Lincoln (aka Gore Vidal's Lincoln) (1988)

 

 

 

Director:       Lamont Johnson

Starring:      Sam Waterston (Abraham Lincoln),   Mary Tyler Moore (Mary Todd Lincoln),  Richard Mulligan (William H. Seward),  Deborah Adair (Kate Chase),  Tom Brennan (Sen. Charles Sumner),  Gregory Cooke (Robert Lincoln),  Steven Culp (Johnny Hay),  Ruby Dee (Elizabeth Keckley),  Jerome Dempsey (Congressman Elihu Washburne),  Jeffrey DeMunn (William Herndon),  Jon DeVries (Secretary of War Edwin Stanton),  George Ede (Edward McManus),  Robin Gammell (Stephen Douglas),  James Gammon (Gen. Ulysses S. Grant),  Thomas Gibson (William Sprague). 

reveals more of the inner family problems faced by Lincoln

 

Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

February 23, 1861. Washington, D.C. Mr. Pinkerton is protecting President-elect Abraham Lincoln. Congressman Washburn is there to greet him. Lincoln jokes that he is their welcoming committee.

Pinkerton says that the gang of Baltimore toughs meant to shoot Lincoln down as the train was being hauled between depots. A second body guard comments that Washington, D.C. is a "see-sesh" town they-re spoiling for a fight.

Lincoln stays at the Willard Hotel. In the morning he meets with Mr. Seward over breakfast. Six southern states have gone from the Union. Itís a very serious situation. Lincoln leaves after awhile.

Lincoln goes to speak with old man General Scott who fought way back in the War of 1812. He uses the word confederacy with Lincoln, who takes exception to the word. He says the confederacy does not exist. The problem now is what to do about Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. Seward speaks up for evacuation of the federal troops .

Personal Secretary Johnny Hay helps Mrs. Lincoln with her two small boys who are full of energy. Mrs. Lincoln reminisces about her fatherís house in Lexington, Kentucky.

Johnny goes down to a bar and talks with Robert Lincoln. The son of Abraham Lincoln doesnít want his true identity known. A fraternity pal comes into the bar. His name is Leland Grover and he tells Johnny that he is going south to Charleston to fight. Before leaving he gives Johnny a list of the whore houses in Washington, D.C.

Senator Simon Chase of Ohio with a delegation from Congress arrives to speak with Lincoln. Lincoln is thinking about Chase as Secretary of the Treasury largely because he got the third most votes in the Republican presidential nomination. He tells Chase that he is thinking about it, but he canít offer the post just now. Chase speaks to his daughter Kate Chase and tells her that Lincoln is a "weak and indecisive man".

Lincoln and his wife talk while in bed. He reminds her that one day he came home to find that she had for $1,800 dollars put on an entire second story to their house in Springfield. Mrs. Lincoln says that everyone in Springfield thought she should marry Stephen Douglas.

Johnny takes Robert Lincoln to one of the whore houses on the list. As they look for the house they hear some men singing about hanging Abe Lincoln from a sour apple tree.

March 4, 1861. Abraham Lincoln is sworn into the presidency. The President and his wife are seen dancing at an inaugural ball. Stephen Douglas is there at the ball and he talks with the presidential couple. Johnny Hay dances with Kate Chase.

A free black seamstress known as Elizabeth Keckley is hired by Mrs. Lincoln to make a ball gown for her. Elizabeth once worked for the wife of Jefferson Davis. Mrs. Lincoln remembers him when he was very young. He was pale and elegant and oh, so young. She tells Elizabeth that no matter what she reads or may hear: "I am the one who wants slavery destroyed."

What to do about Fort Sumter is discussed at a late night cabinet meeting. Gen. Scott says they should just give up Fort Sumter. Lincoln mentions that the fort has only two weeks of supplies left and they would have to evacuate. He decides to provision the fort (a move which would be militarily resisted by the South).

Seward approaches Chase about the idea that one or the other or both of them should take over the actual running of the administration from the President.

April 12, 1861. Fort Sumter. The rebs fire on Fort Sumter for thirty-six hours. Itís war now, says Mr. McManus in the White House. Lincoln calls for 75,000 volunteers for the military.

Stephen Douglas visits the President and Mrs. Lincoln. Mrs. Lincoln makes the comment that three of her beaus ran for the presidency in the same year (the other being John C. Breckinridge). After Douglas leaves Mrs Lincoln mentions that the man is dying.

