Reel American HistoryHistory on trial Main Page

AboutFilmsFor StudentsFor TeachersBibliographyResources

Films >> Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940) >>

Abraham Lincoln

By Lauren Korzeniewski

[1] Like every other American kid, I grew up with certain images of America instilled in me through elementary school projects and Saturday morning cartoons. The Statue of Liberty, Uncle Sam, and George Washington were all part of the enigma of America that came through in children's books and holiday decorations. The most pervasive of these images through every grade, from kindergarten through high school, was Honest Abe's long beard and tall hat. We all know the image, the Kentucky-born frontiersman who worked his way through the ranks to become the greatest President our country had ever seen, saving the Union and freeing the slaves, all the while remaining humble and loyal to his ideals. However, beyond that, all Abraham Lincoln really meant was an excuse to have a day off from school in February. But this year, with the inauguration of Barack Obama and Lincoln's 200th birthday, America took notice once again. With a slew of new books about Lincoln hitting the shelves and a new biopic being undertaken by Steven Spielberg, looking deeper into the Lincoln enigma seems to be somewhat inevitable. Knowing what I do about the shaping of history and how the images from the past we are presented with usually serve a purpose for the present, I can't help but wonder where the image of The Great Emancipator came from.

[2] That question isn't one that is hard to answer once you start to look. Shortly after his death, Lincoln began to be viewed as a humble savior who worked his way up from nothing to the highest office possible. He was immensely popular after his death, if only in the north. Southerners didn't exactly feel the same way, and Lincoln's body had to be guarded from angry grave robbers. But that is beside the point. Northern newspapers began printing tales about Lincoln and his homespun ways, his unavoidable destiny, from that point. His long-time legal practice partner William Herndon began writing about Lincoln and collecting letters and interviews about him only a few years after his death. Historians began in-depth research on Lincoln, and the long regarded preeminent work on his life was written by Carl Sandburg in the 1920's, only fifty years after his death. Soon to follow were Norman Rockwell paintings depicting Lincoln as "The Rail Splitter," reading and doing hard labor with his tall frame.

[3] In 1930, during the dawn of the movies, D.W. Griffith's Abraham Lincoln was a success, portraying the quiet and melancholy President for the first time on screen. Young Mr. Lincoln and Abe Lincoln in Illinois, regarded as the most important and best films on Lincoln, appeared within a year of each other that same decade. And the mystique was only solidified further from there. Lincoln, in all these media, was depicted as slow talking, loyal, somewhat sad, but likable and funny. Lincoln is beloved, the man who single handedly saved the United States from deteriorating. He is the most popular President ever, even today, despite the fact that most Americans know nothing about his politics besides the war, nothing about his ideas on immigration and public land sales that would undoubtedly be very unpopular in 2009. I didn't because I was never taught. I was only taught about the Lincoln of myth, the Lincoln that is the most featured President in the movies and on television, even appearing in comedies such as Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.

[4] The questions of what and how are easy enough to answer. The more difficult and important question is why? Why is Lincoln the most popular President of all time? Why is he the most mythologized? Surely he did do great things for the country. But greater things than George Washington or Franklin D. Roosevelt? Was he better than Wilson, who helped us through World War I, or better than Grant, who cleaned up after Lincoln? Maybe yes. But maybe not. All have done important and honorable things. How, then, has Abraham Lincoln become so popular and important for American culture and shared history?

