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"There it is, even in that two-thousand year old book of mechanical law: it is a self- evident truth that things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other. We begin with equality. That's the origin, isn't it? That's balance, that's fairness, that's justice."

Lincoln is a historical retelling of the 16th President of the United States's attempts to get the Thirteenth Amendment passed, directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Tony Kushner, based on the acclaimed biography Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln, Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as their son Robert and has a supporting cast that includes Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Jared Harris and Jackie Earle Haley.

Set during the last four months of President Abraham Lincoln's life, the film's main focus is on his guiding of the political forces in America to end the Civil War and pass the 13th Amendment, thereby abolishing slavery. This is much harder than it sounds, due to the many political divisions not just in the North (to say nothing of the country) at the time, but also in Lincoln's own party. The Radical Republicans led by Representative Thaddeus Stevens demand a strong bill to be passed at all costs, while the more conservative party members led by the Blair family want to hold off until they can try one more chance at negotiating peace with the rebellious South. Throwing complete support behind either side risks the Amendment not getting passed at all, and even with the support of his own party, Lincoln still needs some Democratic support to pass the amendment as well. This sets the stage for a series of behind the scenes maneuvers to sway certain Congressmen to break from their party and vote for the Amendment.

Meanwhile, Lincoln also has to deal with his family issues, particularly his son Robert's demands to enlist over his wife Mary's vehement objections.

The film was given a limited release on November 9, 2012 before opening wide on the 16th and becoming a robust box office hit for a historical political drama. The trailer can be viewed here.

This work provides examples of:

  • Action Prologue: The film opens violently with the Battle of Jenkins' Ferry.
  • Actor Allusion: Lincoln and Mary Todd go to the opera to see Gounod's Faust, the same opera featured at the start of The Age of Innocence (which also starred Daniel Day-Lewis) set 10 years later in the 1870s.
  • Age Lift:
    • Sally Field is 9 years older than Day-Lewis, the reverse of Lincoln's difference to Mary. Thankfully the make-up makes him look older than her.
    • George H. Pendleton was played by Peter McRobbie, who was in his late 60s. The real Pendleton was just shy of 40 at the time the film took place.
    • Bill Raymond, who was in his 70s, plays House Speaker Schuyler Colfax, who was only 41 when the 13th Amendment was passed.
  • Anachronism Stew: This film uses phrases that didn't exist back then, Justified because modern audiences wouldn't understand 19th century upper-crust (or worse yet: slang) American English.
  • Answer Cut: Lincoln goes to negotiate with the rebel commissioners after some persuasion by General Grant. At the end he asks the commissioners directly, "Shall we stop this bleeding?" The scene fades out and is replaced by one of the Fall of Richmond.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: Lincoln looks close to tears when Alexander Stephens asks him, "how many hundreds of thousands have died during your administration?"
  • Armor-Piercing Response: Secretary Seward initially urges Lincoln to hold off on calling for a vote on the 13th Amendment until Congress elected in 1864 meets for the first time, upon which the House of Representatives will have a Republican majority. Lincoln, however, insists it must be done before then because the war will be over soon and many Republicans will see no reason to vote for the 13th if the South is already defeated. To test this Seward asks a visiting couple who claim to support the amendment if they would still vote for it if the war were already won, to which they admit they wouldn't, they only care about winning the war sooner.
  • Artistic License – History: As Spielberg put it on the 149th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address: "It's not the job, and in fact it's a betrayal of the job, of a historian to promise perfect and complete recall of the past, to promise memory that abolishes loss. One of the jobs of art is to go to the impossible places that other disciplines, like history, must avoid." With that in mind...
    • Lincoln was not clothed upon his death (so Doctor Charles Leale and two other doctors could check for other wounds and apply hot water bottles, a mustard plaster, and blankets to make him comfortable) and was laid diagonally, since the bed he was put in was too small for him.
    • The possibility that any Union soldier, black or white, would have committed the Gettysburg Address to memory in 1863 is remote, since the speech did not enter the national vocabulary until the early 20th century. Two of the soldiers at least have the excuse that they were at Gettysburg when he made the speech.
    • William Henry Harrison's portrait was never hung in Lincoln's office.
    • First Lady Mary Lincoln did not attend the final tally on the amendment.
    • The flag raised near the beginning of the film is raised with a crank instead of a system of ropes.
    • Votes then were taken in order of representatives' last names in alphabetical order, not by state, and all of the Connecticut House members voted for the amendment, not just one. Screenwriter Tony Kushner later released a statement clarifying this was intentional; they wanted to make the progression of the vote more obvious (hence the vote by state) and for it to have early opposition to represent the obstacles it faced. Connecticut so happened to be right at the start of the list with the Northern states listed alphabetically.
    • Bilbo jokes that Seward went so far as to forbid the Gang of Three from using the coins that bear Lincoln's visage to avoid any connection between them and the president. While there was money with Lincoln's image at the time, it was on the ten dollar bill, not on coins.
    • Alexander Gardner would not have sent fragile one-of-a-kind plates to Tad Lincoln, especially since the boy had once ruined several images by locking their developer in a closet.
    • Tad Lincoln is shown as a normal eleven year-old boy in the film. In real life Tad Lincoln had a very serious speech impediment, to the point that only his closest family and teachers could understand him. He later had speech therapy to overcome this. Based on photographic evidence, he most likely had a cleft lip or cleft palate.
    • Bilbo and his cohorts were real and lobbied congressmen on Seward's behalf during the 13th Amendment debate. Beyond that, their portrayals are largely invented. Bilbo's collaboration with Seward and Lincoln was hardly a secret as the film depicts: Bilbo had met Lincoln and corresponded with him regularly about political matters, unlike the film where he strains to keep his distance from the President, while Latham and Schell were longtime friends and political partners of Seward. On the other hand, historians question whether Bilbo and Co. succeeded in changing a significant number of votes, with only one congressmannote  believed to have actually been influenced by their lobbying.
