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Lincoln
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Synopsis for
Lincoln (2012) More at IMDbPro »

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The opening scene is a brutal, muddy melee. At close quarters in that wet place, the men on whom the camera closes in are attacking one another with bayonets, swords, fists, or even by holding an enemy's face in the mud to drown him. Many of the combatants are black. A voice-over says that the rebels (Confederates, or rebs) "killed every negro soldier they captured at Poison Springs... so at Jenkins Ferry, we decided we weren't taking no reb prisoners." The camera cuts to show the speaker, a black soldier in an army camp talking to someone who after a few seconds is revealed to be President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis). The soldier (Private Harold Green, Colman Domingo) and his comrade (Corporal Ira Clark, David Oyelowo) tell Lincoln their names, ranks, and where they're headed next (Wilmington). They're pleased that they're finally being paid as much as the white soldiers, but Clark complains about the lack of commissioned negro officers and sarcastically predicts that whites might be able to tolerate a negro colonel in 50 years -- and "in 100 years, the vote." A couple of white soldiers who heard Lincoln speak at Gettysburg come up; one repeats the beginning of the Gettysburg address and his friend recites the next lines. They're called away, but Corporal Clark finishes the speech as he walks off.

In January 1865, the recently relected Lincoln notes the imminence of the Civil War's end, wondering out loud what will become of the former slaves. He finds insufficiency, even hypocrisy, in his Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which had freed most slaves as a war measure but had not made slavery illegal. Only a constitutional amendment illegalizing slavery, he realizes, will spell its permanent end in America.

Debate rages even within his own cabinet, but as Lincoln sees it, the passage of the constitutional amendment cannot wait until the end of the war, for Southern slaves who had been freed as a war measure might fall into forced servitude once again. In an interview with a white couple from Missouri, it becomes clear that some, at least, of the popular support for the antislavery amendment is based on the belief that passing the amendment will hasten the end of the war. Under the questioning of Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), the two admit that should peace break out without the amendment passing, they would no longer support it, fearing the effects the freed slaves would have on their local economy.

The proposed Thirteenth Amendment has passed in the Senate but does not have sufficient backing in the House of Representatives. Lincoln takes it upon himself and his staff to find the votes needed by the end of January, which requires the granting of many political favors to members of their rival party. Lincoln and Seward will not stoop to outright cash bribery (not knowingly, anyway), but Seward hires three lobbyists to promote their cause by promising government jobs to Democratic members of the House who failed to win relection -- the lame ducks. The lobbyists are W.N. Bilbo (James Spader), Robert Latham (John Hawkes), and Richard Schell (Tim Blake Nelson).

To pass the amendment, Lincoln needs the support of Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook) and his son Montgomery (Byron Jennings), the influential founders of the Republican Party and leaders of its conservative wing. The Blairs are eager to end the war. As a condition of his support, Preston Blair demands permission to visit the Confederate leadership in Richmond, Virginia, and invite them to send a peace delegation to Washington. This is awkward for Lincoln because he can't afford to end the war until the amendment passes, but he allows Blair to go secretly to Richmond.

The bedrock of support for the amendment lies at the other end of the party: the Radicals, lead by the creatively abusive Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) of Pennsylvania. The Radicals are abolitionists, and Stevens goes so far as to support full racial equality, including voting rights for black men -- an idea that angers and frightens most white people outside his own wing of the Republican Party.

Lincoln's family life is emotionally fraught. His wife Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) suffers constant headaches as the result of a carriage accident that she believes was an assassination attempt against her husband. Mary is deeply interested in the passage of the amendment, but Lincoln and Mary are still grieving the death of their son Willie three years before. The Lincoln household includes their youngest son Tad (Gulliver McGrath); Mary's dressmaker and friend Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben), a former slave who accompanies Mary on outings to the theater and the visitors' gallery of the House of Representatives; William Slade (Stephen Henderson), Lincoln's black valet; and eventually Tad's older brother Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Robert has been studying law at Harvard but comes home because his self respect demands that he enlist in the Army. Both his parents oppose the idea, being unable to face the prospect of losing another son. Robert eventually prevails upon his father to let him join up; Lincoln placates Mary by attaching Robert to the staff of General Ulysses Grant (Jared Harris), where he's unlikely to come to harm.

Debate rages in the House of Representatives over the advisability of the amendment. Some politicians see peace as a necessary precursor to the passing of the amendment, but others see the passing of the amendment as a step on the road to the end of the Civil War. Lincoln's challenge is to play the middle, and he does so very effectively.

The vote on the amendment is nearly postponed due to the rumor that a Confederate peace delegation is in Washington, ready to negotiate. James Ashley (David Costabile), the amendment's sponsor, is able to deny that a delegation is in Washington or on the way because Lincoln has cannily ordered the Confederate emissaries to be held at Hampton Roads, Virginia. The Thirteenth Amendment passes by two votes after Lincoln himself lobbies a few fence-sitting congressmen.

Congressman Stevens borrows the official copy of the amendment and takes it home to show to his biracial housekeeper and common-law wife, Lydia Smith (S. Epatha Merkerson).

Days after the vote, Lincoln and Seward meet with the Confederate delegation at Hampton Roads. The Confederates make negotiation conditional on Lincoln's written assurance that the Thirteenth Amendment will not be ratified. Lincoln responds that all the northern states will ratify it, and he has assurances that at least three Confederate states will do the same upon readmission to the Union; this makes the end of slavery a certainty. No agreements are made at the Hampton Roads Conference.

About two months later, General Robert E. Lee (Christopher Boyer) surrenders at Appomattox Court House. Lincoln's double coup has paved the way for the peaceful readmission of the Confederate states to the Union, but he will not live to see it, as he is assassinated days after the surrender. In the closing scene, Lincoln delivers his second inaugural address.
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