Lincoln meets with Seward. He says the mayor of New York City wants to secede from the union and become a free city. They both laugh at the very idea. Then Lincoln brings up the letter Seward sent him some two weeks ago. In the letter Seward says that the administration has no foreign policy and no domestic policy. He says to Seward: "This is an unusual document, Mr. Steward." Seward basically suggests that he should take over from Lincoln while the President stays as the figurehead. Lincoln sets him straight and then says that they will now act as if this meeting never took place. He also mentions: "We have more than enough work for two men to do, Mr. Seward."

Lincoln has a real problem with Baltimore and all of Maryland. A Baltimore mob attacked federal troops and now the legislature is about to meet in order to secede from the Union. Honest Abe says that he will have the legislators informed that if they try this, they will be arrested and put in prison. He also says that he will not set a definite charge because the obvious one would be treason and that is hard to prove. Seward says he is amazed that Lincoln would suspend the basic right of Habeas corpus, the right to know what you are charge with. Lincoln responds that Maryland lies to the north of Washington, D.C. and he is not going to have Maryland cutting him off from direct contact with the North. He says: "I will not let it go." And if Baltimore resists he will burn the city to the ground.

Col. Elmer Ellsworth worked in Mr. Lincolnís law office in Springfield. The Lincoln boy are very fond of him. They ask him about his Zouave uniform. He says they adopted the colorful uniform because it was worn by the bravest of the French soldiers. The boys ask him about a rebel flag being blatantly flown within sight of the White House. Elmer says the flag is flying across the river. The boys want to know why they donít send some soldiers over there to take it down. Elmer and his unit go over to the Virginia side of the Potomac River. He climbs up the pole and takes the flag down. As he descends the steps after taking the flag down a Southerner jumps out and shoots him dead with his rifle.

The Lincolns are prominent at the funeral for Elmer Ellsworth. Mrs. Lincoln is very upset and she collapses. She is asleep for two entire days. She says: "It was the headache." She hears the roar of cannon from the fighting in Virginia. She comments: "I suppose the real war has begun."

July 21, 1861. The first Battle of Bull Run. The battle is a victory for the rebs. A friend of Johnny Hay, William Sprague, tells him that there is no army now. The rebs were reinforced, he shouts. And he says it was the Zouaves who broke and ran first.

Lincoln, Seward and a couple other meet to discuss the defeat. They were caught off-guard.. Beauregard had only twelves units in the morning, but 25 later. Lincoln then calls for a military engineer to be brought on board. George McClellan.

While the war goes on, Mrs. Lincoln goes shopping. And she buys and buys and buys. Johnny Hay tries to warn her that she has already gone way over her allotted budget by the Congress, but she just ignores him.

But when the bills start coming in Mrs. Lincoln grows worried. But, she says about the President: "I cannot distress him . . ."

Johnny Hay comes to Mrs. Lincoln to asks her if she has the brown leather folder in which her husband has his draft of the state of the union message. She says she is too busy with womenís things to worry about that. Hays mention that the papers are very important and men like newspaper man Bennett would love to get his hands on the papers.

Since McClellan will not come to see the President, Lincoln has to go visit him. With him comes Seward and Hay. The men wait for a half-hour before McClellan even shows up. And, instead of seeing Lincoln, he goes straight up to bed. Seward is livid. He tells Lincoln that he should replace McClellan. Lincoln says that "our modern Bonaparte" has a lot of political friends and is much admired by the army itself. The butler comes down to tell the President that McClellan has gone to bed.

Kate Chase talks about the nasty cartoon in the paper about Mrs. Lincoln on a spending spree with the poor President holding an enormous number of packages. And the gossip is that a friend of Mrs. Lincolnís, Wykoff, feed state of the union quotes from the state of the union papers to Bennett. The message is that Mrs. Lincoln gave the quotes to Bennett for publication and probably for money to pay her excessive money debts.

At a party hosted by Kate Chase, McClellan holds forth like a conquering Caesar. Johhny Hay steps up and confronts the General on how he treated the President awhile back. McClellan is disturbed by Johnnyís comments and defensively says it was just a "misunderstanding" and he will be glad to see the President in his house. But Johnny comments that the President wonít come to his home again. McClellan is not pleased with Johnny.

At a party, a defense lawyer representing Wykoff confronts Mrs. Lincoln. He tells her that her name will be brought into it in any case. The House Judiciary has obtained a copy of a telegram with long quotes form the state of the union paper four days before the message was sent to Congress. The lawyer says that giving a state paper to a journalist in war . . . well, it might be construed as treason.

