In the opening scene, young Abraham Lincoln is running for the State Legislature in Illinois. He walks up to the top step and begins addressing the assembled crowd of voters – maybe 15 of them.
“You already know what I believe,” he states, calmly and plainly, “I believe in racial equality and ending slavery.”
Just kidding. Lincoln never said that. What he actually says is more interesting.
“I’m in favor of a national bank, internal improvement system, and high protective tariffs.”
What an unexpected beginning. Director John Ford doesn’t give us the president we know; he gives us a thought-provoking character study.
This version of Abe Lincoln (Henry Fonda) believes in the United States. Not in a general, patriotic sort-of way; he believes that the federal government should grow stronger and that Washington has the power to improve everybody’s lives.
“Young Mr. Lincoln” doesn’t try to show us all the greatest events of the real Lincoln’s life. The plot centers around one fictional murder trial with Honest Abe representing the accused.
During a drunken fist fight at the State Fair, two brothers kill an armed lawman.
Before he can defend the would-be killers in court, Lincoln has to save them from the lynch mob. In the film’s most powerful scene, the young lawyer bravely stands at the door of the jail and addresses the blood-thirsty crowd.
First he argues the obvious point: vigilantism is wrong and even unpopular defendants deserve to argue their case in court.
But then Mr. Lincoln makes a much less popular observation. He states that a group of people is apt to perform evil deeds that an individual would be too ashamed to do. The only thing standing between us and anarchy are legitimate government institutions.
President Lincoln has always been a controversial figure. And as a pacifist, I fully understand why. He presided over the merciless invasion of a neighboring country. The reason for the invasion was that the neighboring country used to be part of his country and Lincoln wanted it back. That doesn’t seem very wholesome. In fact, it sounds exactly like Putin’s Russia invading Ukraine.
John Ford subtly addresses this without ever mentioning the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln viewed America as a gift from God. He imagined that a powerful, centralized United States would bring material and possibly moral progress to the continent. From this perspective, sending many men to heaven a little earlier seems like a defensible decision.
The problem of slavery is mentioned only one time, and not in the context you’re expecting. Abe explains that his family moved away from Kentucky because slavery was expanding there. You see, the larger workforce reduced the wages that working class whites could earn.
“Young Mr. Lincoln” is a quietly brilliant and fascinating historical document. Unsurprisingly, it is reverent to Abraham Lincoln. Quite surprisingly, it is respectful of the intelligence of the audience.