will perform.” Vorenberg p. 198.

Two of the congressmen asked to be appointed internal revenue collectors, while the other sought an appointment at the New York Custom House. In return for being granted these favors, all three threw their weight behind the amendment. “I have always felt,” wrote Dana, “that this little piece of side politics was one of the most judicious, humane, and wise uses of executive authority that I have ever assisted in or witnessed.” Sydney Blumenthal on How Lincoln Played the Political Game to Win By Sidney Blumenthal, Newsweek, 10/15/12;

42. Coffroth visits Stevens in his office.
While we don’t know if this meeting took place, Coffroth, a Democrat was seated in return for his vote. Vorenberg p. 202.

43. Back to Lincoln with the lobbyists. They discuss Representative Yeaman.


44. Lincoln meets with Yeaman in the White House.
George H. Yeaman was a representative from Kentucky who provided a crucial vote for the Amendment.

45. Lincoln talking to a representative whose brother died in the war trying to convince him to vote for the Amendment.
As the vote neared President Lincoln personally appealed to various representatives. “To one representative whose brother had died in the war, Lincoln said, ‘your brother died to save the Republic from death by the slaveholders’ rebellion. I wish you could see it to be your duty to vote for the Constitutional amendment ending slavery.” Vorenberg p. 198.

46. Blair meets with Lincoln and other politicians. He asks about the Commissioners. Lincoln was quoted as saying, “I am the President of the United States of America, clothed in immense power! You will procure me these votes.”

Lincoln did say something like this. See quotation in Guide.


47. House debate and vote on the Amendment January 31, 1865.
Stevens’ concession that he only sought “equality before the law” occurred on January 13. See scene # 36.

48. Lincoln’s office; he writes the misleading statement.

49. Final House Debate and vote.
Some critics misinterpret this scene as portraying Stevens as a politician who had trouble compromising. However, the compromise Stephens was asked to make related to a core belief; anyone would have trouble with that. In any case, Stevens was “a politician’s politician and had no problem crawling in the mud to achieve an objective.” Zeitz Atlantic article. The House voted alphabetically by the name of the member and not, as in some national political conventions, state by state, as is shown in the film. The movie shows two Connecticut congressmen voting against the abolition of slavery. In fact, all four Connecticut Congressmen voted for the Amendment. This change was made dramatic effect, to demonstrate that the 13th Amendment “passed by a very narrow margin that wasn’t determined until the end of the vote.” See Tony Kushner Fires Back at Congressman’s ‘Lincoln’ Criticism By Christopher John Farley, Wall Street Journal 2/8/13. However, a Connecticut Congressman was ‘Lincoln’ screenwriter fires back at Conn. Congresman.

Radical Republicans were required to moderate their rhetoric and soft-peddle their position on racial equality. For Steven’s statement, recanting his belief in racial equality but insisting upon his support for equality before the law, see Congressional Globe, 38 Cong. 2 session, January 5, 1865, p. 125.

Contrary to what is shown in the film, the vote on the 13th Amendment was not the first time that African-Americans sat in the House gallery. Wilentz.

50. During the vote – several scenes returning always to the vote in the House of Representatives: the White House; the army etc.


51. Stevens at home with his housekeeper. He presents her with the Amendment.
The movie’s description of Stevens’ relationship with Mrs. Smith, which has them sharing a bed as a happily married elderly couple, is a reasonable interpretation of their relationship. Historians differ about whether they were sexually intimate. However, sexual intimacy is not the important question in assessing the connection between Mr. Stevens and Mrs. Smith. The take away, a point made by the movie, is that Stevens respected Mrs. Smith and “in many ways they had lived as a couple.” See Section in the Guide on Mr. Stevens and Mrs. Smith. See also Remarkable Radical Thaddeus Stevens by Steve Moyer, HUMANITIES, November/December 2012. Stevens probably did not take the original Amendment home to show to her.


52. Lincoln boarding the River Queen and negotiating with commissioners.
The meeting took place and the parties could not agree. Accounts of the meeting written later by the participants show a different dialog than is presented by the film. Lincoln and Alexander Stevens were friends from Lincoln’s service in the House. See The Hampton Roads Peace Conference: A Final Test of Lincoln’s Presidential Leadership and and Goodwin pp. 692-694.