Lincoln complains about McClellan. Mrs. Lincoln tells him to replace the man. The President canít or wonít do that. He changes the subject saying that Mr. Wykoff has been arrested. It is said that he was Mr. Bennettís man in the White House. He then complains about all the bills. He pulls out one example. Purchasing a "Turkey carpet" for $12,500 dollars. She has spent $7,000 dollars more than what has been allotted. He firmly tells her: "Mother, I cannot find enough money to buy enough blankets for the soldiers . . ." and her she goes spending a fortune on unnecessary things. He tells her he could have purchased 10,000 blankets for $12,500 dollars.  Mrs. Lincoln feels bad about it but comments that she at times canít help herself. But she does say that the worse is over. "I swear it is."

The two boys Willy and Tad are both sick.  Willy gets two spoons of medicine and Tad gets one.  Father comes home to tell Willy that he got his poem published in the newspaper about a brave soldier.  Now Tad says he wants to write a poem to have it published. 

Lincoln is appearing before a Committee of Congress.  He tells Seward that he can't afford to have the congressmen have hearings and accuse Mrs. Lincoln.  In private with the committee, he tells his fellow Republicans that he knows this is highly irregular, but these are highly irregular times.  Lincoln says he has heard that they do not accept that Mr. Watts purloined the state of the union document and gave it to the Herald.  No, sir, they don't.  Lincoln says he wants them to believe the story.  Otherwise in the middle of a war they will create a very great embarrassment for him personally.  Furthermore, the scandal would hurt the party and the congressmen are all up for re-election this time.  And finally it will give great comfort to the South.  He trusts that the men will do the right thing. 

Lincoln returns home to hear the groans and screams of his wife.  He already knows what has happened.  He goes into the bedroom to look at Willie's dead body.  Robert Lincoln comes in to plead with his father to come and see mother.  He can't do anything for her and he is afraid that she will go mad.  Lincoln finally agrees to go to her.

At a meeting with his staff the topic of Grant at Shiloh comes up.  Lincoln likes the man because, although caught off guard, he held his ground. 

September 17, 1862.  Battle of Antietam.  Mr. Stanton is in the War Department now.  Commenting on the Antietam Battle Lincoln says:  "Little Mac has a permanent case of the slows."  McClellan won the battle, but refused to pursue the enemy.  Lincoln also calls McClellan "the great American tortoise".  Nevertheless, it is a victory and Lincoln uses it to trot out his Emancipation Proclamation to free the slaves in the slave states only, actively at war with the Union.  Lincoln speaks with various black leaders.  They take the position that half a loaf is still nourishment to a starving man.  Lincon then says that Congress has given him funds to set up a colony to be called New Grenada in Central America.  This proposal is met with absolute silence from the black leaders.  Lincoln says he thinks it would be better for both the whites and blacks if they were separated.  The blacks tell the President that the USA is their home and they don't want to leave.  After they leave, Lincoln says to his secretary that it seems strange that they would want to stay in a country where they are not really wanted and accepted. 

Lincoln goes on a horse walk around the area.  He talks with a 15 year old Union soldier from Vermont named Willie.  He fought at Antietam and was wounded.  Lincoln starts to ride away when a shot rings out and Lincoln's hat flies off.  The President races his horse back home. 

Back at home Lincoln finds Mrs. Lincoln at a sťance.  He is skeptical of sťances and such.  Guard Ward retrieves Lincoln's hat and wants Lincoln to promise him to never again go out riding by himself. 

Lincoln travels to speak with McClellan.  He suggests to the egomaniac that he go after Lee and his army.  McClellan just says:  "When I'm ready, I'll do just that, sir."  Lincoln is obviously not happy with the man.  Lincoln later comments that the man is a superb organizer, but he can't fight.  Washburn tells him: "Or he won't fight."   The Congressman wonders out loud if McClellan might actually want Lincoln to lose the next election to the Democrats? 

Confederate prisoners are coming in and Lincoln goes to speak with them, against the advice of Ward.  He says:  "I am Abraham Lincoln."  He tells that men that they fought gallantly and for that he honors them.  He also honors them for their wounds so "gallantly gained".  One of the prisoners gets up and shakes Lincoln's hand. 

Mrs. Lincoln tells Johhny Hay that Trimble is leaving his post and Mr. Watts will not replace him.  What she wants to know is why can't Trimble keep receiving a salary but she will herself collect the money and use it to improve the house.  Johnny is in disbelief.  He asks the First Lady how would Congress view this arrangement?  Mrs. Lincoln basically says it shouldn't even concern them.  After all, her husband hired Johnny in the Interior Department and uses those fees to subsidize Johnny's position as an unapproved second secretary. 

