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Books-Into-Movies: “Lincoln” (based on the book TEAM OF RIVALS) January 10, 2013

Posted by rwf1954 in book synopsis, books, books compared to movies, books into movies, Daniel Day Lewis, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lincoln (the movie), movie commentary, movies, movies based on books, Steven Spielberg, Team of Rivals, Tony Kushner.
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(Richard Warren Field wrote the award-winning novel,
The Swords of Faith. Read why this book will make a great movie.)

The credits for the 2012 film “Lincoln,” indicate the movie is “based in part” on the book, Team of Rivals. This Book-Into-Movies post (see below for links to previous Books-Into-Movies posts at this blog) will focus on comparing the “Lincoln” movie to Team of Rivals.

A few comments before I start specific points-of-comparison:

  • The book Team of Rivals covers a much wider period of time than the movie, and really does focus on the stories of Lincoln and the “rivals” who become the team. The book runs from the election year of 1860 (moving to background material predating 1860 as the story unfolds) to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in April of 1865. The movie begins in January of 1865, in the middle of Chapter 25 (of 26 total chapters) in Team of Rivals.
  • Much more is depicted about the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in the movie than is offered in the book. The filmmakers obviously turned to other source material, though Team of Rivals is the only book credited. I know from discussions of the film in the media that expert consultations were involved in making the film.
  • This post concerns specific comparisons between the book and the movie. I am not a Lincoln scholar. I am not attempting to complete a historical fact-check here. I invite experts to add fact-check comments if they wish. My comments will involve only comparisons between the book, Team of Rivals, and the movie, “Lincoln.”
  • Team of Rivals is about so much more than the Thirteenth Amendment. As indicated in the title, the book is about the rivals for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination, rivals who compete vigorously against each other, and are then brought together in Lincoln’s cabinet. This also includes Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, a Democrat who had snubbed circuit lawyer Abraham Lincoln years before in Ohio. The book details the story of Lincoln’s leadership of these men during arguably the most difficult days in the United States history. Team of Rivals is copiously filled with first-hand accounts that document every aspect of the story. Anyone interested in the accurate history surrounding Abraham Lincoln will enjoy this book, a book that widens the scope of the material offered in the movie by elaborating on the men, the former rivals—now teammates—with President Abraham Lincoln.

Comments comparing the book and the movie, roughly in chronological order from the film:

  • The film opens with black soldiers fighting in the Union lines. The issue of how to use blacks—slaves taken by the military, slaves escaping to the north, and freed blacks in the North—is an issue of concern throughout the war. Depiction of blacks fighting at this point in the war, in 1865, is consistent with facts documented in the book.
  • The Confederate decision to execute all black soldiers taken on the battlefield did result in Lincoln approving an order that for every black soldier “killed in violation of the laws of war,” a Confederate soldier would be summarily executed. Another part of this order mandated that for every black taken and re-enslaved, a Confederate soldier/prisoner would be “placed at hard labor.”
  • The issue of unequal pay is mentioned in Team of Rivals. It comes up when President Lincoln assures the great black abolitionist/orator/leader Frederick Douglass that blacks will “in the end” receive the same pay as whites.
  • The carriage accident involving Mary Todd Lincoln is addressed in the book. The accident takes place during the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg and blunts Lincoln’s celebration of the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July of 1863. Mary Todd Lincoln is in a carriage following President Lincoln who is riding on horseback. Screws are apparently deliberately removed by an “unknown assailant,” screws “fastening the driver’s seat to the body of the carriage.” Mary Lincoln “landed on her back, hitting her head against a sharp stone.” This results in an exacerbation of the headaches Mary Lincoln suffered throughout much of her life.
  • I do not recall Team of Rivals referring to Abraham Lincoln dreaming about a ship. The book does document Lincoln’s comment that the pursuit of the Thirteenth Amendment is like “whalers who have been long on a chase.”
  • The push to pass the Thirteenth Amendment during the lame duck Congressional session after the 1864 Presidential (and Congressional) election is from the book.
  • Team of Rivals depicts Abraham Lincoln as a steady, even-tempered leader, a teller of stories, sometimes prone to private spells of melancholy/depression, but slow to immerse in passion or emotion. Daniel Day Lewis captures the Lincoln from Team of Rivals flawlessly. His performance has garnered him an Oscar nomination, possibly a statuette, for his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln as represented in the book, bringing him alive on the screen.
  • Democrats as the party opposing the Thirteenth Amendment is from the book.
  • William Seward as Lincoln’s chief adviser and confidante is from the book. The book details the evolution of the relationship—of Seward at first as a rival bitterly disappointed that he does not garner the 1860 Republican nomination for president to becoming a key adviser and admirer of President Lincoln. Seward moderates his views on ending slavery to join Lincoln’s understanding that to move too fast could be to lose the entire struggle to keep the Union together. Slavery would then continue to exist in a separate southern “United” States.
  • The movie accurately outlines the process for the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment (for the ratification of any constitutional amendment); two-thirds of both houses of Congress, then three fourths of the states.
  • The fall of Fort Fisher, guarding the North Carolina port city of Wilmington at about the same time the Thirteenth Amendment passes Congress, is from the book.
  • The episode with Francis Preston Blair, a rich conservative supporter and adviser to Abraham Lincoln, is depicted in the book. Yes, he is adamant that with Lincoln’s reelection, another peace attempt should occur. Lincoln seems doubtful, but gives Blair a “pass for Richmond” with the understanding that “he was proceeding on his own, without authority to speak for the president.” Ulysses Grant does meet with the “peace commissioners” on their way north and recommends President Lincoln should meet with them. President Lincoln meets with them at Hampton Roads in a saloon on a ship called the River Queen. There is a weird proposal that the Union and Confederacy should join to fight the French dictatorship then installed in Mexico. The conference breaks up without any agreement, and seems doomed from the start when the Confederate envoys try to refer to two countries, and President Lincoln insists they must acknowledge one country only. Republican radicals are incensed when they hear of the conference, afraid Lincoln will be too generous in negotiations. But their distress turns to praise when reports of the details of the conference are communicated.
  • Team of Rivals does refer to “the story of the peace commissioners, whose presence almost derailed the vote on the new amendment.” But President Lincoln assures James M. Ashley of Ohio, the Congressman introducing the amendment, that “no peace commissioners are in the City, or likely to be in it.” On its face this is true—the “peace commissioners” are not in the capital city. The movie correctly describes the problem—Democrats needed to defect to get the two thirds vote for the amendment, and even some conservative Republicans, would probably have not voted for passage of the abolition amendment because it would be sure to end any prospects for peace. Lincoln cleverly satisfied his friend and supporter Francis Preston Blair while getting the Thirteenth Amendment passed.
  • Other notes about Lincoln’s meeting with the peace commissioners: He is previously acquainted with Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, one of the “peace commissioners.” They share discussion of mutual acquaintances before getting directly to the business at hand. Team of Rivals does not document any proposal that Lincoln allow Southern states back into the union so they can vote down the Thirteenth Amendment. There is some discussion of possible reimbursement to slaveowners from the Federal government, but nothing comes of this idea, an idea sure to be unpopular with most of Lincoln’s base.
  • A word about political terms that have a different meaning now than they did then: “Radicals” were mainly Republicans who wanted abolition of slavery as quickly as possible and the toughest possible approach to the southern Rebel states. “Conservative” Republicans favored a slower, less definitive approach to slavery, and would consider maintaining slavery in exchange for peace. Democrats were primarily in favor of the “conservative” approach, with pro-war Democrats favoring the fight to maintain the Union, and anti-war Democrats favoring peace at nearly any price, including agreeing to two countries.
  • Lincoln’s legal assessment of the Emancipation Proclamation and how the Thirteenth Amendment was needed to end slavery legally is from the book. The Emancipation Proclamation was intended as an executive order at time of war, and might not have been legally binding once the war had ended.
  • Thaddeus Stevens (the Tommy Lee Jones character) is not mentioned extensively in Team of Rivals. The character in the movie is consistent with the few references to him in the book. Whether Thaddeus Stevens in truth had an intimate relationship with his black housekeeper is not addressed in the book.
  • Team of Rivals does mention patronage jobs given in exchange for votes in favor of the Thirteenth Amendment. The movie expands this part of the passage story beyond information provided in Team of Rivals. The book does documents that President Lincoln insists to his House allies that he is President of United States “clothed with great power,” and that the votes of two wavering members were of “such importance that those two votes must be procured.”
  • Many Lincoln supporters crowd the gallery for the House debate the day the Thirteenth Amendment passes. It is hard to get a seat. This includes much of his cabinet. I saw no mention that Mary Lincoln was in the gallery. Mary Lincoln was from a slave border state and had three brothers-in-law who fought for the Confederacy. Her presence for this debate seems unlikely.
  • Mary Lincoln’s devastation over her son Willie’s death during Lincoln’s presidency is documented in the book.
  • Robert Lincoln’s desire to serve in the army is also from the book. The book does not detail any of the emotional rancor depicted in the movie. There is no face-slap. President Lincoln writes General Grant and asks him to place his son in a position on his staff. Team of Rivals does tell us that Abraham Lincoln was not as close to his older son as to his two younger sons, Willie and Tad. When Robert was growing up, circuit lawyer Abraham Lincoln was spending long periods of time away from home.
  • Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s depiction as a serious man, demanding of everyone around him, including himself, is consistent with Stanton as depicted in the book.
  • Lincoln’s leniency with death penalties for Union deserters, issuing pardons for many, and Stanton’s belief he was too lenient, is also from the book.
  • Lincoln’s visits with wounded soldiers are also depicted in the book.
  • I do not recall any part of Team of Rivals hinting at the scene in the movie where Lincoln loudly exclaims to Mary Lincoln: “I should have clapped you in the madhouse.”
  • Lincoln communicating to Grant that he would not mind if Jefferson Davis slipped out of the country without his knowledge is from the book.
  • Stanton’s statement, after Lincoln’s death, that “now he belongs to the ages” is from the book (and is a well-known famous quote from Stanton).
  • Secretary of State Seward is not at Lincoln’s bedside at his death in the movie. This is accurate. The filmmakers did not have time to explain why. Seward had been in a carriage accident that left him bedridden at the time of the assassination. And on the same night, another assassin tried to kill Seward (this was a plot to kill a number of high-ranking Union leaders), and Seward’s life also hung in the balance as he recuperated from his carriage injuries and wounds inflicted by his would-be killer. Seward did recover. But he was not available to be at Lincoln’s death.
  • The movie ends with a flashback to Lincoln’s 1865 Inaugural Address and his famous quote: “With malice toward none; with charity for all.” Back then, Presidential inaugurations took place in early March. So this took place over a month after the Thirteenth Amendment passed Congress, but before the Confederate surrender.