53. Petersburg burning and Lincoln inspecting damage outside Petersburg on April 3, 1865.


54. Lincoln and Grant talking on a porch.


55. Surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. Grant’s uniform was actually muddy and unkempt. However, the scene retains the important historical truth that the surrender was conducted with mutual respect between the two men and the two armies.

56. Lincoln and Mary talking in the carriage on the day of the assassination.
Lincoln’s comments on traveling are also related in Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World by James Carroll.

Mary Lincoln would not have used the word “sniper” in describing her worry about an assassination attempt on the President. The common word for a sniper in the mid-19th century U.S. was “sharpshooter”.


57. Lincoln meeting with congressional leaders at the White House the night of the assassination.


58. Tad watching Aladdin and the announcement.
Tad was watching a performance of Aladdin when the announcement was made that his father had been shot.

59. Deathbed scene, April 15, 1865.
Stanton did say, when Lincoln was declared dead, “Now he belongs to the ages.”

60. Flashback to the Second Inaugural.
Some critics have contended that Lincoln would not have used his hands in the manner shown in the film. Some scholars now believe that when faced with the re-emergence of the power of the plantation owners and oppression of blacks in the post-war South, that Lincoln would have been led by events to taken a harder stance on reconstruction.

4. Select your favorite passage from one of Lincoln’s greatest speeches: The House Divided Speech, the Chicago Speech, the Cooper Union Speech, the First Inaugural, the Gettysburg Address, or the Second Inaugural. Set the speech in the context of Lincoln’s career and in his thinking about slavery and describe why you like it.


5. Write a research paper on Thaddeus Stevens and the differences between Stevens and Abraham Lincoln. In your paper, give and support an opinion about whether, when faced with a resurgent planter class in the South which sought to oppress African-Americans, Lincoln would have adopted elements of Stevens’ harsh Reconstruction policy.


6. Evaluate two of the following scenes or groups of scenes from the movie from the standpoint of historical fiction and its need to both tell a good story and communicate a sense of what historians believe actually happened: (1) The scenes showing lobbyists employed by Secretary of State Seward trading government jobs for votes on what today seems such an obvious human rights issue; (2) Thaddeus Stevens’ speech to the House in which he states that he only believes in equality or the races before the law, not equality of the races in all things; (3) the basement conversation between Lincoln and Stevens about their competing proposals for reconstruction; (4) the first scene in the movie in which black Union soldiers are in hand-to-hand combat with Confederates and (5) the scene in which Thaddeus Stevens brings a copy of the Amendment to his mixed-race housekeeper/mistress.



Anchor Standard #7 for Reading (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). (The three Anchor Standards read: “Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media, including visually and quantitatively as well as in words.”) CCSS pp. 35 & 60. See also Anchor Standard # 2 for ELA Speaking and Listening, CCSS pg. 48.


Anchor Standards #s 1, 2, 7 and 8 for Reading and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 35 & 60.


Anchor Standards #s 1 – 5 and 7- 10 for Writing and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 41 & 63.

Speaking and Listening:

Anchor Standards #s 1 – 3 (for ELA classes). CCSS pg. 48.

Not all assignments reach all Anchor Standards. Teachers are encouraged to review the specific standards to make sure that over the term all standards are met.


  • Lincoln: How Abraham Lincoln Ended Slavery in America: A Companion Book for Young Readers to the Steven Spielberg Film Lincoln by Harold Holzer;
  • The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery by Eric Foner (2011 Pulitzer Prize Winner).


Reviews of the Film by Historians and Others

Websites on the History of the Civil War

Slavery and the U.S.

The Hampton Roads Peace Conference

Elizabeth Keckley — Modiste and Confidant of Mrs. Lincoln


In addition to websites linked in the Guide or excerpts of books available on the Internet and cited in the body of the Lesson Plan, substantial portions or the entirety of the following resources were read in the preparation of this Learning Guide:

  • Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin;
  • Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty years a Slave, Four Years in the White House by Elizabeth Keckley, Electronic Edition on Documenting the American South;
  • Lincoln’s Melancholy — How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled his Greatness by Joshua Wolf Shenk, Houghton, Mifflin Company, 2005;
  • The Fiery Trial — Abraham Lincoln an American Slavery by Eric Foner W.W. Norton & Company, 2010;
  • The Thirteenth Amendment and American Freedom — A Legal History by Alexander Tsesis, New York University Press, 2004;
  • Final Freedom: The Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment by Michael Vorenberg, Cambridge Historical Studies in American Law and Society, 2001.
  • The Scorpion’s Sting — Antislavery and the Coming of the Civil War by James Oakes, W.W. Norton & Co., 2014;
  • Thaddeus Stevens — Scourge of the South by Fawn M. Brodie, W.W. Norton & Son, 1959;
  • Thaddeus Stevens — A Being Darkly Wise and Rudely Great by Ralph Korngold, Harcourt Brace & Co., 1955;
  • Thaddeus Stevens — Nineteenth-Century Egalitarian by Hans L. Trefousse, Stackpole Books, 2001

This Learning Guide was written by James Frieden and last updated on September 8, 2014.

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It is the central act of my administration, and the great event of the nineteenth century.”
Abraham Lincoln on the 13th Amendment emancipating the slaves.

The Thirteenth Amendment didn’t just ban slavery, it invalidated the protections for slavery written into the Constitution by the Founding Fathers. The Thirteenth Amendment was like a surgery, cutting the cancer of slavery out of the Constitution.

The Thirteen Amendment states:

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

The Amendment was passed in the Senate by the required 2/3rds margin on April 8, 1864. It was rejected once by the House of Representatives but passed on January 31, 1865. The amendment was ratified by 3/4s of the states on December 6, 1865 at which point it became the law of the land.

Lincoln did not have an opportunity to write his memoirs, and we are left to speculate about his reasons for insisting that the 13th Amendment be passed in January of 1865 by a lame-duck Congress. This movie contains one of the best explanations of those reasons, whether on film or in print. See Response to Discussion Question #1.

Flaws in the Original Constitution: Provisions That Protected Slavery: Article I, Section 2 clause 3 provides that:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

Article I, Section 9 provides that:

“The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress, prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.”

Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3 provides that:

“No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.”

Article V provides that:

” . . . [N]o amendment which may be made prior to the year one thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any manner affect the first and fourth clauses in the ninth section of the first article. . . .”

The remaining provisions of Article V, which required that amendments be passed by 2/3rds of each House of Congress and ratified by 3/4s of the states protected the other pro-slavery provisions of the Constitution by making it impossible to amend the Constitution without the agreement of the South.

Click here for interesting quotes from the film at the Internet Movie Database. The entire script can be found on Internet Movie Script Database.

Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery but had to flee to England to avoid the agents of his former master who sought to kidnap him and return him to slavery. Douglass was only able to return to the U.S. after his abolitionist friends had purchased his freedom. In his FAREWELL SPEECH TO THE BRITISH PEOPLE Douglass denounced the fugitive slave provision of the Constitution, Article 4, Section 2, Clause 3, as making “the whole land one vast hunting ground for men.” 

When the President gave what turned out to be his final speech at the White House on April 11, Tad picked up the pages of his speech as he discarded them. When a listener suggested that the defeated Rebels should be hung, Tad said, “Oh, no, we must hang on to them.”Family: Thomas Lincoln (1853-1871) President Lincoln responded, “That’s right, Tad, we must hang on to them.” from Mr. Lincoln’s White House, citing Lincoln’s Sons by Ruth Painter Randall. However, some historians believe that if Lincoln had lived to deal with the resurgent oppression of blacks by Southern whites, he would have taken a different position. See Foner, p. 335.

For a clear description of Lincoln’s doubts about the legality of the Emancipation Proclamation’s, see Excerpts from the script: The scene in which Lincoln talks the Cabinet about the legality of the Emancipation Proclamation and the need for the 13th Amendment.

Former President John Quincy Adams feared that disputes over slavery might lead to civil war. He predicted that when the war came, it would lead to the end of slavery. In speeches on the House Floor, where he served after his term as President, J. Q. Adams stated that in such a conflict the war power of the President would supercede all Constitutional barriers protecting slavery and that the commander in chief of the army could emancipate slaves in occupied areas. Foner, p. 164.

It is interesting to note that the South always saw secession as an effort to protect slavery. The constitution of the Confederacy explicitly recognized and protected slave property. Alexander H. Stephens, its vice-president, said that the cornerstone of the Confederacy was slavery and the belief in black inferiority. Foner, p. 163.

