It took Goodwin 10 years of research, interviews with scholars and visits to 30 libraries to explore the political genius of Lincoln, a man inscrutable in marble and poetic on paper.
As the first chapters of her book were printed (readers’ copies), Goodwin sent them to Spielberg, who bought the film rights, deciding which Lincoln he would bring to the screen.
He chose a president, grieving over a war renting his country asunder, one convinced once the fighting ended, he could never push an amendment through Congress to abolish slavery.
Earlier, Lincoln had tested the waters, asking Congress to pass a resolution guaranteeing federal aid to any state willing to gradually end slavery within its boundaries.
Lincoln determined “less than one half-day’s cost of this war would pay for all the slaves in Delaware at $400 per head.”
Those opposing Lincoln’s plan argued states remaining loyal to the Union might give up slaves, but “rebellious” states would not.
Meanwhile, reports from the war’s front lines gave Lincoln an opening. The Confederate Army was using slaves to dig trenches, cook and tend the wounded. On farms and plantations, slaves planted crops as long as there were seeds and picked cotton, helping families to survive.
Lincoln, craftily, let the word go forth the emancipation of slaves must be considered “a military necessity, a legitimate exercise of the president’s constitutional war powers.”
Even Lincoln’s enemies shook their heads, wondering where the quiet man of words came up with an ingenious plan to free slaves, offer them money to join the Union forces and provide more manpower for the army.
Lincoln pushed his idea, reading “a legal brief on emancipation” to his cabinet. It set Jan. 1, 1863, as the date when all slaves living in states fighting against the Union would be declared free, three million black Americans.
As New Year’s Day, 1863, drew near, skeptics questioned Lincoln’s resolve. Lincoln himself (described by Goodwin as “weary”), put down the pen with which he had signed the Emancipation Proclamation, explaining, “If my name goes down in history, it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it.”
Goodwin writes of Lincoln resting his arm, trembling from hours of shaking hands at a reception. He told aides he was determined his signature would be clearly written, so no one could say: “He hesitated.”
Though Lincoln’s decree applied only to slaves owned by Southern masters: “The Emancipation Proclamation changed forever the relationship of the federal government to slavery.” No longer would law enforcement officers return slaves to their owners. A Boston newspaper predicted: “Slavery from this hour ceases to be a political power in this country.”
Initially, the Union Army did not welcome black recruits without the long arm of prejudice in play. It took a visit to the White House from abolitionist Frederick Douglass, to exact a promise from Lincoln, guaranteeing black soldiers the same pay as white soldiers and commissions as officers when commended by the Secretary of War.
Lincoln knew the Emancipation Proclamation would not stand as law once the war ended. He needed a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery before a surrender, but he did not have votes in the House of Representatives to guarantee it.
“Lincoln,” the movie, is Spielberg’s pitch-perfect history lesson on the cajoling, promises and political wiles of Lincoln and the fight to pass the Thirteenth Amendment.
I promise speed reading to share Goodwin’s account of Lincoln, maneuvering the passage of the amendment and binding up his nation’s wounds: “Thenceforward and Forever” — next Sunday.
Judy Elliott is an award-winning columnist from Marietta.