Publick Occurrences 2.0

December 6, 2012

Student Reactions to Lincoln

As part of my U.S. History survey course, I offered students the opportunity to write a brief reflection of Lincoln. I was curious how they would respond, both because of the contours of the online debate about the movie’s portrayal of African-Americans, their role in emancipation, the process in Congress, and the depiction of Lincoln himself, and more importantly because my students are likely not as deeply engaged in the historians’ debates as many of us are. After seeing the responses, I thought it might be useful to share some of them (I asked each student’s permission and promised anonymity).

In general, the students who responded enjoyed the film and expressed an interest in learning more about the period (which is useful since we’re about to discuss the Civil War and Reconstruction in class). One went into the movie skeptical but found Spielberg’s framing alluring, noting that “I went into the movie figuring it would be quite boring, but I came out of the movie so interested I couldn’t help but recommend it to everyone.”

Everyone thought Daniel Day-Lewis did a fantastic job at portraying Lincoln (down to the voice), and unlike many historians, most of the students enjoyed the close focus on Lincoln himself. One, in fact, noted that she went in “afraid the movie was going to try to cover too many aspects of his presidency,” and was pleasantly surprised since she thought “the passing of this amendment was the most interesting part of his presidency.” Another offered a detailed analysis of Day-Lewis’s Lincoln:

I think what Spielberg really wanted to focus on was the character of Lincoln and I think Daniel Day Lewis delivered a very accurate portrayal of Lincoln. From what I saw in the movie, Lincoln seemed to be an optimist, as well as humorous and melancholy. You could see how much pressure and anxiety Lincoln suffered from; the pressure the be a father, a president and an all around good man. Something that really surprised me was Lincoln’s voice or what Lewis believed his voice would sound like. I figured that since Lincoln had so much weight on his shoulders he would carry those burdens in his voice and have a really deep, low, droned out kind of voice. But in the first line he delivered, he had a high pitched, soft voice. I think his voice was one of the many reasons he was such a loved president. When I was watching the scenes while he was giving speeches, his voice was kind of sweet and vulnerable which complimented his nature.

The same student had a strong reaction to previously conceived notions of “Honest Abe,” a trope that haunts studies of Lincoln. For this student, the film and Day-Lewis’s approach altered the meaning of the nickname:

One of the very few things I was taught about Lincoln was that he was given the nickname “Honest Abe” and I realize now that he didn’t have that nickname because he never lied, it was because he was so genuine. In an interview Daniel Day-Lewis described Abe as extremely “accessible” which was a dangerous quality to have as president during these times. Abe was the kind of man that wasn’t a puzzle to figure out, he carried his emotions on his face and in his words and had the courage not to wear a mask.

As many have noted, the film did not deal directly with the deep involvement of African-Americans in the emancipation movement. We’re covering that material this week and next in class, so for my students (who had already seen the film), it highlighted some of the racist aspects of the debate:

I didn’t realize how prejudiced the country actually was during this time in history. Of course I have sat through countless history classes learning about slavery, but seeing the lack of support Americans were willing to give to the idea of African Americans being free in their own country shocked me. Lincoln never gave up which is what makes him such a respected president even to this very day. His hard work paid off when the Thirteenth Amendment passed, but his bitter assassination shortly after proved that not all Americans approved.

And another:

As awful as it seems in the context of today, the blatant racism seems like it was portrayed accurately. Some whites truly felt superior to African-Americans. The constant use of biblical references claiming that God made whites superior showed how deeply engrained this belief was. However, there were some people who disagreed with such a belief who stood up for African-Americans when they really could not stand up for themselves and passed the thirteenth amendment.

The exclusion of African-Americans has spawned many a blog post, but I personally found the depiction of Thaddeus Stevens fascinating, as did a student, who seems inspired to go out and learn more (I may have a few reading recommendations…):

Thaddeus Stevens (as played by Tommy Lee Jones) was a great character as well in this movie and he enlightened me to the role of the 19th century Republican party in the abolitionist movement.  I had known very little about Thaddeus Stevens beforehand but I was most surprised to find out how vehemently opposed he was to slavery and that Lincoln actually had to ask him to “tone it down” as it were.

On the other hand, the film’s focus on Congressional debates left the climactic scene flat for one student.

The only time I was happy to be staring straight up at the screen in the second row of the theatre was during this scene because it felt like I was sitting in the court room. But I wasn’t as moved and riveted by this scene as I had anticipated. (Maybe because my dad leaned over and whispered, “Oh boy, I wonder what’s going to happen.”) I wish that they made that moment more captivating because it was a defining moment in history and it was a completely unexpected outcome.

In one small way, perhaps this is a residual effect of the decision to make the movie about Congress with the broader emancipation movement deep in the shadows.