    • Alexander Coffroth, the wavering Pennsylvania congressman, has a pronounced stutter that is Played for Laughs and suggests to Stevens that he will switch parties from Democrat to Republican after the amendment passes. Cofforth actually had a reputation as a skilled orator, and he remained a lifelong Democrat until his retirement.
    • Rep. Josiah "Beanpole" Burton and Dem. Clay Hawkins are entirely fictional Congressman.
  • Asshole Victim: One of Lincoln's stories from his lawyer days. An abusive husband was killed by his wife in the middle of a fight and his reputation was so bad that no one was eager to convict her. Lincoln was assigned as her lawyer, he subtly hinted she flee, and she did. Most everyone's response after that was just to drop the case.
  • As You Know: Lots of exposition early in the film regarding the political situation and the mechanics of getting an amendment passed, including Seward explicating things like the 2/3 majority requirement that Lincoln would obviously already know.
  • Aw, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other: At the very end, during the carriage ride, between Lincoln and Mary, after spending the film arguing about their son Robert's desire to enlist in the military, affirm their love for each other.
  • Badass Boast: "I am the President of the United States of America, clothed in immense power!" Yes, that is an actual Lincoln quote.
  • Bait-and-Switch: We get two theater scenes before the end of the film, and the second one isn't Ford's Theatre, either. Note that the second one was not added for dramatic effect, Tad Lincoln was in fact actually attending a performance of Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp when the news broke out that his father had been shot.
  • Bathos: In one hilarious scene one of the lobbyists tries to bribe a vote out of a Democrat only for the man to whip out a gun and try to shoot him. The lobbyist manages to grab his hand and make the first shot miss, then scrambles to collect his papers while the Congressman hurries to reload. The lobbyist kicks dirt into his face to delay him, then runs like heck to escape the Congressman.
  • Bedmate Reveal: An inversion. We're shown that Lydia Smith, who viewers would assume to be Thaddeus Stevens' maid, is actually his live-in mistress when he gets into bed and the camera pans across to reveal Lydia in bed next to him.
  • Bittersweet Ending: As dictated by history, the Amendment passes and the Civil War comes to an end in short order. And Lincoln is assassinated not long afterward.
  • Big "YES!": When it is George Yeaman's turn to vote on the 13th Amendment, he initially responds by mumbling something inaudible. When asked to speak up, he stands and shouts as loud and long as his lungs will let him, followed with the cheering of his new fellows in the amendment's proponents.
    Yeaman: I said aye, Mr. McPherson! AAAAAAAAAAYE!
  • Brick Joke:
    • "Beanpole" Burton is referred to in one of the first scenes when a few of his constituents petition Lincoln. He reappears in the voting scene.
    • Stevens mentions a wig in one of his early scenes. In his final appearance, we see his magnificent bald head.
  • Broken Bird: Mary, who has suffered the loss of two children, worries about her husband's safety, and fears (sadly, quite correctly) that history will remember her as a crazy woman who ruined Lincoln's happiness.
  • Broken Pedestal:
    • Representative Ashley suffers one towards Lincoln when he realizes that Lincoln not only delayed the Confederate peace commissioner delegation but lied about it, and is furious because he knows now there's no way the 13th Amendment will ever pass.
    • Representative Litton suffers one to Thaddeus Stevens when the latter is basically hamstrung into declaring that he only believes in the legal and not moral equality of black people.
  • Brown Note: When Lincoln is recounting the story of Ethan Allen visiting an English privy:
    Lincoln: George Washington's likeness in a water closet? "Yes," said Mr. Allen, "where it will do good service; the world knows nothing will make an Englishman shit quicker than the sight of George Washington."
  • Call-Forward: Abe and Mary have a heated argument in which they speak of her possibly being thrown into the madhouse because of her grieving processes. She even specifically states that if her son Robert were killed in the war, Lincoln should go ahead and put her in the madhouse. Ten years later, she was put in the madhouse, by Robert himself (though quickly released).
  • Captain Obvious: Lincoln's flag-raising speech. It's no Gettysburg Address.
    Lincoln: The part assigned to me is to raise the flag, which, if there be no fault in the machinery, I will do, and when up, it will be for the people to keep it up. [pause] That's my speech.
  • Casting Gag: Possibly. Hal Holbrook, who plays Francis Preston Blair, is well-known for his Emmy-winning portrayals of Lincoln in TV miniseries such as Sandburg's Lincoln and North and South (U.S.).
    • Two of Lincoln's petitioners, Mr. and Mrs. Jolly, are played by husband and wife Bill Camp and Elizabeth Marvel.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • During the first vote-canvassing montage, one Congressman slams his door in the lobbyist's face and a picture of a soldier falls off of a mourning wreath. The picture was of the Congressman's brother, and the Congressman now opposes the 13th Amendment because he blames black people for his brother's death in the war.
    • Lincoln's telegraph to Ulysses S. Grant. He initially pushes for the decision to discuss the terms for peace with the South in Washington, only to change his mind and have them sent to another city. On the day of the vote, word reaches Congress of the South attempting to make peace overtures, causing both parties to attempt to delay the vote...until Lincoln uses Exact Words to deny knowledge of any Southern delegates in Washington.
  • Cigarette of Anxiety: After seeing the amputated limbs at the military hospital, Robert goes for a smoke to calm his nerves. He can't even manage to roll one up before tossing it away in frustration.
  • Comically Missing the Point: When Robert sees one of Lincoln's young secretaries in uniform for the shindig, he complains that he'll be the only man over fifteen and under sixty-five not in uniform. His uniformed little brother corrects him:
    Tad: I'm under fifteen.
  • The Comically Serious:
    • Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, who fusses over the burnt edge of a military map and positively storms out of the room when Lincoln starts to tell another of his stories.
    • George Washington, or rather a painting of him-cut to his morose expression during the perfect Lincoln anecdote about him.