Note the following irony. Slavery was protected by the original Constitution and because of the difficulty of passing an amendment, the North could never have mustered the votes to pass the 13th Amendment had the Southern states not withdrawn their representatives from Congress. The South seceded and went to war to protect slavery, but in doing so, it handed to a President who hated slavery but acknowledged that it was protected by the Constitution in the slave states, the opportunity to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and allowed anti-slavery factions in the House and Senate to gain the super-majorities necessary to amend the Constitution.

Lincoln Passive or Simply Shut-Mouthed?Movies require action. So, the film doesn’t emphasize the many times that Lincoln appeared passive nor does it show the occasions when he listened and did not respond.


    • ” . . . It is true that Lincoln always battled an abiding sadness, but his passivity has been greatly exaggerated. In 1864, he wrote to a Kentucky editor that ‘I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me’; but read in context the remark was a humble effort to persuade a dubious border-state newspaperman of the rightness of emancipation, not a profession of inaction. Some of Lincoln’s contemporaries ascribed his silences and his evasions to a combination of indecisiveness and inertness. Yet as the Illinois senator Lyman Trumbull observed, these impressions mistook political shrewdness for passivity: Lincoln, Trumbull wrote, ‘communicated no more of his own thoughts and purposes than he thought would subserve the ends he had in view.’”

Lincoln in Hollywood, from Griffith to Spielberg

     by Sean Wilentz in The New Republic, 12/21/12.

Author Joshua Shenk asserts that Lincoln’s reticence grew out of a discipline that he had learned in order to master deep depressions which had plagued Lincoln all his adult life. As a young man, Abraham Lincoln often talked about his feelings, including depression and a desire at times to commit suicide. However, as a mature man, he rejected emotion and became a devotee of reason, usually expressing himself only after filtering his feelings through a very careful process of reasoning. See Lincoln’s Melancholy — How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled his Greatness by Joshua Wolf Shenk. This made Lincoln appear to be, in the words of William Herndon, his law partner, “the most shut-mouthed man I know.”





Slavery: the Nation’s “Peculiar Institution”:

While most people think of slavery as the South’s “peculiar institution”, in this lesson plan we refer to it as the nation’s “peculiar institution”. The reason for this is that the cotton industry and the Southern slave economy brought benefits to many parts of the nation. Many New England fortunes had been built on the slave trade. The Northern fabric industry was based on cheap, slave-raised cotton. During the Civil War, the mayor of New York, the same Fernando Wood who is portrayed in the movie as a strong defender of slavery and properly vilified by Thaddeus Stevens, advocated secession by the City of New York and alignment with the Confederacy in order to preserve New York’s economic ties to the Southern slave power and its cotton.





Great Lincoln Sayings

“When I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.” Abraham Lincoln to an Indiana Regiment passing through Washington, March 17, 1865 (29 days before he was assassinated). Introduction to the Mr. Lincoln and Freedom Website.

“If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.”

The above quote is contained in this passage: “I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel. . . . And yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling. It was in the oath I took that I would, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. I could not take the office without taking the oath. Nor was it my view that I might take an oath to get power, and break the oath in using the power.” from Lincoln’s letter to Alfred G. Hodges, April 4, 1864.

Describing the Republican Radicals Lincoln told his Secretary, John Hay: “They are nearer to me than the other side in thought and sentiment, though bitterly hostile personally. They are utterly lawless – the unhandiest devils in the world to deal with – but after all their faces are set Zionwards.” Brodie p. 199.

Lincoln on the 13th Amendment: “It is the central act of my administration, and the great event of the nineteenth century.” Reported by his portrait painter, Frank B. Carpenter. Brodie p. 205

“I am President of the United States, clothed with great power. The abolition of slavery by constitutional provision settles the fate, for all coming time, not only of the millions now in bondage, but of unborn millions to come — a measure of such importance that those two votes must be procured. I leave it to you to determine how it shall be done; but remember that I am President of the United States, clothed with immense power, and I expect you to procure those votes.” Goodwin p. 687.

“I do not agree with those who say that slavery is dead. We are like whalers who have been long on a chase – we have at last got the harpoon into the monster, but we must now look how we steer, or, with one ‘flop’ of his tail, he will yet send us all to eternity.” Comment to New York Governor Edwin D. Morgan. Preface to Mr. Lincoln and Freedom.

Lincoln privately urged border state representatives to emancipate their slaves under generous terms, before the tide of war swept away the whole system under no terms at all. “You can not if you would, be blind to the signs of the times,” he warned. Ibid.





