To Lincoln, the movie, last night. In honour of the occasion, following is the text of the post on Lincoln’s death from my series based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s stupendous biography.
Steven Spielberg’s movie is also based on portions of the Kearns Goodwin’s book. What he took from it, to my eyes, is the one spellbinding, heart-wrenching moment when Lincoln’s young son, Tad, hears of the shooting while at the theatre watching a production of Aladdin. Spielberg has unerringly sniffed out the moment, as I did, but has mistreated it.
He has tried to make the moment carry too much weight, made it stand for everything that happens in the frightening speeding-up of time between the surrender of the Southern states and Lincoln’s assassination. The moment achieves its truth and pathos in the book because of all that has gone before including the deaths of Lincoln’s children, Edward and Willie, only one of which is even referenced in the movie.
The whole movie is so dreadfully cursory, and the inclusion of the scene of Lincoln’s deathbed, a huge mistake. Far better to have ended the movie at the vote on the amendment, and to have had a narrator tell the events that followed.
The casting of Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln and Tommy Lee-Jones as Thaddeus Stevens is gruesome, the former for his odd absence of presence, the latter, for his too-solid presence. The casting of the supporting cast is much better, particularly Sally Field in the role of Mary Todd Lincoln, with her painful archness and bitterness, and David Strathairn as Secretary of State Seward.
Unexpectedly, I was bored watching Spielberg’s version of this immense and peerless story.
Only one thing had me sit up straight. As the clerk read the names of the representatives voting on the amendment and asked for their Yea or their Nay, the name Hanratty leapt out. He voted Yea, I think I heard, Mr Hanratty, and I hope to discover he was a relative of my great-great-grandfather, Michael Hanratty and his wife, Rose who left Ireland at the time of the Potato Famine and married in New York in 1850.
Following is my story of the death of Lincoln, as described in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, and originally published here in September 2012.
In 1908, Leo Tolstoy travelled to a wild and remote area of the North Caucasus as the guest of a tribal chief. Tolstoy was 80 years old, and the most famous writer in the world. The chief gathered his family and neighbours and asked Tolstoy to tell them stories of the famous men of history. Tolstoy entertained the crowd for hours with stories of Alexander, Caesar, Frederick the Great and Napoleon. As he was ending, the chief protested,
But you have not told us about the greatest general and greatest ruler of the world … He spoke with a voice of thunder; he laughed like the sunrise and his deeds were strong as the rock … His name was Lincoln and the country in which he lived is called America …
I looked at them and saw their faces all aglow, while their eyes were burning.
He told them everything he knew about Lincoln, and when he finished they were so grateful they gave him “a wonderful Arabian horse”. The next day as he made to leave they asked if he had a picture of Lincoln. Thinking he could get one from a friend in the nearby town he asked one of the tribe to accompany him. He got a large photograph of Lincoln from the friend and as he handed it to the rider, he noted the man’s hand trembled as he took it.
He gazed for several minutes silently, like one in a reverent prayer, his eyes filled with tears.
Tolstoy said of Lincoln at the time,
The greatness of Napoleon, Caesar or Washington is only moonlight by the sun of Lincoln. His example is universal and will last thousands of years … He was bigger than his country — bigger than all the Presidents together … and as a great character he will live as long as the world lives.
The anecdote is from the closing page of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s mighty biography of Lincoln, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, and this is my final post in the series.
Kearns’s book should come with a health warning: as the bell began tolling for Lincoln and the last chapter – The Final Weeks – opened, I started crying and couldn’t stop.
The story is so very sad. As Richmond finally falls and General Lee surrenders and the war is about to end, Secretary of State Seward is the one who sees it’s also the most dangerous time.
Both he and Stanton, the Secretary of War, are in constant anxiety when Lincoln travels with Mary and his young son, Tad, to the front for a final time. Probably it is his anxiety that contributes to a carriage accident in which he, Seward, is seriously injured and laid up in bed. But Lincoln returns unharmed from the front, and visits Seward’s sick bed, and life goes on for a day or two, until the fateful day – Good Friday, April 14, 1865 – dawns.
It’s a very full day, and finally it comes time to go to the Ford theatre. “While nothing had provided greater diversion during the bitter nights of his presidency than the theatre”, Lincoln was a little reluctant to go this night. Still, he said, “it has been advertised that we will be there and I cannot disappoint the people.”
So he goes with Mary and while seated in their box, John Wilkes Booth presents his calling card to the footman, enters and shoots Lincoln in the back of the head. After Booth escapes, they take Lincoln, unconscious and dying, to the Petersen boarding house next door.
At the same time Booth is shooting Lincoln, his accomplice, Lewis Powell, goes to the home of Seward and gains entrance and there stabs Seward in the neck and face while he lays in his sickbed. As Seward’s son, Fred and other members of the household tried to stop him, Powell stabs Fred, his brother Gus and two or three others before finally escaping.
Tad, Lincoln’s young son – only he, and the eldest boy, Robert, surviving out of the four boys – is also at the theatre that night, another theatre, with his tutor, seeing Aladdin. When the theatre manager announces that the president had been shot, in the “midst of the pandemonium that followed”, Tad is seen running
like a young deer, shrieking in agony.
At 7:22am on the morning after, Lincoln is pronounced dead.
The roll call of the lives of the people around Lincoln, following his death, makes unbearable reading. It is a short and deeply sad history. Hardly any of his Cabinet, these amazing men, lived past their 60s. Seward, despite all the odds, was one of the few. His story is both terrible and a triumph.
Somehow, he and his son, Fred, survived their injuries from the terrible night. But six weeks later, his dearly beloved wife, Frances, the woman with whom he had exchanged tens of thousands of letters over their long and happy marriage, died. His daughter, Fanny, remained with him trying to comfort him until she contracted tuberculosis and died at the age of 21. Seward was “inconsolable”. The Washington Republican noted,
Truly it may be said that the assassin’s blows passed by the father and son and fell fatally on the mother and daughter.
Seward died at the age of 71, surrounded by his remaining family.
Chase, still consumed by ambition for the Presidency, campaigned again unsuccessfully in 1868 and in 1872. He died aged 65.
Mary Lincoln never recovered from her husband’s death. She and Tad were inseparable, until he died of heart problems at the age of 18. She had lost three of her four sons and her husband. She became troubled and erratic, and Robert, her remaining son, committed her to a hospital for the insane where she stayed for some months. After her release to her sister’s care, she was permanently estranged from Robert. She died in 1882 at the age of 63.
I salute you, Abraham Lincoln, and I mourn for you and your family.
If you enjoyed this post …
If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy these other posts (all but the first are from my series on Lincoln):
- Lincoln Down Under
- “A death-battered childhood”
- The more things change …
- Inventing the self
- Two letters to communication
- Getting others to do what we want: Part 2