  • Comically Small Bribe: Democrat Clay Hawkins is bribed by Bilbo to vote yes for the amendment in exchange for... becoming the postmaster of Millersburg, Ohio. He initially asks to be the taxman of the Western Reserve, but Bilbo negotiates him down to postmaster. When his fellows Democrats find out, though, they're both amused and disgusted, and Hawkins chickens out of the bribe. In the end, though, he chooses to vote yes on the amendment anyway regardless of the bribe or his fellows Dems.
  • Corpse Land: Lincoln passes through the killing grounds of the Battle of Petersburg and goes by countless dead bodies of Union and Confederate soldiers alike. He takes his hat off in respect and the last thing seen is a dead rebel soldier staring lifelessly into the sky.
  • Crowd Song: When the 13th Amendment is passed, the Representatives break into a rousing rendition of "The Battle-Cry of Freedom".
    The Union forever! Hurrah, boys, hurrah!
    Down with the traitors, up with the stars;
    While we rally round the flag, boys, rally once again,
    Shouting the battle cry of freedom!
  • Deadpan Snarker: Thaddeus Stevens, big time. Lincoln himself also indulges in this from time to time.
  • Death Glare:
    • The Confederate envoys are brought to the North by an entire regiment of black Union soldiers, all of whom are giving them scarily angry glares. (This scene is fictional; if this had happened in real life the envoys would have regarded it as a grave insult.)
    • Democrats who vote for the amendment get some of these from their fellow Democrats, if not worse.
  • Decided by One Vote: The amendment just barely averts this. It passes with just two votes over the required 2/3rds majority, though one of them is by the Speaker of the House, who is not required by law to vote.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance:
    • Many of the characters display the usual racial prejudices of the time, and Thaddeus Stevens' belief in racial equality is frighteningly radical to his peers. It's especially hammered when Representative George Yeaman says he cannot endorse the 13th Amendment because it might lead to further reform. Even the Republicans balk alongside their Democratic counterparts as Yeaman floats the idea of woman's suffrage.
      Yeaman: What shall follow upon that? Universal enfranchisement? Votes for women?
    • Also, the shameless use of the Spoils System in order to secure the necessary votes. Short of actual bribery, the promising of patronage positions was legal, if not necessarily well-regarded, which is why Lincoln did not want to be identified with it. These tactics are now illegal and would be seen as blatant corruption in the modern day. Arguably, it was the assassination of another President by a disgruntled office-seeker that was largely responsible for the change, a change implemented in large part (appropriately enough) by George Pendleton, Lincoln's Big Bad.
    • An anecdote is mentioned of a woman due to be convicted for murder even though the jury was reluctant to convict her, knowing she acted in self-defense. Since the law didn't make that allowance for women then, she's allowed to flee while everyone's back is turned and no one bothers to search for her.
    • Thaddeus Stevens has to hide his belief in racial equality so this fear doesn't kill the Amendment, plus the fact he's married in all but name to his black maid.
  • Department of Redundancy Department: Stevens and his wish to turn the South into a land "with free men and free women and free children and freedom!"
  • Determinator: Lincoln will get the 13th Amendment passed, come hell or high water.
  • Dodgy Toupee: Stevens didn't really care about his appearance that much; he had more important things to worry about.
  • Empathic Environment: The Lincolns have a raging fight during a big thunderstorm. Another invocation of reality: They are partly fighting about Mary's reaction to Willie's death. The real Willie's funeral took place during a violent thunderstorm, and people writing at the time cited it as an Empathic Environment.
  • Enemy Mine: The amendment requires anywhere from 16 to 20 Democrats voting yes to pass. This is harder than it sounds because a major amount of Lincoln's support comes from Radical Republicans, who are heavily opposed to working with Democrats. Lincoln eventually convinces Rep. Stevens to cooperate for the greater good, and in a memorable scene Stevens verbally intimidates the feeble Democrat Coffroth into not switching parties because they need to show other Dems that the 13th has bipartisan support.
  • Establishing Character Moment:
    • Fernando Wood's first scene is him loudly giving a fiery speech about the superiority of white men and Lincoln's supposed tyranny, even calling him "King Abrahamus Africanus The First" (which is a Historical In-Joke referring to a pamphlet released by Pro-Confederate "Copperheads" like Wood, which accused Lincoln of becoming a dictator.)
    • Ulysses S. Grant's first scene shows well why his nickname was "Unconditional Surrender Grant", as he bluntly tells the Confederate delegates that their terms of truce are unreasonable and that neither he nor Lincoln consider the South a sovereign nation, just armed rebels.
  • Exact Words: Lincoln pulls this when the Republicans and Democrats jointly delay voting on the amendment after they hear the rumors about the South's peace overtures. When they ask him if there are Confederate delegates in Washington, Lincoln writes back to them that there are not (since he had ordered them to meet in another city). The Democrats immediately recognize this "lawyer's dodge" but the vote resumes regardless.
  • A Father to His Men: While Congress may have a cold attitude towards him, it's clear Lincoln loves and is loved by his soldiers.
  • Flowery Insult: "Fatuous nincompoop" is one of the less elaborate things Thaddeus Stevens call his opponents.
    • Lincoln's no slouch in this department either. "Pettifogging Tammany Hall Hucksters" is probably the best of them.
  • Foregone Conclusion:
    • Lincoln's love of theater is shown midway through the film. The second and final theater scene throws a twist by showing a different show than Lincoln's final one, being watched by his son Tad instead, which is canceled to announce the President's assassination. They didn't make that last one up for dramatic effect, either, that actually happened.
    • Also, the 13th Amendment passed.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • In an early congressional debate as to whether or not slavery is "natural law", George Pendleton taunts the pro-abolition and pro-equality Thaddeus Stevens by asking if slavery isn't natural law, what is? Stevens is finally provoked to respond when Pendleton disparagingly mentions interracial marriage.
    • When asked to speak, Stevens keeps stealing glances up at the viewing gallery, where the black people are sitting. You could easily pass this off as simply an example of his fervent abolitionism, except for how the camera always focuses on Elizabeth Keckley, a black maid.
