As the American Civil War continues to rage, America's president struggles with continuing carnage on the battlefield as he fights with many inside his own cabinet on the decision to emancipate the slaves.
In 1865, as the American Civil War winds inexorably toward conclusion, U.S. president Abraham Lincoln endeavors to achieve passage of the landmark constitutional amendment which will forever ban slavery from the United States. However, his task is a race against time, for peace may come at any time, and if it comes before the amendment is passed, the returning southern states will stop it before it can become law. Lincoln must, by almost any means possible, obtain enough votes from a recalcitrant Congress before peace arrives and it is too late. Yet the president is torn, as an early peace would save thousands of lives. As the nation confronts its conscience over the freedom of its entire population, Lincoln faces his own crisis of conscience -- end slavery or end the war.
It's January, 1865, and US President Abraham Lincoln has just started his second term in office as an immensely popular leader, especially among his supporters, because of his down home attitude. However, the country is in turmoil with the Civil War entering its fourth year and having taken the lives of many a soldier on both sides. Lincoln believes that passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution - which would abolish slavery - would most importantly achieve something in which he believes to his core, but also end the war as slavery is a large part of the raison d'etre for it. The Amendment has already passed in the Senate, and is scheduled for vote in the House of Representatives at the end of the month. While he is assured of yes votes from his fellow Republicans, he and his team have to work hard behind the scenes to assure enough yes votes from Democrats, which may require some compromise in other areas. But other factors may also come into play on the vote, such as the Confederate forces in the war issuing their own compromise to end the war but keep slavery. Meanwhile, Lincoln also deals with his oft supportive but oft tumultuous relationship with wife Mary Todd Lincoln, and their latest possible rift in oldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln's want to leave law school to enlist.
With the nation embroiled in still another year with the high death count of Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln brings the full measure of his passion, humanity and political skill to what would become his defining legacy: to end the war and permanently abolish slavery through the 13th Amendment. Having great courage, acumen and moral fortitude, Lincoln pushes forward to compel the nation, and those in government who oppose him, to aim toward a greater good for all mankind.
In January 1865, President Abraham Lincoln expects the Civil War to end soon, with the defeat of the Confederate States. He is concerned that his 1863 Emancipation Proclamation may be discarded by the courts after the war, and the proposed Thirteenth Amendment will be defeated by the returning slave states. He feels it imperative to pass the amendment beforehand, to remove any possibility that freed slaves might be re-enslaved. The Radical Republicans fear the amendment will be defeated by some who wish to delay its passage; support from Republicans in the border states is not yet assured. The amendment also requires the support of several Democratic congressmen to pass. With dozens of Democrats being lame ducks after losing their re-election campaigns in the fall of 1864, some of Lincoln's advisers believe he should wait for a new Republican-heavy Congress. Lincoln remains adamant about having the amendment in place before the war is concluded and the southern states readmitted.
- 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 reëlected 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 reëlection -- 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 McKinley 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.