Was Lincoln’s Voice Really So Whiny? We Asked the Leading Expert.

Slate's Culture Blog
Sept. 18 2012 8:30 AM

Does Daniel Day-Lewis Sound Like Lincoln?

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Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in the trailer for Lincoln

When Steven Spielberg debuted the long-anticipated trailer for Lincoln last Thursday, all eyes were on Daniel Day-Lewis: Could the British-Irish actor really fill out the 16th president’s stovepipe hat?

Forrest Wickman Forrest Wickman

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

But what really made headlines was Day-Lewis’ voice. Instead of the booming baritones we associate with our greatest orators (not to mention the most memorable Day-Lewis characters), Day-Lewis’s voice was surprisingly high, folksy, even meek. Hollywood Elsewhere’s Jeffrey Wells was quick to disapprove, complaining, “It’s hard to describe what I was looking to hear, but this isn’t it.” Cinema Blend ran a poll, asking “Do you think Daniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln voice sounds weird?” Meanwhile, Jimmy Fallon responded in his own way: by replacing Day-Lewis’ voice with the sound of Pee-wee Herman’s.

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However, as some hastened to explain, historians have long known that Lincoln’s voice was a bit higher than those of his more thundering contemporaries. So we decided to turn to leading Lincoln expert Harold Holzer. (As Smithsonian magazine wrote, “If anyone had an educated guess as to how it sounded … it would be Holzer.”) How does Day-Lewis’ Lincoln sound to the trained ear of a scholar?

“Uncanny, convincing, and historically right,” Holzer told me. How so? Holzer pointed specifically to “the combined Kentucky-Hoosier twang” and, again, “the surprisingly high-pitched voice.” After all, as Holzer reaffirmed, “Lincoln didn’t growl—in fact some people said he whined!”

So what did that Kentucky and Indiana accent sound like, exactly? Holzer suggested that you would have noticed it most in the pronunciation of words like chair and bear. Lincoln “played with” the pronunciation of these words, so that chair might sound like cheer, while a “bear” was often a “bar.” However, like any great politician, Old Abe wasn’t always constant: “He could go in and out of this accent when he wanted to, like Clinton and Obama do when they are schmaltzing things up.”

And what about the rest of Day-Lewis’ characterization? I asked particularly about his hunched posture. According to Holzer, “the slump … the rounded shoulders that contemporaries noted … as if Lincoln literally had the weight of the world on him”—it’s all spot on. Indeed, contemporaries like law partner William Herndon frequently described the Great Emancipator as “stoop-shouldered.”

So will Spielberg and Day-Lewis make for the definitive portrayal of Honest Abe? Holzer has “seen every characterization from Walter Huston to Dennis Weaver to Kris Kristofferson” and so far Sam Waterston’s is his “favorite all time,” though he admitted he might be prejudiced toward Waterston: He met the actor on the set of Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, where Waterston told him that he had been “in the Library of Congress oral history collection listening to the oldest existing recordings of Kentuckians and Hoosiers.” Even so, he added, “This may eclipse all.”

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