  • Forgets to Eat: Both Robert and Abe, according to Mary.
  • A God I Am Not: Lincoln, who has no symptoms of seeing himself as a god, but makes a boast as he encourages William Seward and James Ashley to go out and gather support for the proposed amendment:
    Lincoln: "I am the President of the United States of America, clothed in immense power!"
  • The Good Chancellor: Secretary of State William Seward frequently and vocally disagrees with how Lincoln does things, and prior to Lincoln's presidency was a heavily-favored political rival to win the 1860 Republican nomination... but as Secretary of State commits himself fully to fulfilling the president's wishes by any means necessary. note 
  • Good is Not Nice: Thaddeus Stevens is a stubborn obstinate jerk who doesn't give a damn bout what "the people" want. He is also a merciless fighter for freedom and justice for all people.
  • Good Parents: Lincoln is very involved with Tad. At the most crucial point in the film, Lincoln is absorbed in reading with him and watching him make a fort out of books for his toy soldiers. He loves Robert too, contrary to what Mary thinks, and begs him not to join the army.
  • Government Procedural: Really more of this than a Biopic, as the film covers January-April 1865 and the passage of the 13th Amendment.
  • Guile Hero: Abe, of course.
  • Guttural Growler:
    • Thaddeus Stevens is Tommy Lee Jones at his deepest and most gravelly.
    • Ulysses S. Grant too, as played by Jared Harris, sounds like he eats those omnipresent cigars after he's done smoking them.
  • Hate Sink: The confederate peace delegation, led by Confederate VP Alexander Stephens, is depicted relatively sympathetically, so instead we are given Fernando Wood - a loud, obnoxious, slimy Democratic orator with openly white supremacist views - as a target at which to direct the audience's ire. And for Thaddeus Stevens to hurl gloriously elaborate insults at.
  • Historical In-Joke: General Daniel Sickles' leg, which he donated to a museum after it was amputated at the Battle of Gettysburg, appears on display in the foreground of one of the early vote-purchasing scenes.
  • Honor Before Reason: Discussed in a private meeting between Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens. Stevens has revolutionary ideas about making all African-Americans equal and overturning Southern society to make it a haven for citizens of all colors. Lincoln agrees with him in principle, but he cautions Stevens to not make his goals so clear, for fear of scaring off his more reluctant supporters, and start with the small step of abolition first.
    Lincoln: A compass, I learned when I was surveying, it'll point you True North from where you're standing, but it's got no advice about the swamps and deserts and chasms that you'll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp... What's the use of knowing True North?
    • Lincoln himself is susceptible to this; as was pointed out early on, the Republicans had won control of the House in the 1864 elections, which upon their sitting would have made approval of the 13th Amendment a cakewalk. Lincoln, however, was insistent that the amendment bill be passed with the votes of "lame duck" Democrat representatives to show that it was bipartisan.
  • Hope Spot:
    • When Representative Hutton is called to cast his vote for the amendment he is silently praying. The natural assumption that doing so would have moved him to vote to free the slaves turns out to be incorrect and he votes against the Thirteenth Amendment. This makes Yeaman's "Yes" vote right after all the sweeter.
    • When you see a theater performance near the end of the film, you will momentarily relax seeing that it is obviously not Our American Cousin, the play that Lincoln was watching when he was assassinated, but then the manager comes out to announce the assassination to the audience, which includes Tad Lincoln.
  • I Did What I Had to Do:
    • Stevens goes against his principles to claim that he only wants equality before the law, not total racial equality, in order to get the 13th Amendment passed. When brought to task for his statement, an unrepentant Stevens asserts that he'd do just about anything to end slavery.
    • Many Republicans, especially Preston Blair's faction, are voting for the amendment only because they hope it will end the war sooner, even if they personally find the idea of black equality objectionable.
  • Insane Troll Logic: Lincoln believes that he has to get the 13th Amendment passed before ending the war, because he freely admits (to his cabinet, at least,) that the entire justification for the Emancipation Proclamation is legally incoherent, and it would never stand up to judicial review once he could no longer back it up with the excuse of "war powers".
    • The Confederate delegation is concerned about how their 'rights' will be infringed upon if they surrender, but the irony that more or less their entire government framework is built with defending literal slavery in mind is entirely lost on them.
  • Insult Backfire: The Ethan Allen anecdote during the Revolutionary War about an American invited to a British home, the latter hanging a portrait of George Washington in his restroom. The American considers it a compliment because, well...
    [The portrait] will do good service. The whole world knows nothing will make an Englishman shit quicker than the sight of George Washington.
  • Irony: Near the film's end, Grant tells Lincoln "We've won the war. Now you have to lead us out of it." Unfortunately, Lincoln is never able to do so, and, after the less-than-smooth tenure of Andrew Johnson, it in fact falls to Grant to try to lead the U.S. "out of it."
  • I Shall Taunt You: Representative Wood (D) excels at this. At a crucial moment in the Amendment debate, he tries to goad Stevens into stating, on the Floor, his radical opinion that black people are not inherently inferior to whites. He fails, as Stevens truthfully avows that he cannot claim all men are equal when he's confronting men as slimy and inferior as the Democrats he's opposing.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Thaddeus Stevens. Half of what he says is devoted to insulting whoever he is addressing. This has a lot to do with the fact that he is decades ahead of his time (even among many of his fellow abolitionists) in thinking that black people deserve complete equality with whites and considers himself married by common law to his "housekeeper," even though common law itself would not. His insults are directed towards opponents of abolition and people who he does not think are committed enough to abolition.
  • Large and in Charge: The 6'4" Lincoln towers over everyone else. Day-Lewis' height (6'1") is exaggerated somewhat by the camera angles.
  • Large Ham: Wood, Stanton, "Beanpole" Burton. Bilbo has his moments too.