The “with malice toward none: with charity for all” quote, for me, captures Lincoln’s greatness. Team of Rivals, with its detailed account of how Lincoln brought sometimes hostile opponents into his inner circle for the greater good, and with its documentation of Lincoln’s political astuteness, knowing exactly what pace and what sequence of events to take to keep the fledgling United States together while extinguishing the new nation’s greatest evil, adds to the Lincoln legend. Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” captures a piece of this chronicle and puts it in front of the public in dramatic form, largely true to the tone and theme of the book. It reminded me that Lincoln’s accomplishments were not a given. If he had pushed for ending slavery too quickly, he would have lost slave border states to the Confederacy, including Maryland, and likely the Union would have lost the Civil War. If he had waited too long, the moral imperatives of the war would have been blunted. He made the right moves at the right times, and amidst terrible bloodshed and withering hatreds, held the United States together—the world would be a lesser place without the United States as the world power it is today. The reach of Lincoln is mentioned toward the end of Team of Rivals. Siberian tribesmen from the early Twentieth Century ask Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy to tell stories about Abraham Lincoln. His greatness had somehow reached remote corners of the planet. Doris Kearns Goodwin and Steven Spielberg have added to the long list of wonderful stories about America’s great treasure, our Sixteenth President, Abraham Lincoln.

*******

Previous Books-Into-Movies posts (in reverse chronological order):

Books-Into-Movies: “Water for Elephants” (based on the book Water for Elephants)

Books-Into-Movies: “the five people you meet in heaven” (based on the book the five people you meet in heaven)

Books-Into-Movies: “Moneyball” (based on the book Moneyball)

Books-Into-Film Commentary – “Birdsong” (Part One)/Books-Into-Film Commentary – “Birdsong” (Part Two)

Books-Into-Movie Commentary – Special 40th Anniversary Edition: “The Godfather”

Books-Into-Movie Commentary – “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”

Books-Into-Movies: “Tamara Drewe” (based on Tamara Drewe)

Books-Into-Movies: “Red” (based on Red)

Books-Into-Movies: “Secretariat” (based on the book Secretariat)

Books-Into-Movies: “The Social Network” (based on the book The Accidental Millionaires)

Books-Into-Movie Commentary – “Hugo” (based on the book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret)

Books-Into-Movie Commentary – “Sarah’s Key”

Books-Into-Movie Commentary – “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan”

Books-Into-Movie Commentary – Special Easter Edition: “Ben Hur”

Books-Into-Movie Commentary: Jane Eyre

Books-Into-Movie Commentary: True Grit

Books-Into-Movie Commentary: Gulliver’s Travels

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