[5] I am not sure I know the answer to that question. I think that there are several answers, that there are complex and subtle reasons that this is the case. There are layers upon layers of different reasons why, over time, Americans have come to idolize Abraham Lincoln. The first Abraham Lincoln film was created fifty years after Lincoln was killed. Of course there weren't movies in Lincoln's time; I can't help but wonder if there were, what they would have said about him. Oliver Stone released W. while George W. Bush was still in office. W. did not do for Bush what Abe Lincoln in Illinois did for Lincoln. W., while doing some softening of Bush's image, mostly made him look proud and stupid. Lincoln's films do exactly the opposite; he comes off as humble and intelligent. Of course, Bush wasn't the most popular President we have ever had. But if we are honest with ourselves, neither was Lincoln at the time of his Presidency. In the north, Lincoln was revered for preserving the nation. The losing South, however, did not feel the same way. South Carolina seceeded from the Union as soon as Lincoln was announced the winner of the campaign. So, no, Lincoln was not the most popular President at the time of his death. In fact, half the nation was not in approval of him at all. Much like Lincoln, Bush had spear-headed a war that would, in its own way, tear his country in half. So, while they are different, they are still similar. Why is it that Lincoln gets pomp and circumstance and Bush gets made to look like a fool? Time is one answer. Time will tell if history smiles on Bush, the way that it has on Lincoln. Something tells me fifty years from now we will not be reminiscing about the good old times when George Bush ran the United States.

[6] While Abe Lincoln in Illinois did not create the myth of Abraham Lincoln, it certainly solidified it. The film took the already circulating ideas of Abe Lincoln and put them together into one solid, cohesive picture that remains until this day. Why, though, did Lincoln become such a popular figure at the time, with two films about him in as many years? There are many thoughts. Many critics see Abe Lincoln in Illinois as an allegory for the state of the world at the time. Abe Lincoln was facing a war that could end things as Americans knew them. The American public was doing the same as Europe plunged into what would be The Second World War. Lincoln wanted to emancipate the country from the injustices of slavery, a message that America needed to free the world from the tyranny of the Axis powers. Robert Sherwood, author of the play on which the film was based as well as writer of the film, was moving from isolationist antiwar advocate to head of the Information for the War Department. The country was moving from isolation towards war. The country needed a hero, a figure to inspire hope in a dark time. Lincoln did that. And the more grassroots he was, the more people could relate to him -- the more he could, in fact, be an allegory for the trying times ahead. The idea has also been floated that the Republicans pushed the production of the films to try to ride Lincoln's seventy-five-year-old coat tails to victory over FDR. Although this cannot be proven, it would prove to be ironic if true, since Sherwood later became a speech writer for Roosevelt.

[7] These reasons are a big part of the reason. If we consider Sherwood's politics, they are congruent to the major themes in the play. Sherwood fought in a Canadian infantry in World War I, surviving with a very isolationist and antiwar mentality. Many of his early works reflect his opinion about the pointlessness of war and the tragic toll it took on both the winners and the losers. However, he did have a deep commitment to justice and the American ideals of liberty and freedom. That is why, as World War II approached, Sherwood slowly but surely came to support the war; the war was necessary based on the evil of the axis powers of Germany and Japan and the US's power to help stop them. Americans' war tolerance changed in much the same way that Sherwood's did. It makes a lot of sense, then, that first a play and then a film about Lincoln, a person who, at least by Sherwood's presentation, put aside his distaste for war to do what was necessary for liberty. In the film, Lincoln doesn't want to fight in the Black Hawk War; he just wants to leave the Indians to their land. He doesn't want to get involved in the Civil War at all but thinks that it is necessary to preserve the Union and free the slaves. Looking at the film, the themes of freedom and Lincoln extolling the values of equality and liberty in his speeches against Douglas, it is easy to see why FDR would slate Sherwood as one of his top propagandists.

[8] It also makes some sense to me that if Sherwood was using Lincoln as an allegory for the situation of Americans at the dawn of WWII, that he wouldn't include the President's term in office. That was the hard part, the part where war destroyed the man the movie builds us up to love. The war tore apart the country, killed millions, ravaged thousands of square miles, and ruined Abraham Lincoln. It drove him into deep self-loathing and depression. It was, regardless of the side that won or lost, a disaster. It preserved the Union and freed the slaves but at a very high price. Filmgoers have come to love Abe by the time he is elected President; we sympathize with him, and we relate to him. If we were to see him through his darkest times, it would not inspire the audience to seek freedom for all those oppressed. In fact, it would do just the opposite. The film is a very highly praised, far reaching form of propaganda.