  • Large Ham Title: Sort of. Lincoln tells Secretary Stanton to start talking with "Thunder forth, god of war!" Truth in Television, as Lincoln did refer to Stanton as his "Mars."
  • The Last DJ: Thaddeus Stevens has been fighting for abolition for his entire political career, and refuses to accept any compromises about it even when many of his colleagues are willing to do so if it means ending the war sooner. He puts up with repeated mockery him for his at-the-time radical belief that all people, black or white, are completely equal. He eventually relents and accepts some rhetorical and political compromises in order to get the 13th amendment passed, (see, I Did What I Had to Do).
  • Leitmotif: A lively bluegrass theme appears whenever Bilbo and his cohorts are onscreen.
  • Let Me Tell You a Story: A signature behavior of Lincoln, present in many of the conversations he has throughout the film. They don't always have a relevant moral, though. The first time, with the parrot story, it's completely unrelated. The second time with the Ethan Allen story, it's just to get everyone to lighten up a bit. Lampshaded hilariously by Stanton who at one point interrupts Lincoln, shouting "I am not going to sit through another one of your stories!"
  • Lightning/Fire Juxtaposition: There is a scene where Lincoln is arguing with his wife on the morality of going to war. There is lighting flashing through the dark window on Lincoln's side, while there is fire burning in a fire place next to the wife. Lincoln is arguing going to war to stop slavery and stop an insurrection. Meanwhile, his wife is arguing that the lives of young soldiers and consequently their families are at stake. It seems that the use of lightning and fire shows that both are serious arguments-but both have different connotations. Lincoln's lightning might represent both the "divine" justice needed to be done and Lincoln's strong ideological stance. His wife's stance is depicted as a fire-place, usually a symbol of home, and fire as a symbol of truth, indicating there would be a high cost to pay for the war. Also, male vs. female. Ideals vs. truths?
  • Magnetic Hero: Lincoln is accurately depicted as an immensely charismatic man whose ability to influence others is critical to securing the votes needed for the 13th Amendment.
  • Makes Just as Much Sense in Context: Lincoln's story about the doomsayer parrot. Once it's finished, everyone who heard it is staring confusedly wondering what on earth that was all about.
  • Maligned Mixed Marriage: Thaddeus Stevens's mistress (or common-law wife in his eyes-played by S. Epatha Merkerson) is black and pretends to be his housekeeper to prevent rumors.
  • Manly Tears:
    • Many of the Republican Congressman after securing the passage of the 13th Amendment.
    • When the black people enter the gallery to hear the vote on the amendment, Rep. Litton's voice goes rough and cracks as he greets them.
      Litton: We welcome you, ladies and gentlemen, first in the history of this people's chamber... to your House!
    • Rep. James Ashley has an Inelegant Blubbering moment after the amendment passes.
  • Match Cut: An audio Match Cut from one of Seward's operatives whacking a crab with a mallet to a gavel banging the House of Representatives into session.
  • Meaningless Meaningful Words: After discovering Lincoln sent Preston Blair as a peace feeler to the rebels, Seward rages about how it could jeopardize all their work to pass the 13th Amendment. Lincoln says some reassuring words which the spent Seward reluctantly agrees with. Then he takes a moment to think and realizes Lincoln probably just said some nonsensical platitude.
    Lincoln: Time is a great thickener of things, William.
    Seward: Yes, I suppose it is...
    Seward: Actually, I have no idea what you mean by that.
  • Mononymous Biopic Title
  • Mood Whiplash: Often occurs thanks to ongoing war. For example, Lincoln once tells a hilarious anecdote to lighten the mood of telegraphers, then listens urgently with them as they report the outcome of the Battle of Fort Fisher... and the casualties.
  • Noble Demon: Vice-President of the Confederacy Alexander Stephens is a reprehensible white supremacist, but he doesn't view this as good reason to treat black people poorly.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Tommy Lee Jones plays Thaddeus Stevens with his normal Texas accent, though Stevens was from Pennsylvania, and it would have been very ironic to have such a fiery abolitionist from the deep South.note 
  • Not-So-Omniscient Council of Bickering: The original book was called Team of Rivals for a reason. Lincoln's powerhouse cabinet spends much of their time together yelling at each other instead of getting policies carried out. At least until Lincoln brings down the thunder. And they're just a few men; Congress is even worse. The Congressional scenes come off like a cross between C*Span's coverage of today's Congress and Prime Minister's Question Time. Several reviews point out, positively, that the entire picture is "two and a half hours of historical C*Span".
  • Oh, Crap!: Pendelton's expression after Yeaman votes in favor of the Thirteenth Amendment. He knows, just like the Gang of Three predicted earlier, that someone as publicly against the amendment as Yeaman switching sides would have leave a strong impression on the rest of Congress. Sure enough, the next three Democrats who had been counted on to vote against the amendment desert Pendleton.
  • Parenthetical Swearing: When Lincoln gets fed up with the squabbling members of his cabinet, he delivers a line with such explosive potency that viewers have mistaken it for an actual F-Bomb:
    Lincoln: This amendment is that cure! We've stepped out upon the world stage now. Now! With the fate of human dignity in our hands. Blood's been spilled to afford us this moment now! Now! Now! And you grouse so and heckle and dodge about like pettifogging Tammany Hall hucksters!
    • Pettifoggers are underhanded, disreputable shyster lawyers, and ones who nitpick and quibble over trifling details; hucksters are peddlers who typically sell their goods on street curbs, or go from door-to-door; Tammany Hall was the name of the political machine that ran New York City, of which Fernando Wood was a prominent member.
  • Peace Conference: As promised to his conservative allies, and after delaying long enough to get the 13th Amendment passed, Lincoln meets with Confederate peace feelers at Hampton Roads. The talks go nowhere despite Lincoln's plea to "Stop this bleeding."
  • Percussive Pickpocket: Inverted. Lincoln's lobbyists deliberately crash into a Democrat they hope to bribe a vote from, apologize, and help him recollect his papers. It takes a second or two for the Congressman to realize that they're piling money into his folder.