Lincoln sends his wife to New York so she would be away for the election.  Lincoln is handed 147 death sentences largely for scared soldiers who ran from battle. The President asks how many death sentences have there been?  Near 30,000 death sentences.  Lincoln says he will try to pardon many of the 147 men condemned to death. 

In the elections the Republicans lost New York, Ohio and Indiana.  Wisconsin is split and New Jersey is Democratic.   But, the Republican Party still controls both houses of Congress.  This is indeed good new for the Republicans.  Lincoln says now he can get rid of McClelland.  He does so and then appoints General Burnside.  Robert Lincoln wants to join the army, but he is absolutely opposed by his mother.  She says she has had two brothers killed in the war.  Robert keeps pressing her and she says that she has two son who have died:  "Isn't that enough?!"  She starts to get her "headache" and runs to the bedroom.  Robert appeals to his father, but the President says that they will not discuss this matter further.  Mother has lost enough.  "We should not move her to despair."

December 13, 1862.  The Battle of Fredericksburg in Virginia.  Burnside is badly beaten.  The casualties are 15,000 men.  Lincoln comments that it is madness to attack the enemy in entrenched positions.  A visitor says something that Lincoln overreacts to.  He virtually screams:  "You have not the responsibility!  But I do!"  It is obvious that all these deaths are really bothering the President. 

Robert sees Johnny Hay.  Robert tells him that his mother became hysterical when he discussed joining the army.  He also says that he never really knew his dad because dad was always on the road.  In fact, he says:  "I rather think he dislikes me."  Robert walks  Johnny over to Kate Chase's house.  She is marrying Sprague.  When Johnny learns this he becomes disgusted because he was very fond of Kate and feels that she just married Sprague for his $12 million dollars of fortune.  And with this big money behind her father, he may get to try for the Presidency of the United States.  Kate is extremely ambitious for her father's sake.  Johnny refuses to go in.  Instead, he is going to a whore house.  Robert decides to go with him. 

Lincoln has bad dreams.  Lee has moved north into Pennsylvania.  Mrs. Lincoln out for a ride tells her coachman that he is driving too fast.  He refuses to slow down and the carriage overturns and Mrs. Lincoln is thrown out.  Mr. Lincoln comes to see Mrs. Lincoln in the hospital.  Mrs. Keckley is there already helping take care of her.  Lincoln tells the black woman that she is a good friend to Mrs. Lincoln and she doesn't have many these days. 

July 2, 1863.  Battle of Gettysburg.  Lincoln is very excited by the news.  He says:  "We have them now."  A little later he learns that Lee has been driven off.  The President is ecstatic.  He has a telegram sent to Gen. Meade to tell him to pursue the Confederate army.  (Meade does not pursue Lee.)

Lincoln is working on his Gettysburg Address.  He says he has never understood why Edward Everett Hale is so admired.  Someone says he's their greatest orator.  Lincoln says:  "No.  He is just famous."  He reads an early draft of the address to Johnny Hay and another man.  About the war, Lincoln says the only hope is in Grant.  Johnny mentions to the other man that Lincoln has Potomac fever or malaria.

Seward comes to Lincoln.  He says that Watts has three new letters in which it is plain Mrs. Lincoln expects or has gotten certain remunerative payments.  Watts wants $2,000 dollars or he will publish the letters.  Seward says they made him back down a bit to $1,500 dollars, which they have already paid.  Lincoln approves of that, but says he will pay back the $1,500 dollars.  He tells Seward that these caprices of his wife are a result of partial insanity.  He comments that this episode is over, but that he fears the next episode. 

Washburn welcomes Gen. Grant and his son Fred Grant to Washington, D.C.  He congratulates Grant on now having earned three stars  -- a rank that hasn't been achieved since General George Washington.  Washburn asks Grant if he is tempted at all by the idea of running for the presidency.  Grant says no, but he might run to be mayor of Galena. 

The news of the casualties at the Battle of Cold Harbor are staggering.  Mrs. Lincoln is very upset.  (She is said to have called Grant a butcher.)  For some reason, Lincoln and his wife travel out of Washington, D.C. to see a nearby battlefield.  Breckinridge and Jubal Early's men are out past the Yankee trenches.  All of a sudden, shells start exploding near the trench.  The host for the President is wounded in the right shoulder and has to excuse himself.  Mrs. Lincoln says she wants to get a rifle and fight. The soldiers escort Mrs. Lincoln back to the carriage.  Lincoln stays.  He stands right on the line in the trench.  The soldier standing next to him on his right side is shot dead. 