Professor Kate Masur:

It would not have been much of a stretch — particularly given other liberties taken by the filmmakers — to do things differently. Keckley and Slade might have been shown leaving the White House to attend their own meetings, for example. Keckley could have discussed with Mrs. Lincoln the relief work that, in reality, she organized and the first lady contributed to. Slade could have talked with Lincoln about the 13th Amendment. Indeed, his daughter later recalled that Lincoln had confided in Slade, particularly on the nights when he suffered from insomnia. In Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln,’ Passive Black Characters New York Times Op-Ed Article by Kate Masur; 11/12/12.





Professor Joshua Zeitz writes:

A year and a half after the events portrayed in the movie, Stevens gave a rousing campaign speech in which he excoriated the Democratic party. “We shall hear it repeated ten thousand times,” he intoned, “the cry of ‘Negro Equality!’ The radicals would thrust the negro into your parlors, your bedrooms, and the bosoms of your wives and daughters….And then they [Democrats] will send up the grand chorus from every foul throat, ‘nigger,’ ‘nigger,’ ‘nigger,’ ‘nigger!’ ‘Down with the nigger party, we’re for the white man’s party.’ These unanswerable arguments will ring in every low bar room and be printed in every Blackguard sheet throughout the land whose fundamental maxim is ‘all men are created equal.’”    In one paragraph, he managed to take down the crude racial incitements of his opponents, while simultaneously assuring listeners that those incitements were false. That was a politician.

The movie’s focus on Thaddeus Stevens as the leader of the Radical Republicans should lead to a re-evaluation of this much-maligned giant of the abolitionist movement. Stevens expounded the modern view of race relations, and it took the U.S. a century to catch up. If his plans for reconstruction had been fully implemented, African-Americans might have been saved from Jim Crow oppression in the South and a hundred years of discrimination throughout the land. Generations of whites would have been saved from the guilt and psychological injury caused by the perpetration of oppression and the betrayal of the values of the Declaration of Independence. Some modern historians believe that had Lincoln lived, he would have been inexorably led by events (as he claimed he always was) to take a harder approach to Reconstruction in order to complete the eradication of the Slave Power and protect the former slaves.

Historian Joshua Zeitz: “Steven Spielberg’s film reminds us that there was another Lincoln: a profoundly controversial, loved and hated president. Before his apotheosis on Good Friday, 1865, he was scorned as much as he was revered. ‘It is a little singular that I who am not a vindictive man should have always been before the people for election in canvasses marked for their bitterness,’ Lincoln told Hay. But Abraham Lincoln understood that politics was combat. He was able to reconcile his supreme confidence and a people’s touch. He came to believe that he was the hand of God without believing that he was God.” Fact-Checking ‘Lincoln’: Lincoln’s Mostly Realistic; His Advisers Aren’t by Joshua Zeitz, The Atlantic, 11/12/12;

RANDALL KENNEDY, Professor, Harvard Law School on the two alternative traditions relating to racism in America:

“I say that the best way to address this issue is to address it forthrightly, and straightforwardly, and embrace the complicated history and the complicated presence of America. On the one hand, that’s right, slavery, and segregation, and racism, and white supremacy is deeply entrenched in America. At the same time, there has been a tremendous alternative tradition, a tradition against slavery, a tradition against segregation, a tradition against racism.

I mean, after all in the past 25 years, the United States of America has seen an African-American presence. As we speak, there is an African-American vice president. As we speak, there’s an African- American who is in charge of the Department of Defense. So we have a complicated situation. And I think the best way of addressing our race question is to just be straightforward, and be clear, and embrace the tensions, the contradictions, the complexities of race in American life. I think we need actually a new vocabulary.

So many of the terms we use, we use these terms over and over, starting with racism, structural racism, critical race theory. These words actually have been weaponized. They are vehicles for propaganda. I think we would be better off if we were more concrete, we talked about real problems, and we actually used a language that got us away from these overused terms that actually don’t mean that much.   From Fahreed Zakaria, Global Public Square, CNN, December 26, 2021

Give your students new perspectives on race relations, on the history of the American Revolution, and on the contribution of the Founding Fathers to the cause of representative democracy. Check out TWM’s Guide: TWO CONTRASTING TRADITIONS RELATING TO RACISM IN AMERICA and a Tragic Irony of the American Revolution: the Sacrifice of Freedom for the African-American Slaves on the Altar of Representative Democracy.

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