Lincoln: Clothed with immense power? Really?

Like most movie-goers, I was in eager anticipation when I first heard the news of Steven Spielberg’s new Lincoln movie. After the trailer was released, however, my enthusiasm was significantly dampened. That initial glimpse into the movie looked dull. But then after the movie came out, I read reactions from folks who saw the movie before I did. To a man, they all indicated that the movie was much better than the trailer. So my expectations for this movie went from high to low then back to high again. I was eager for the good reports I’d heard to be right.

Now that I’ve seen it for myself, I think I’m a little conflicted about it. In fact my feelings are pretty close to Thomas McKenzie’s (see his review below). I thought the scenes of Congressional debates and backroom dealing were riveting—a bit like courtroom dramas. There were other stretches, however, that did in fact turn out to be a little bit boring in my view. The darkened hues of the film matched the pace. It seemed as if at any moment one of the characters might exclaim, “Can somebody turn on a light in here?”

There’s more that could be said by way of evaluation, but I’m not going to write a full review here. I’ll leave that to others. But I would like to comment briefly on one oddball moment in the movie—a line delivered by Daniel Day Lewis.

Daniel Day Lewis gives a stunning performance and depicts Lincoln as a kind of humble, folksy, wise, understated leader. Lincoln comes across always as the cooler head that prevailed—except in one particular scene (which also happens to appear in the trailer). Sitting at a table with his advisors surrounding him, he bellows out the reason that he would get his way on the 13th amendment: “I am the President of the United States, clothed with immense power!”

I thought the same thing after seeing the line in the movie that I did when I first saw it in the trailer. The line was delivered in an ugly, arrogant tone. It was like Daniel Day Lewis was channeling one of Jeb Bartlett’s fiery take-downs of his fictional Republican opponents. The line was completely out of step with the character that had been developed for Lincoln throughout the rest of the movie. From a dramatic perspective, the line seemed completely out place. I wondered if it was out of place from a historical perspective as well? The line comes across as the ranting of a megalomaniac—the diction of a dictator, not of an American statesman and president. If someone had attributed such words to Julius Caesar or Napolean, no problem. But Abraham Lincoln?

It turns out that I’m not the only one who had historical questions about that particular line. In a fact-checking piece for The Atlantic, Joshua Zeitz says that the historical Lincoln is “unlikely” to have uttered those exact words. He writes:

Lincoln did, in fact, tell Congressman James Alley, “I am the President of the United States, clothed with immense power, and I expect you to procure those votes.” Or at least that’s how Alley remembered it, 23 years after the fact. If those were Lincoln’s precise words (unlikely, as they don’t sound like him; he was a man who liked things done, not said), the president probably didn’t bellow them across the room, but rather, slyly conveyed his determination to use patronage as a blunt legislative instrument. But a movie is a movie, not a scholarly monograph, and screenwriter Tony Kushner’s use of the line does no real violence to Lincoln’s larger position.

For me, it was an oddball moment in the movie. As it turns out, it’s probably an oddball recollection in history as well.

Even though I’m ambivalent about the movie, I won’t tell you not to see it. But I won’t tell you that you must see it either.


    • Jason Smith

      It’s easy to view historical figures according to their most noteworthy actions, but humans are complex and, at times, paradoxically so. Lincoln was a man who, while always desiring to act in favor of the union’s preservation, did assume certain wartime powers that would have made many of the founding fathers shudder. So for him to say something like this privately might have been out of keeping with the film’s betrayal of him, but it does not stretch my historical schema of the man. (For that matter, you as a Professor of Biblical Studies certainly know that Jesus was a deeply complex figure with many such oddball moments.)

      • Jason Smith

        To add to that, Alley recalled Lincoln’s statement 23 years later. The Gospel accounts were written well over 20 years (by conservative estimates) after Christ’s death.

    • Denny Burk

      He wasn’t talking about the confederacy. He was talking about being “clothed with power” before the United States congress, many of whom were opposing the 13th amendment at that point.

