Lincoln’s Life: You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

I’d bet that Abraham Lincoln interests me more than the average American. Believe me, that isn’t meant to be a boast and if it’s anything it’s the confession of a nerd. Still, our 16th president has been in the news a little bit more than usual lately because he’s the subject of two new movies. One movie is a Stephen Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis biopic about honest Abe and the other is Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. The latter movie looks campy and ridiculous, but too much of a perfect popcorn movie to pass up. Unfortunately my inner nerd won’t let me enjoy it because I won’t be able to get past the obvious factual errors.

Here’s the thing about Lincoln, though. There’s no way even Stephen Spielberg and the actor who played Daniel Planview will be able to make Lincoln’s life more dramatic than it was. Most stories seem to take dramatic license in order to enhance the cinematic version, but Lincoln’s life was already so riveting that unfamiliar audience members may already think they’ll be taking a leap of faith.

This photo of Day-Lewis is rumored to be of him on lunch from playing Lincoln.

Today Americans are polarized over issues like gay marriage, global warming, and how to fix the economy. Lincoln had to handle states literally pulling out of the country because he was elected to take the seat in the oval office. Too many people take for granted Lincoln’s achievements. It’s bizarre to really sit down and think about but the United States we all bicker about now wouldn’t exist in its current form if not for Lincoln. He literally forced the country to stay together, and somehow pulled it off.

Our 16th president’s home life was no cakewalk, either. He struggled with clinical depression for his entire life, often weeping in public and seemed gloomy enough that his law partner once said, “His melancholy dripped from him as he walked.” His eventual wife, Mary Todd, was initially courted by political rival Stephen Douglas. The same Stephen Douglas who Lincoln beat in the election of 1860 to become president. Imagine Obama and Mitt Romney falling in love with the same woman earlier in their lives, only to meet again in the election of 2012.

Unfortunately, two of Lincoln’s sons would die during his lifetime. One died during his first presidential term and in the midst of the Civil War. Imagine the news story that would be today. He had to fire General George McClellan of the Union Army because he was too conservative on the field of battle. McClellan then had the audacity to run against President Lincoln in the election of 1864. Oh and by the way Lincoln freed the slaves and delivered the Gettsyburg Address, perhaps the most famous few paragraphs in our country’s history. Not a big deal or anything.

It’s also worth noting that Lincoln was not as popular as we might think during his time as commander in chief. Although he trounced McClellan in the election, he wasn’t perceived as the saintly figure we now consider him to be today.

Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater in 1865, but there’s more to it than American students learn in middle school. John Wilkes Booth was a famous stage actor and was well known across the country. It would be akin to Johnny Depp killing the president after the country was getting ready to settle down after a devastating war. It’s an unimaginable scenario. Even more so, Booth was just part of a conspiracy and others targeted for assassination that night included the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and Secretary of State William Seward, who was attacked at home in his bed.

There was a ten day, nationwide manhunt for Booth and he was eventually killed because the farmhouse he took refuge in was surrounded and burned down by soldiers. During the chase he followed the news clippings and was disappointed to see that, while expecting to be greeted as a hero, his fellow southerners reviled him for killing the president. They once saw Lincoln as the enemy, then a protector, then a lost hope. Even crazier, Booth’s older (and more famous) brother Edwin once saved Lincoln’s son Robert from certain death by an oncoming train.

Even Spielberg couldn’t write a story like that.

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