Senator Sumner comes to visit Lincoln.  He says that MClellan will be the Democratic Party nominee.  And he has been asked to request that Lincoln withdraw.  Lincoln can't believe it.  He says that the radical Chase would split the party in two parts and McClellan would win.  Then he would sue for peace with the Confederacy.  He tells Sumner that they will soon have the Presidency back from him.  He says:  "Once this conflict is over, I end."

November 8, 1864.  Congressional Election Day.   McClellan has lost New York.  The Lincolns are very happy. 

Kate Chase comes in to speak with her husband.  She asks:  "What have you done?"  He is in great trouble.  Sprague responds that if he is in trouble then so is she.  He admits that he has been receiving cotton from Texas through the blockade.  Kate tells her husband that he is a traitor and deserves to be hanged.  She is angered by his expectation that her father will be able to protect him from any punishment.  In return for the cotton Sprague smuggled arms into Galveston, Texas  from Tampa, Florida.  Sprague leaves and Kate's father comes in the room .  She tells him that she hated Sprague from the very beginning.  She adds that Sprague has nothing to do with them.  Oh, the other news is that she is pregnant.

John Wilkes Booth attends a speech given by Lincoln.  Wards notices him. 

Lincoln brings Mrs. Lincoln and Tad out to see Grant.  For the first time mother learns that her son Robert is a solider now working on General Grant's staff.  She is a bit happy, but unhappy too.  Robert goes to see his father alone.  He tells him that everyone's laughing at him.  And why did he have to dress Tad up in a Yankee uniform?  He says he does not like it that dad asked Grant to find a safe place for his son in the army.  Robert goes on to say that he should have run away to the West. 

Mrs. Lincoln sees Mrs. Order riding next to her husband.  She says that Mrs. Orde is pretending to be her, Mrs. Lincoln.  Mrs. Grant tells her no, Mrs. Order is riding next to her husband, General Orde.  But Mrs. Lincoln won't hear her out.  When Mrs. Orde comes over to Mrs. Lincoln, the First Lady goes into a tirade against her  calling her a whore and a camp follower and that for half a dollar she would get on her back for anyone.  Mrs. Orde should be driven out, she says.  To Mrs. Grant, Mrs. Lincoln looks so pitiful as she says:  "I have a headache."  Mrs. Grant tries to comfort her. 

Grant tells the President that they should be able to take Petersburg, just south of Richmond.  Lincoln encourages him saying he's got to fight. 

Soon after the fall of Petersburg, Richmond surrenders to Grant.  Grant says he will seek an unconditional surrender from Lee.  Lincoln tells him that if he were Grant:  "I'd let him up easy."  Later the President is informed of the surrender of Robert E. Lee and the remnants of his army.   Lincoln says:  "Our work is done." 

There is a big fire works display.  Abraham has a bad dream.  He hears voices and sees people grieving over the death of someone.  He asks:  "Who is dead in the White House?"  The President,  is the answer.  "He was killed by an assassin." 

April14, 1865, Washington, D.C.  General and Mrs. Grant did not come to the theater with the Lincolns.  Lincoln mentions to his wife that he would like to go out West to see California and the Pacific Ocean.  Mary wants to go see Europe, especially Paris.  She asks her husband:  "We have lived through it, haven't we, father?"  Yes.   He says today he refuses to worry about anything.  They go to the theater. 

John Wilkes Booth shoots Lincoln at the Ford Theatre.  He is taken across the street and laid on a bed.  Mrs. Lincoln screams.  Someone says to get that woman out of here and don't let her come back. 

At home Mrs. Lincoln says that she thinks in some way her husband willed his own murder as some form of atonement for all those deaths.  She is a bit disoriented saying to Robert that father is going to go back into the law with his former law partner. 

A train with Lincoln's body heads back to Springfield, Illinois. 

 

 

Good movie.  My wife and I really enjoyed it.  It has so many fresh new insights emphasizing the interplay of personal life with political life and history. And Mrs. Lincoln certainly proved a real challenge for her husband to handle.  This version of Lincoln in the White House reveals many of his family problems, but makes him, therefore, even more Christ-like in his sufferings, as if "Lincoln died for our sins."

Lincoln suffered from depression and you can see this in his constant disheartenment at Union defeats in the Virginia theatre.  But if you concentrate on the whole war, year by year, one clearly sees a constant closing in on the South from the northwest and west inward to, finally, Atlanta and Savannah, Georgia and on to Columbia, South Carolina.  He should have paid more attention to what was happening in the west, for victory came not in Virginia itself but rather by conquering first virtually all the rest of the South. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

 

Return To Main Page

Return to Home Page (Vernon Johns Society)