  • Place Worse Than Death: Washington, D.C. in general and the White House in particular, according to Mrs. Lincoln.
  • Plausible Deniability: Lincoln's handling of the Confederate peace delegation. He uses Francis Blair as envoy, allowing him to claim that Blair is acting as a private citizen without binding Lincoln to any actions or promises. Then he retains them at Hampton Roads rather than allowing them to Washington. It nearly unravels when Seward and then several Congressmen discover their presence, but Lincoln saves the day with a carefully-worded denial.
  • Precision F-Strike:
    • When Bilbo realizes that his guest is none other than President Lincoln, he blurts out, "Well I'll be fucked!" as he stumbles to get to his feet. Lincoln replies, deadpan, "I wouldn't bet against it."
    • When a Democratic Congressman attempts to shoot Bilbo with a single-shot pistol for offering him a bribe, struggles to collect his dropped folder, kicks dirt on the Congressman to delay him as he reloads, and yells, "Fuck you, you son of a bitch!"
    • The punchline of the Ethan Allan story could also count, as it uses many euphemisms for using the toilet until the exact perfect moment.
    • When Lincoln gets fed up with the squabbling amongst his cabinet members:
    Lincoln: I can't listen to this anymore. I can't accomplish a goddamn thing of any worth until we cure ourselves of slavery and end this pestilential war!
    • At one point, Mary dares Lincoln to follow through on his threat:
    Abraham: I ought to have done it, I ought have done for Tad's sake! For everybody goddamned sake! I should've clapped you in the madhouse!
    Mary: Then do it! Do it! Don't you threaten me, you do it this time! Lock me away! You'll have to, I swear if Robert is killed!
  • Protagonist Title
  • Punny Name: Alexander Coughdrop— *ahem*... er, Coffroth.
    • And George ''Yeaman'':
      Edward McPherson: And Mr. George Yeaman, how say you?
      George Yeaman: [mumbling inaudibly] My vote ties us.
      Edward McPherson: Sorry Mr. Yeaman, I didn't hear your vote.
      George Yeaman: I said aye, Mr. McPherson. AYYYYYYEEEEEE!
  • Race Lift: A very mild example. The actress who plays Thaddeus Stephens' mistress/housekeeper Lydia Hamilton Smith has much stronger African features and a darker skin tone than the real woman, who could have passed as white. This is obviously to make her race clearer to viewers who don't know her background.
  • Rambling Old Man Monologue: Lincoln has a habit of breaking into anecdotes that sometimes don't have any relevance to the topic at hand. Other times they're quite calculated to produce an effect.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic:
    • Lincoln impressions almost invariably use a deep, sonorous tone (this started with molasses-voiced Raymond Massey in his 1940 performance), when in reality Lincoln had a high and nasal voice like he has in the film.
    • Some viewers may find it strange that Representative Fernando Wood sounds British even though he's an American, perhaps thinking the film is invoking the Evil Brit trope. In actuality, Wood, as depicted by Lee Pace, sounds that way because he is using elocution, the art of formal speech. Wood may have learned this "classical" sound in school, or picked it up by listening to actors (perhaps the extremely popular Booths) and others trained in public speaking. Bill Raymond as Schuyler Colfax, saying "The House recognizes Fernando Wood," is also using it. Elocution kind of evolved into the "Mid-Atlantic" sound, used by many American film actorsnote  which is why they seemed to sound British, up until the 1970s, when this style was largely dropped in favor of "naturalistic" speech.
  • Realpolitik: Lincoln proves to be a master of this. He's perfectly willing to make deals, offer favors, and straight-up bribe people in order to get the 13th Amendment passed.
    Rep. Tad Stevens: The greatest measure of the Nineteenth Century. Passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech:
    • Thaddeus Stevens gets off a good one at the expense of pro-slavery Congressman George Pendleton. Which oddly enough, is worded to say, "You suck, but you deserve equality!"
      Stevens: How can I hold that all men are created equal, when here before me stands, stinking ... the moral carcass of the gentleman from Ohio? Proof that some men are inferior! Endowed by their maker with dim wits! Impermeable to reason! With cold, pallid slime in their veins instead of hot red blood! You are more reptile than man, George! So low and flat, that the foot of man is incapable of crushing you!
      Pendleton: How... dare... you... !
      Stevens: Yet even you, Pendleton, who should have been gibbeted for treason long before today, even worthless unworthy you ought to be treated equally before the law!
    • Stevens himself receives one at the hands of Mary Todd Lincoln, reminding Stevens that he lacks the love of the people, something her husband has and they both need to keep support for the amendment alive.
  • Red Herring: One of the final scenes is at a theater... but the Grover's, where Tad is watching Aladdin. Then the manager enters to announce that Lincoln had been shot at Ford's.
  • The Reliable One:
    • Lincoln's secretaries, John Hay and John Nicolay are in the background of many scenes, quietly taking notes or working away.
    • Seward, who also works quietly to acquire votes while Lincoln and Congress argue very publicly.
    • Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, who keeps things going when Stanton has a temper tantrum.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni:
    • Thaddeus Stevens and Francis Preston Blair and their affiliated factions respectively. Stevens and the Radical Republicans want the amendment to pass in order to abolish slavery and help bring about more racial equality, while Blair and the conservative Republicans are only interested in passing it as a pragmatic means to end the war.
    • The two black soldiers who talk to Lincoln at the beginning of the movie. Corporal Clark takes the opportunity to criticize the government's poor treatment of black soldiers, while Private Green is more conciliatory towards the president and just wants to hear some news.
  • Reptiles Are Abhorrent: At least when using it as a metaphor for distaste.
    Thaddeus Stevens: You are more reptile than man, George!
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Stevens wants to treat the South as a conquered nation. In contrast Lincoln wants to welcome them back into the Union with open arms and be forgiving as possible. Of course, given what happened in Reconstruction, history is very much on Stevens' side on this issue.