Aside from the core of the film’s discussion of the Thirteenth Amendment, students picked up on scenes and moments with meaning for them that historians have not focused on particularly. One student, a veteran, was particularly struck by the reaction of the audience to the few scenes of fighting:

One thing that really stuck in my mind was the scene where Lincoln was touring the aftermath of the Battle of Petersburg. President Lincoln was riding on horseback through the battlefield looking at all the fallen soldiers. But the thing I can’t get out of my mind is the reaction from the audience. There were gasps as if this was something new to these people. I couldn’t help but thinking that this all still goes on everyday and these people don’t even care that the the month this movie came out 13 members of the armed services were killed in Afghanistan.

I may share my own thoughts on the film in the days to come. In the meantime, I’ve at a minimum found the film a good opportunity for students to think about and discuss presentations of the past in popular culture, and I hope having some students voices out in the blogosphere can help enlighten the discussion about the film’s historical arguments.



  1. Student reactions to #Lincoln, new at Publick Occurrences: #twitterstorians #cw150

    Comment by Joseph Adelman (@jmadelman) — December 6, 2012 @ 1:46 pm

  2. For the evening crowd, take a look at some student reactions to #Lincoln, new at Publick Occurrences:

    Comment by Joseph Adelman (@jmadelman) — December 6, 2012 @ 7:55 pm

  3. Great post. I especially like this observation: “[U]nlike many historians, most of the students enjoyed the close focus on Lincoln himself.”

    In my experience, students respond best to the most concrete and vivid accounts. In most cases, that means stories of particular people. Without them, there’s no point to any of the contextual abstractions we give them. The thing is, almost any particular person will do, as long as the story is skillfully told and cleverly used to make a larger point. (The breakout star of ‘Gettysburg,’ which was a terrible but very effective film because of stories like his, was a fairly unprepossessing college professor from Maine.) So I certainly do object to the treatment and relative absence of black characters in the movie, but I also don’t think it does any good to begrudge Lincoln his place in the story. He’s a legitimate anchor for a good presentation of history.

    Lincoln’s been done to death, but not so much for this generation, and that really doesn’t make him any less interesting or useful in any case. And although other figures from the film would have been equally or even more compelling centers for an antislavery drama, they certainly wouldn’t have filled as many seats. ‘Lincoln’ has already had nearly twice the box-office gross of ‘Amistad’; the latter is Spielberg’s fourth-lowest-grossing film in dollars adjusted for ticket price inflation and second-lowest in current dollars. I think ‘Lincoln’ is probably the better film, actually, but it also helps that the posters have Abraham Lincoln’s face on them.

    Comment by Jonathan — December 7, 2012 @ 7:47 am

  4. Thanks, Jonathan, for your comment. One of the reasons I wanted to share their responses was precisely because they’re not immersed in the literature of abolition, emancipation, race, etc. and so reacted very differently. (Also we’re only just this week getting to the Civil War.)

    And you’re absolutely right that a different focus would probably not have enjoyed the same commercial success. Frederick Douglass might have come close (and I think his story is a huge opportunity for a biopic of some kind), but nothing beats old Abe on the poster.

    Comment by Joseph M. Adelman — December 7, 2012 @ 8:33 am

  5. [...] Student Reactions to Lincoln by Joseph Adelman [...]

    Pingback by Lincoln Links: Historians Debate the New Film | Imagining America — December 21, 2012 @ 3:31 pm

  6. I read the many comments from you students and I leave mine , about President Lincoln movie ,and I am so interested in this subject because
    I think the America History is so usefull for teachers ,historian and many peope who loves American history ,it makes our country watching at the many presidents who made not only the progress of our nation but the meaning of freedom and humanism as a cause of Democracy between us or fellow citizens I think the civil war ,even didn make America most powerfull but changed the look as a benevolent country,As Lincoln wanted the abolition of Slavery is not less important the figure of Martin Luther King ,a brave man who also died for the same cause.Many brave men who stayed loyables to the cause of freedom deserve to be in movies as President Lincoln ,I just manifest my points of viwes about this extraordinary Film done by Daniel Lewis ,showing to us that we must continou sopporting the cause of Abrahm mLicoln as cause of humanism and fraternity between all citrizens ,we the people …as our Constitution shows in the amendments -Thanks to the students for putting here the feelings for that interesting movie who I think leave us ,knowing how was that time,and its now in th eyes who loves cinematography,telecvision ,a significant contribution to our American Culture …I am glad to be part of sopporting the cause of liberty as Lincoln left to us the leader for abolition to slavery ,the right to be moraly valued as a human being-as a citizen in our loved nation USA -

    Comment by Maria Blumberg — February 28, 2013 @ 3:04 pm

  7. [...] Student Reactions to Lincoln by Joseph Adelman [...]

    Pingback by Lincoln Links: Historians Debate the New Film | American Historical Association — July 17, 2013 @ 8:51 am

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