Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

I enjoyed a visit to the cinema yesterday, although for a film nominated for twelve Academy awards, the attendance of seven at a late night Friday showing must have disappointed the owners. Lincoln is the type of film I like, an historical drama. Daniel Day-Lewis gives a convincing performance as the main character, United States President Abraham Lincoln. At one stage, Liam Neeson was being groomed for this role. The President’s wife Mary Todd Lincoln is played by Sally Field. Some of the best scenes are those in which the two interact. There are rows about Lincoln’s son Robert wanting to join the Union Army against his mother’s wishes.

In another dramatic sequence, the President is visiting a military hospital but Robert refuses to accompany him inside. When he sees an attendant wheeling a barrow dripping with blood, Robert follows the trail and discovers it is coming from amputated limbs of wounded soldiers being buried in the hospital grounds. This helps him to make up his mind to enlist in the army and he is posted to the staff of General Ulysses Grant.

The narrative begins in January 1865, four months before Lincoln’s death and in the final stages of the Civil War, with two black soldiers and two white soldiers from the Union army talking to the President. But it is the politics of the House of Representatives that dominates the two and a half hour narrative, slightly too long in my view. Lincoln was seeking to outlaw slavery and the 13th amendment to the US Constitution was passed by the 38th Congress on January 31st 1865, and approved the following day, so the date I chose to watch the film coincided with that anniversary.

Virginia State Capitol

Virginia State Capitol

The scenes in the House of Representatives were not shot in Washington DC, but instead in the historic Virginia State Capitol building in Richmond, which I visited on holidays in 2007. I recognised the Chamber with its gallery and a marble statue in the Rotunda of George Washington. In order to get the amendment passed with the required two-thirds majority, Lincoln through his secretary of state William Seward had to engage in a lot of wheeling and dealing, using agents to offer Democrat representatives federal positions if they switched sides. This political intrigue provides an interesting aspect to the story. The amendment was eventually put through by 119 votes to 56, just two votes above the necessary margin.

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.

13th Amendment US Constitution (Credit: NARA)

13th Amendment (Credit: NARA)

Catherine Clinton is a Professor of US History at Queen’s University Belfast. She has written a book about Mrs Lincoln and acted as a historical consultant for the film. She explained her role in an interview with BBC NI, as Peter Coulter explains.

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