The movie focuses on the last few months of Lincoln’s life, particularly on the passage of the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery. Day-Lewis’s Lincoln is a complex character: extremely intelligent, witty, compassionate and doggedly moral, yet willing to do unethical things in the name of the greater good.
At the start of the Civil War Lincoln had declared that his primary goal was to preserve the Union. “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it,” he said, though most people suspected that he would prefer the latter option.
As the movie begins, shortly after Lincoln’s re-election, the dreams of the southern leaders of ruling over a vast slave-holding empire lie in ruins. At this point the Confederates would be happy to accept a peace settlement that allowed them to rejoin the Union and keep all their slaves. Many northerners would be willing to grant them this.
Lincoln however puts off peace negotiations until he can push through a Constitutional amendment banning slavery–even though he knows that by doing this he is prolonging the horrific slaughter.
Even this will be difficult. The amendment has passed the Senate but the Republicans don’t have the necessary 2/3 majority in the House of Representatives. Some Democratic votes will be needed, but the Democrats are solidly against abolition. Even the Republican votes can’t all be counted on. The Republican Party was formed to prevent the further expansion of slavery but not all of its members are committed to immediate abolition. The border state Republicans in particular just want a quick and honorable end to the war.
On the other hand there is the problem of Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) the leader of the Radical Republicans in the House. The fiery abolitionist has repeatedly attacked Lincoln for going too easy on the South. He doesn’t just want to free the slaves; he wants to give them immediate legal and social equality and to confiscate the slaveowners’ property to compensate the slaves for past injustices. This goes far beyond the views of most northerners and it is likely that Stevens’s intemperate statements will drive away the moderate votes needed to pass the amendment.
Lincoln has a difficult challenge. He must keep Stevens in line, reassure the pacifist elements that he is indeed working for peace, and somehow round up some Democratic votes.
For the last job Lincoln’s closest political confidante, Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), hires a couple of amusingly sleazy political fixers played by James Spader and Tim Blake Nelson. They suggest that it should be easy to buy the necessary votes since the average Congressman can be had for about $2,000. Lincoln however insists that everything must be done legally–it is only permissible to offer government jobs in exchange for votes.
Although the character of Lincoln totally dominates this movie but there are some other notable performances. Tommy Lee Jones is particularly memorable as the irascible Stevens. Stevens caused Lincoln a good deal of grief but his views have been largely vindicated by history and he may have helped push Lincoln in the right direction.
Another source of at least occasional grief was Lincoln’s wife Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field). An intelligent, passionate woman, she was given to hysterical outbursts and wishful thinking. She assumes throughout the movie that the 13th Amendment will hasten the end of the war, while everyone else seems to understand that it is the one thing that will guarantee that the South will fight on to the bitter end.