  • Roman à Clef: The names of the Representatives who voted against the 13th Amendment were changed for the film. Steven Spielberg said this was done out of respect for the families (however, this was not done for opposition ringleaders George Pendleton and Fernando Wood, since they play such major roles in the film).
  • Running Gag: Lincoln keeps trying to get rid of his dress gloves, complaining they never fit right. His butler is always there to make him put or keep them on.
  • Sadistic Choice:
    • Lincoln is faced with the decision to either do what he can to end the war as soon as possible, or to continue trying to pass the amendment at the risk of prolonging it just a little longer.
    • When the Democrats force Stevens to declare his beliefs on racial equality, he either has to express more moderate views, which would be anathema to the Radical Republicans and those who support abolition, or be completely honest about them and seriously jeopardize the passing of the 13th amendment. He manages to Take a Third Option, sort of: He relents and does it, but makes sure Rep. Pendleton, the democrat congressman who corners him on it, gets utterly immolated by Stevens' insult of also holding him equal "only in the eyes of the law".
  • Self-Deprecation:
    • Lincoln makes a joke about his unruly hair rather than respond directly to a black soldier's complaint about unequal treatment.
    • Thaddeus Stevens states that his haggard appearance is the result of his tireless efforts for racial equality, capping it off by saying that he looks even worse without his wig.
  • Shaped Like Itself: When Lincoln has a conference with two of his aides:
    Lincoln: Euclid's first common notion is this: Things which are equal to the same things are equal to each other. That's a rule of mathematical reasoning and it's true because it works - has done and always will do. In his book Euclid says this is self evident. You see there it is even in that 2000 year old book of mechanical law it is the self evident truth that things which are equal to the same things are equal to each other.
  • Shout-Out to Shakespeare:
    • Lincoln, who in Real Life was in fact a big William Shakespeare fan, quotes from Henry IV, Part 2:
      Lincoln: We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow.
    • Early in the movie, while recounting his dream to Mary, Lincoln quotes Hamlet's speech about being "a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams."
    • Lincoln even quotes from Macbeth when William Seward takes objection to Lincoln's inviting the Southern delegates for a peace conference:
      Lincoln: If you can look into the seeds of time, and say which grain will grow and which will not, speak then to me.
    • When going over the naval strategy, he paraphrases the "Never shake thy gory locks at me" line from Macbeth:
      Lincoln: Old Neptune, shake thy hoary locks!
  • Shown Their Work:
    • Those unfamiliar with Lincoln family history may do a double take to see that Robert Todd Lincoln (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is present at the surrender at Appomattox Court House. Robert was in fact actually there and not a Throw It In by the filmmakers.
    • Rather than go for depicting a famous battle like Gettysburg in the opening scene, Lincoln opens with the lesser known Battle of Jenkins' Ferry.
    • During the assassination of Lincoln, it is not shown from Lincoln's point-of-view but rather Tad's, who was watching a different play, Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp at the Grover Theater, before it is stopped to inform everyone that his father has been shot.
    • Spielberg's sound design team went to the White House to record the sounds of the clocks and doors inside. They even got the sound of Lincoln's watch recorded from where it is held in the Kentucky Historical Society. It was the first time the watch had been wound up in a century and a half, and the filmmakers were amazed that it still worked.
    • Daniel Day-Lewis performing Lincoln's actual voice, as well as many of his recorded quotes. He also portrayed Lincoln as a storyteller and sometimes jokester, which Lincoln was indeed recorded as being.
    • Lincoln's dream about being aboard a dark, vaguely-defined vessel, moving with great speed towards a mysterious shore? Lincoln did in fact report having that exact dream before "nearly every great and important event of the War", including the battles of Antietam, Vicksburg, Murfreesboro and Gettysburg. (Chillingly, he also had a dream of going into the White House and finding it filled with mourners around a corpse whose face was covered by a sheet. In the dream, when he asked one of the guards whose body it was, the guard replied that it was the President, killed by an assassin.)
    • James Spader's appearance as William Bilbo had to be guessed from various sources because there are no photos of the real Bilbo. One habit of his that Spader found was that the real Bilbo was into wood carving, which he incorporated by showing him frequently carving a wooden duck.note 
    • The voting scene records two unusual occurrences during the House's decision on the amendment: 1. several black families sat in the House Gallery to watch, with Rep Litton welcoming them, and 2. the Speaker of the House, Schuyler Colfax, asked to vote even though the Speaker is a ceremonial role and thus technically not required to. He voted yes.
    • During a carriage ride in April Lincoln talks about visiting the Holy Land, telling Mary: "There is no place I so much desire to see as Jerusalem." This is a direct quote of what he actually said to her in the carriage that day, hours before he was shot.
  • Signature Headgear: Abe and his stovepipe hat, in which he sometimes stores speeches.
  • Slap-Slap-Kiss: A father-son variant occurs when Robert suggests that Abe is more scared of Mary's wrath than losing Robert; subverted when Abe slaps Robert and then attempts a reconciliatory hug, only for Robert to reject his dad's hug.
  • Sleazy Politician: Seward is not sleazy in character, but he still maintains his contacts with political operatives who are, whom he sets to rounding up lame-duck Democrats that can be persuaded to vote aye.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: This film is about Honest Abe, but he is the one who orders his Secretary of State to get professional lobbyists to wheel and deal with patronage appointments as much as they can to secure the votes necessary to get the 13th Amendment passed. In Stevens's words concerning himself: "The greatest measure of the nineteenth century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America."
  • Simple Country Lawyer:
    • Despite being the President, Lincoln still projects this vibe, and often tells stories from his lawyer days.
      Roger Ebert: I've rarely been more aware than during Steven Spielberg's Lincoln that Abraham Lincoln was a plain-spoken, practical, down-to-earth man from the farmlands of Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois.
    • Tony Kushner noted that this was inspired by John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln which showed Lincoln's early days as a lawyer.