      • Aaron O'Kelley

        Right. But if he had an inflated view of his office (as the Confederacy certainly believed he did), then it would likely influence the way he related to Congress as well.

        I’m not saying the movie is correct on this, only that it doesn’t seem to be completely out of character for Lincoln as I understand him.

        • James Stanton

          I’m not sure if you’re stating your own opinion of Lincoln or just what many confederates felt about him. I think Lincoln felt strongly that he was on the right side of things and approached the conflict with sober mind.

          On the other hand, radical Presidents in times of crises may feel that they are bigger than the office due to what is at stake. Roosevelt certainly is an example.

  • Matt Millsap

    Perhaps Daniel Plainview was coming out a little in that scene. 🙂


    In all seriousness, though, is it that unreasonable to believe that Lincoln COULD perhaps have acted a little out of character in such a crucial, down-to-the-wire moment for something that would alter the course of history and change lives?

  • Don Johnson

    One of the books I am reading now is Team of Rivals, a part of this book forms the basis for the movie Lincoln. The name of the book comes from the fact that he asked the 3 main rivals for the Republican nomination to be a part of his cabinet, and also asked war Democrats, in this way he had a direct line to the various factions in the North that were for continuing and winning the war, even tho many of them thought they should have been President, instead of him.

    It is a very interesting book, showing how Lincoln was humble, as a general statement, and wise in dealing with other’s egos. It also shows him as a centrist Republican, able to see where the people in the North were going politically as the war evolved and always being just a little in front of them along the path. As a centrist, he was willing to frustrate both the radical Republicans and the other issue Republicans, always doing what he sensed would advance the Union’s chances to bring the war to a successful conclusion. I have just reached the Summer of 1863 in the book and so have not gotten to the 13th amendment discussion.

  • Roger Allen Burns (@RogerAllenBurns)

    I have read “Team of Rivals” and believe the movie does closely follow Lincoln well from a political standpoint. My bigger concern with the movie is Lincoln frequently taking the Lord’s name in vain. I can’t honestly remember if he did so in “Team of Rivals” (I gave the book to a friend and haven’t gotten it back). I am currently reading “Lincoln’s battle with God” and based on that book, I doubt that Lincoln would do so. It is a subtle way to push secularization.
    Lincoln’s battle with God is a worthwhile read. Here is a 1 minute trailer for the book.

  • Don Johnson

    The pages in “Team of Rivals” that covers the passage of the 13th amendment are pp. 686-690. The Lincoln quote is in the book, but has more context, as follows:

    Lincoln has previously issued the Emancipation Proclamation after Antietam as an executive order acting as commander in chief of the armed forces to improve the chances of winning the war as justification. But it could be revoked by a subsequent President or a revocation be a part of any peace discussions to end the war. The Republicans has just won Lincoln’s re-election and also added many Republicans to Congress. Lincoln got bills thru Congress thru a coalition of Radical Republicans, Conservative Republicans and War Democrats which together outvoted the Peace Democrats, but the CRs and WDs were not abolitionists, just the RRs.

    What Lincoln was saying by claiming to have been “cloaked in immense power” was the ability to select people for jobs they wanted, that is, patronage allowing political horsetrading. He got 5 Democrats to vote for the 13th amendment, along with all the Republicans, by such political backroom dealing. By passing this amendment, this meant any peace treaty would need to accept the 13th amendment, so that modifying the Emancipation Proclamation was taken off the table. Also, it ran an end run around his main potential opponent in the Republican party, Chase, who was a Radical, as there was not much Chase could promise to other Radicals that Lincoln had not already accomplished, but in a just-in-time fashion.

  • Bob Wheeler

    I too am reading the book and by the time I got to the part about the 13th Amendment I had already seen the movie. The disparity between the way it was portrayed on the screen and the way I read it in the book is what drove me to “google” it for another perspective (that’s how I found this blog post). Being this far into the book I get the feeling the phrase had much more to do with him understanding the practical uses of his power to achieve greater goals, in the same way he suspended habeas corpus in Maryland.

    Thanks for the post!

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