Abe Lincoln In Illinois: A Review

Thomas Wolfe once famously wrote “you can’t go home again” and I guess that sometimes applies to films.  When I was a boy and a teenager I loved the film Abe Lincoln in Illinois. Released in 1940, the film was an adaptation of Robert E. Sherwood’s broadway play.  Raymond Massey gave a stunning performance as Abraham Lincoln which has remained with me, although I have not seen the film, other than Youtube excerpts, in probably 35 years.  Recently I learned that the film had been released on DVD.  Purchasing it, I watched it last Friday evening.

The film was certainly as powerful as I remembered it.  Raymond Massey gave an eerily on target performance as Abraham Lincoln and Gene Lockhart was magnificent as Lincoln’s great antagonist, Stephen A. Douglas.  However, in the intervening decades I had learned quite a bit about Lincoln and his time and several aspects of the film I found grating:

1.  Historical howlers: Every Hollywood “historical” epic tends to commit sins against the historical record, but Abe Lincoln in Illinois had some egregious ones:

a.  Jack Armstrong, one of Lincoln’s earliest New Salem friends, is shown as offering to throw a tomato at Stephen A. Douglas during one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858.   I assume it was his ghost since Armstrong died in 1854.

b.  John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry which occurred in 1859 is shown as taking place before the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas Senate race.

c.  Lincoln is shown as receiving a military bodyguard immediately after being elected.  No such protection was afforded the president-elect by President Buchanan, even though Lincoln was deluged with death threats.

d.  In an affecting scene, the citizens of Springfield begin singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic as Lincoln heads off to Washington in February of 1861.  The song wouldn’t be written until November of that year and not published until 1862.

2.  Ann Rutledge-The film spends a great deal of time depicting the romance between Lincoln and Ann Rutledge.  There is virtually no historical support for this charming old fable.

3.  Lincoln the Reluctant-Lincoln is shown as a very reluctant politician. Rubbish!  Lincoln loved politics and was an enthusiastic participant throughout his life.

4.  Mary the Shrew-Mary Todd Lincoln is depicted in the film as a shrew who drives an ambitiousless Lincoln forward to fulfill his destiny very much against his will.  Lincoln had quite enough ambition on his own.  By most accounts the Lincolns had a loving marriage,  with the usual ups and downs familiar to most married couples who stay together through good and bad times.

5.  Billy Herndon-It is easy to see where the playwright got most of his misinformation about Lincoln:  the memoir of Lincoln written by his drunken law partner William Herndon.  Herndon’s work, while containing much of real historical value, is often unreliable, especially in regard to Mary Todd Lincoln who Herndon cordially loathed.  He was also one of the earliest proponents of the Ann Rutledge myth.    Springfield attorney Milton Hay, a contemporary of Lincoln and Herndon, sums up the actual Lincoln-Herndon relationship well:  “He was a poor, forlorn fellow who got on the right side of Lincoln, and that
was one of Lincoln’s abounding traits, that if any person moved his sympathies he would go to their relief. It was Herndon’s poverty and hard luck that made Lincoln take to him. Now, you must remember that Mr. Lincoln had but little local practice in the city of Springfield. He went on what is called the
circuits, following the judges around through the counties. It was not of much consequence for him to have an office in Springfield. He took Herndon into
partnership, and put him in the office at Springfield to build up a local practice if he could, under the name of the firm of Lincoln & Herndon. He
did not give any of the depth of his intimacy of character to Mr. Herndon. He was tolerant and kind to him, but he did not go to him to pour out his soul and communicate his thoughts.”

6.  Lincoln and the 1860 Election-Lincoln is depicted in the film as being a reluctant candidate for President, an almost unknown black horse  chosen by wheelers and dealers within the Republican party.  Actually Lincoln went into the Republican convention of 1860 second only to frontrunner Seward in delegate strength.  He was a national figure due to the coverage given to the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858, and probably the odds on favorite for the nomination when consideration was given to the number of powerful enemies Seward had made within the Republican party.

Having said all that, as a work of art the film is a magnificent tribute to Lincoln and is at its finest in the scene below which captures well, not  only the Lincoln-Douglas debate, but also the power of Lincoln as an orator:

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.


  1. Goofs, according to IMDB:

    * Anachronisms: The song “Battle Hymn of the Republic” is played and sung by a choral group in the last scene as he is going to Washington to become President, in 1861. The song was written by Julia Ward Howe in 1861, but after Lincoln had been inaugurated and the Civil War had started.

    * Anachronisms: The Lincolns arrive at the Springfield Depot while a band is playing “The Battle Cry of Freedom”. The song was written in 1862, a year after Lincoln was inaugurated as president.

