THE BLOG
11/16/2012 05:40 pm ET Updated Jan 16, 2013

Lincoln, the Man and the Movie: A Reality Check

Lincoln, the new movie directed by Stephen Spielberg and based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's best-selling Team of Rivals, is a reassuring delight for fans of the great President who saved the Union and ended slavery, especially after last summer's strange detour into Lincoln's secret career as Vampire Hunter. The new film focuses on Lincoln's final months and his fight for the 13th Amendment at the close of the Civil War. Like the book, though, it raises old questions about our most celebrated president - especially after this year's heated presidential campaign. Just how honest was Honest Abe? What kind of politician was he? How did he really outwit better-known candidates to win the Presidency in 1860 and assemble his "team of rivals"?

As with most politicos, the truth comes in shades of gray.

  • Lincoln as "rail splitter" candidate in 1860?

Lincoln's image as working-man hero, just as appealing in 1860 as today, was a deliberate creation of his political campaign. Lincoln grew up poor, split rails, cleared fields, and the rest. And yes, when young, he was a good fighter and good with an axe. But by the time he ran for President in 1860, Lincoln was an affluent lawyer in his 50s representing railroads and corporations, sending his son to Exeter and Harvard, and living in one of Springfield's nicest houses. He had not done physical labor in decades. Some eastern snobs cringed at his unkempt appearance, but they recognized him as a polished, sophisticated speaker.

Lincoln unveiled his rail-splitter persona with full media savvy in May 1860 at that year's Illinois state Republican convention in Decatur. As the crowd gathered, two Lincoln friends showed up carrying a set of long wood rails, polished walnut, with a plaque saying they were made by Lincoln in 1830. The crowd cheered and demanded a speech. Abe just happened to be standing nearby, ready to oblige. "Abe, did you split them rails?" someone shouted. Said Lincoln: "John Hanks says I split those rails. I don't know whether I did or not, but I have made many a better one!" They all laughed, and the name stuck.

As for "Honest Old Abe" - another campaign favorite - this came from Horace Greeley's New York Tribune, then the country's largest Republican mouthpiece, which introduced the label in its lead editorial the Saturday after Lincoln won the Republican nomination (May 19, 1860). Spinning in an old profession in American politics.

  • Lincoln above cheating?

If true, he never would have been nominated, let alone elected President. At the 1860 National Republican Convention in Chicago, "Honest Abe" and friends captured the presidential spot by a host of tricks that made peoples' heads spin. Among other things, his team manipulated floor seating in the convention hall, planted rumors about other candidates, and made deals for votes -- such as promising Pennsylvania's U.S. Senator Simon Cameron a cabinet seat in exchange for Pennsylvania's support on the second ballot. Lincoln had sent a note to his Chicago campaign manager David Davis the day before voting that said "make no contract that binds." Davis happily ignored it.

Another trick: On the day the delegates in Chicago were scheduled to cast their votes, Lincoln's manager David Davis managed to pack the convention hall with loud Lincoln backers by printing thousands of extra tickets, handing them out to Chicago friends, and then instructing them to come early and crowd out the Seward men who were busy that morning parading through Chicago with their brass band. By the time Seward's friends arrived, most couldn't get into the hall because all the spaces were taken.

  • Lincoln won the Presidency in 1860 through his oratory?

Actually, Lincoln gave no campaign speeches at all in 1860 once he received the Republican nomination that May. Following tradition, Lincoln spent the months before Election Day at home in Illinois, leaving it to his friends and surrogates - including New York U.S. William Seward, whom he had just defeated for the nomination - to travel the country and speak on his behalf. It would be William Jennings Bryan in 1896 who broke the stigma against presidential candidates speaking for themselves.

Instead, what mostly won the election for Lincoln in 1860 was the disintegration of the Democratic Party. Democrats had met in Charleston, South Carolina, for their own nominating convention that year but disbanded without picking a nominee after 56 fruitless ballots. A few weeks later, they regrouped in Baltimore and chose Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas (D-Ill.) to lead the ticket, but only because Southerners had boycotted the affair and met separately to chose their own candidate, James Breckinridge, the country's sitting Vice President and a slave holder.

That November, Lincoln won 1,865,908 popular votes, or 39.9 percent of the total. This was far less than the 47.6 percent won by the two Democrats: 29.5 for Douglas and 18.1 for Breckinridge. But because of the split, Lincoln won the Presidency with a big victory in the Electoral College. Douglas, the official Democratic nominee, carried only two states, Missouri and New Jersey.

  • Lincoln was the best qualified choice?

Actually, on paper at least, Abraham Lincoln was strikingly unprepared to lead the country in 1860. At 51 years old, he had held national office only once, serving a single term in the U.S. Congress in the late 1840s. He had twice failed to win an Illinois seat in the U.S. Senate. His 1858 debates with Democrat Stephen Douglas won him national acclaim and a majority of the popular votes, but the Democratic-controlled state legislature that year still gave the seat to Douglas. (Prior to the Seventeenth Amendment adopted in 1913, state legislatures chose U.S. Senators rather than voters.) A self-educated lawyer, Lincoln had never managed a large company, never ran a government agency, and had few backers outside his home state. An engaging public speaker, he suffered bouts of melancholy, stood awkwardly tall, and had a homely appearance. "If I had two faces," he once joked, "do you think this is the one I'd be wearing?"

  • But he won the Presidency by his power of intellect:

This part was true. Lincoln conceived a clear, simple political strategy for reaching the White House in 1860. Analyzing the Republican field, he saw weakness in all the other candidates: Senator William Seward, the favorite, was too radical on social issues, Ohio Governor Salmon Chase too stiff, Pennsylvania's Simon Cameron too corrupt, Missouri lawyer Edward Bates too old.

Lincoln presented himself as the reasonable alternative for Northerners who opposed slavery but wanted to avoid direct conflict with the South. In early 1860, he traveled the country giving speeches with folksy humor and compelling logic. He reached tens of thousands more beyond his live audiences through newspapers that carried his speeches in full - and people back then took the time to read them.

Reaching the Chicago Convention, Lincoln needed just one more thing. He had to stop the favorite, Seward, from winning on the first ballot, then position himself as the popular second choice. To do this, he sent dozens of Illinois friends to Chicago to buttonhole delegates one by one and convince them. The convention followed his script, handing Lincoln the nomination on the third ballot.

Once elected, Lincoln invited each of his four defeated rivals to join his cabinet, a step designed both to prevent political tricks and unite the country facing war. It mostly worked, but for more on that, see the movie or read Doris Goodman's excellent book.

Abe Lincoln was a politician, a good one, and proud of it. He understood that, to do great things, you sometimes had to get your hands dirty.

Kenneth D. Ackerman's most recent book is s.

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