[9] Lincoln outshines all the other Presidents in myth and legend. In my research I have read many things that are interesting and outrageous. I have read that Lincoln freed the slaves because a psychic medium told him to and levitated a piano to prove her self. I read that he was a homosexual, that he never had sex with his wife, that Mary Todd was crazy, and that Lincoln told very dirty jokes. There is extensive research on Lincoln, and everyone knows a crazy fact about him. What do you know about Chester Arthur? Or President Harrison or Cleveland? Why does Lincoln have this mystique that warrants these films? I think it does have to do with people wanting a hero that can lead them through trying times and show them that they will come out on the other side. But modern scholars want to know why Americans are so quick to overlook Lincoln's faults. He had serious bouts of depression, some so deep he was on suicide watch. He had a romantic relationship with Ann Rutledge, a woman already engaged to someone else. While not quite adultery, stealing another man's fiancé is certainly scandalous, especially 175 years ago. Abe Lincoln in Illinois doesn't raise an eyebrow at this. Instead, we feel sorry for Lincoln. We look at him as the good guy who is finishing last in the ladies department. Why is it we overlook this in Lincoln, his premarital affairs and the supposed gay affairs while he was married to Mary Todd? Why do we excuse his marriage, look at him as the victim in his relationship to Mary, a do-gooder caught in a bad situation? It is not just Lincoln that we look at this way. We overlook Kennedy's dalliances but not Clinton's. Maybe it has to do with what is taboo at the time. But maybe it is because we want to see these men as scot-free, because we need something else from them.

[10] That is the bottom line. Even in this day and age, when we are jaded and hardened against the evils of the world, we still want a hero. Abraham Lincoln is a hero for every age. He did the right thing, despite the consequences, despite the hardships. He went against the conventional ideas of the backwoods man and became educated. He did what was right, not what was popular. Even if this isn't true, that is what we need. That was what we needed in 1865 at the dawn of the Civil War, in 1938 at the dawn of World War II, and that is what we need now, when humanity faces disease, global warming, worldwide economic recession, and terror. We chose Lincoln because he is like us, because he is everyday, because he is tortured. He wasn't always happy, and he didn't always know what was best for him. That is how we feel, as people. And that is why I think that the American people have embraced Lincoln the way we have. The film highlights these points, and although it may overlook some other important details, this is still important. History doesn't always tell the truth, especially not when it is used for entertainment. But out of everything that I have learned about Lincoln, I think the most important thing I have learned is that history can make a new truth, if that's what people need. It is important to know that we have that to fall back on, just as it is important to know the most objective truth we can. Abe Lincoln in Illinois gives people hope. We all need hope.

[11] This is even more evident with the recent resurgence of Lincoln idolatry. Of course, with Obama's inauguration, Lincoln's values have come full circle. Emancipation has finally made its way to acceptance, and in our nation, for the first time in a long time, we have hope for the future on a large scale. We hope that things can be different, that things will be better. Steven Spielberg, a highly acclaimed director, is cashing in. These plans were there before Obama, however, when we needed hope the most recently. Bush was President, and the nation didn't like that; we are losing two wars overseas, and the economy is bad. We needed hope. Obama gave us more, but in many ways we are the Americans of 1938: financial crisis, unemployment, violence overseas, and possibly more daunting wars to come. I hope for our sake that we can find Lincoln in the same way that Sherwood's America did. I hope that we can find in him a symbol of righteousness and the sense that sometimes you have to go through hard times to get to better ones. Although this time I hope we see a more truthful version of history, it would be tragedy if the Lincoln of 2010 doesn't have the same homespun earnestness that inspires real hope in us as the Lincoln of Abe Lincoln in Illinois does. In the meantime, someone should put this film back on DVD. It is not just important for history, it is important for culture, a culture of hope that everyone talks about so much these days.