  • So Happy Together: After the 13th Amendment is passed, Abraham and Mrs. Lincoln reconcile and are shown happy together, musing on going on vacation and seeing Jerusalem. It doesn't happen.
  • Sophisticated as Hell: Many of the politicians in the film. Thaddeus Stevens has this as his native language.
  • Sore Loser: The Confederate Peace Commission. They know they're about lose the war, but stubbornly refuse to give up their slaves, somehow thinking they can keep the old South intact.
  • The Storyteller: Lincoln, much to the exasperation of his Cabinet and his staff. The real-life Lincoln was known for telling stories at every occasion... sometimes with a subtle message, ofttimes to tell a joke during a tense moment and break the mood.
  • Sudden Principled Stand: Clay Hawkins, despite being threatened with violence from his own constituency, votes for the amendment, vigorously defying his own party to "shoot me dead!" This act of courage prompts a moral tug-of-war in the next Democrat who can't decide whether to stand by party or principles.
  • Suspiciously Specific Denial:
    • "So far as I know there is no Confederate delegation in Washington." They're in a steamboat docked on the Potomac.
    • When Seward first tells Lincoln that congressmen came to him asking if there was a peace delegation, he told them there wasn't because if there were Lincoln would have discussed it with him first. As he's saying this, though, he's giving Lincoln a Death Glare that screams: "I know it's true and why didn't you tell me?"
  • Take a Third Option:
    • Southern congressmen who support the amendment on moral grounds but will not defy their party completely can choose to abstain rather than vote either way. This didn't necessarily help their political careers any more than just voting for the amendment, however.
      Edwin F. LeClerk: No! Oh, to hell with it, shoot me dead too. Yes! I mean, abstention! Abstention.
    • Thaddeus Stevens gets one, kind of, when pressed by his Democrat enemies to either admit that he believes blacks should be completely equal to whites in all things, or to take a more moderate, watered down approach — either would jeopardize support for the amendment from some quarters. He gets around it by admitting that he doesn't believe all men are equal... because the men he's currently arguing with are loathsome, slimy idiots closer to reptiles than men.
  • Tears of Joy: The passing of the amendment and the final abolition of slavery results in many Republicans, Ashley and Litton among them, to break down sobbing after seeing their greatest dream made a reality.
  • Teeth-Clenched Teamwork: Despite being an anti-slavery party, the House Republicans are not totally behind the amendment. The conservative faction has to be persuaded by the Blair family to support it.
  • There Is No Kill Like Overkill: Stanton and Welles describe the amphibious attack on Fort Fisher as beginning with a "steady barrage" from the largest fleet the navy had ever assembled. When another cabinet member wants clarification Stanton elaborates that it means 100 shells every minute until the rebels surrender. For context, in the last war America fought 180 shells an hour was the rate of fire during the siege of an entire city.
    William Fessden: [stunned] Dear God!
  • Toilet Humor: Lincoln's story of Ethan Allen, concluding with the claim that "nothing makes an Englishman shit faster than the sight of George Washington!"
  • Token Enemy Minority: Bilbo, one of Seward's lobbyists, is a southern Unionist who was driven out of Tennessee after siding with the Republicans.
  • Tranquil Fury: Lincoln's perfectly capable of yelling when he needs to, but when he lowers his voice, you realize what makes him probably the scariest man in the nation.
  • Troll: There are hints that Lincoln tells his stories to exasperate his advisers as much as to make them think.
  • The Unfavorite: Mrs. Lincoln thinks Abe sees Robert as this, while Abe suggests that Mrs. Lincoln sees Tad as this (the film depicts their true feelings towards their sons as much more complex).
  • Villainous BSoD: The last we see of George Pendleton, oldest opponent of abolition, is him silently walking through the celebrating House chamber with an expression of despair that the 13th Amendment passed.
  • War Is Hell:
    • The opening scene is very violent, brutal, and nasty, with soldiers fighting in hand-to-hand combat and stamping their enemies' heads into the waterlogged battlefield to drown them. It then cuts to an African-American soldier who says that, given that Confederate soldiers didn't take black prisoners at a previous battle, the black Union soldiers at Jenkin's Ferry decided they weren't going to take prisoners either.
    • Abraham Lincoln takes his oldest son to a veteran's hospital to try to talk him out of enlisting. The young man nearly cracks when he sees some orderlies pushing a wheelbarrow dripping blood to a hole where they're dumping amputated human limbs by the dozens. Everyone in the hospital itself is missing one or both their legs.
    • After the Confederate negotiations go nowhere, there's a poignant scene of Lincoln and his men riding their horses through a field of bodies, all piled high from the siege of Petersburg.
  • What the Hell, Hero?:
    • Thaddeus Stevens gets one from one of his colleagues in the film, after making a statement to Congress that he is only interested in blacks being equal before the law, not equal in all things, which clashes with Stevens' positions on racial equality. Stevens responds that he will say anything, if it means that slavery will be eliminated.
    • Lincoln himself gets one from Seward after the latter finds out that a Confederate peace envoy had been invited to Washington without his approving it.
  • When He Smiles: Stevens wears a perpetual frown through ninety-nine percent of the whole damn movie. Except at the end, and for a very good reason.
  • Why Did You Make Me Hit You?: Lincoln slaps Robert after Robert accuses him of barring him from service for fear of Mary more than Robert's death. The blow is not physically hard and Lincoln tries to embrace his son right afterwards, but it has a very bad effect on both men.
  • Windbag Politician: On the day of the vote, the speaker tells the audience they will now briefly recap the proposed amendment. Everyone bursts out laughing on "briefly".
  • Worthy Opponent: Ulysses S. Grant, Robert Lincoln and the other Union soldiers solemnly doff their hats to Robert E. Lee after he surrenders at Appomattox (this actually happened, of course).
    • Also displayed between Lincoln and Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens. They knew each other from their time in Congress. During their brief parley for peace at the movie's end they are amicable where Stephens' fellow Confederates are rude and dismissive.