    * Anachronisms: The Lincoln-Douglas debates took place in 1858 – one year before John Brown attempted to seize the Harpers Ferry arsenal.

    * Factual errors: Lincoln’s House Divided Against Itself speech occurred when he accepted the Illinois Republican Party’s nomination for U.S. Senator and not at any of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates.

    * Anachronisms: When results for the 1860 election are being received, West Virginia is listed on the the state-by-state tally board. West Virginia didn’t become a state until 1863, when it broke off from Virginia after that state had seceded from the Union.

    * Factual errors: Near the end of the movie, we see Raymond Massey tieing a string around a chest. On the chest it reads: “A. Lincoln- White House.” This is factually incorrect. During Lincoln’s time, the White House was known as the “Executive Mansion.” The term, “White House” was not coined until the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, some forty years after the Lincoln Presidency.

    * Continuity: When the boat hits the dam, the front fence loses the bottom board through which a pig can be seen falling. The next shot shows the front fence completely gone.

  2. I haven’t seen this movie — as you note, it’s been pretty hard to find until recently — but I have seen a couple of other Lincoln films which are far worse in the historical inaccuracy department.

    “Young Mr. Lincoln” (1939) with Henry Fonda as Abe conflates several notable criminal cases tried by Lincoln into one overly dramatic Perry Mason-style trial. Director John Ford also seems to have used an all-purpose generic “Wild West town” set to represent 1830s Springfield, despite the fact that most Westerns are set at least 20 to 50 years later.

    “Abraham Lincoln” (1930) by D. W. Griffith leaves much to be desired also; its most irritating aspect (for me) was its casting of Una Merkel as Ann Rutledge. Merkel plays her as a spoiled and extremely ditzy platinum blonde bombshell, which I suspect there weren’t too many of in the real New Salem.

  3. Young Mr. Lincoln is a film I very much like Elaine. It is very loosely based on the Almanac Murder Trial of 1857 in Beardstown where Lincoln successfully defended the son of Lincoln’s late friend Jack Armstrong on a murder charge. Lincoln’s client was almost certainly guilty, but Lincoln destroyed the credibility of the chief prosecution witness who said that he saw the murder by the light of the moon, by proving through the almanac that the moon had set by the time of the murder. The case is notable in Illinois law because it was one of the first times that a court in Illinois allowed a scientific text to be admitted into evidence. Young Mr. Lincoln depicts this case as Lincoln’s first major trial as a novice attorney, whereas the actual case was tried near the end of his legal career when Lincoln was regarded as one of the finest lawyers in the state.

  4. IMDB is incorrect about the use of the term White House Joe. It wasn’t officially called the White House until the Teddy Roosevelt administration, but unofficially people had been calling the Executive Mansion the White House since 1811.

  5. I recall seeing “Young Mister Lincoln” many years (the late, late show!) I would like to see it again (historical blunders notwithstanding). All that shows is Hollywood’s playing fast and loose with history did not begin with Oliver Stone 🙂

    I remember with great fondness the “Ann Rutledge” poem from “Spoon River Anthology.” I absolutely loved SPA as a teen – it was the first book of poetry I felt passionately about. Although I am a city girl, my parents grew up on farms in Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota, and I have small-town relatives, so it was thrilling to me to find a book of poems set, not in England or the Continent but in my own American Midwest (I did, of course, recognize that many of the citizens of Spoon River were hardly admirable souls).

  6. BTW, I had a very odd conversation this afternoon, but it’s been making me smile all day. I was walking down by Milwaukee’s Bradford Beach, wearing a blue T-shirt with white roses printed on the front. A woman who looked to be about 60 was coming down the path toward and as she drew near, she spoke to me:

    LADY: What a lovely shirt! Those are beautiful white roses!

    ME: Thank you. I got the T-shirt at the Art Museum –

    LADY: Are you Catholic?

    ME (quite startled by the question): Uh, yes I am.

    LADY: I saw those roses and they made me think of St. Therese.

    ME: The Little Flower! Why, what a wonderful way to think about it! It never crossed my mind.

    LADY: God bless you! You are blessed!

    ME: And may God bless you too!

    What a strange encounter to have with a total stranger. And how heartwarming! The funny thing is I ran in to her just as I had completed a Hail Mary and Our Father for the health of my sick brother-in-law. (I have tried to say the Rosary as I’m walking for exercise, but without beads I always lose track of my prayers.) I think it is a sign that I should begin asking St. Therese for intercessions.

  7. P.S. That conversation is one reason I am glad I am back in my native state and city, dreadful winter weather notwithstanding. It was not only a very Catholic exchange, but a very Midwestern one as well. There are undoubtably very good Catholics in the DC area, but I really can’t imagine such a exchange occurring on the Rock Creek Parkway.

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