Did the Characters in Lincoln Really Look Like That?

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 8 2012 4:50 PM

What Did the People of Lincoln Really Look Like?

More than 40 characters in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln are based on historical figures. (There are also over a dozen named characters who appear to be fictional, judging from our research.) Given the movie’s obvious attention to historical detail—at one point in the film, you reportedly hear Lincoln’s actual pocketwatch—we thought we’d dip into the Library of Congress’s photo archive and do some comparisons. How closely did Spielberg and his costuming, make-up, and design teams model the look of the cast on their real-life inspirations?

Quite closely! Nearly everyone for whom we were able to find a historical photo bore at least a passing resemblance to their cinematic counterpart. (Though Hal Holbook as Francis Preston Blair, Sr. is a little bit of a stretch. We would have suggested Tom Noonan.)

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Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis)

Spielberg’s film follows 56-year-old Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, from January of 1865 until his death in April. The portrait on the left was taken in 1864.

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Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field)*

Mary Todd Lincoln, the First Lady, was 47 at the time the film takes place. The photograph above shows her at 43.

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Robert Todd Lincoln (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)

Robert Todd Lincoln was the president’s eldest son, a 22-year-old Harvard graduate who would later become Secretary of War under Presidents Garfield and Chester A. Arthur. This photo shows him near the time that Lincoln takes place.

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Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones)

Thaddeus Stevens, a 73-year-old U.S. Representative from Pennsylvania, was a powerful Radical Republican who served as Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. In the portrait above, he is somewhere between his mid-60s and mid-70s (he died at 76).

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William H. Seward (David Strathairn)*

William H. Seward, nearly 64 in January 1865, served as U.S. Secretary of State under Lincoln during the Civil War after a stint as the governor of New York. This photograph dates from 1860 to 1865.

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Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris)

By the age of 43, when Lincoln  is set, Ulysses S. Grant had been appointed to lead the Union Army. Here, we see him at 58.

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Francis Preston Blair, Sr. (Hal Holbrook)

A 74-year-old former chairman of the Republican Convention, Blair attempted to broker a peace with Confederate President Jefferson Davis in 1864, resulting in the “Peace Conference” of February 1865. This photograph was taken between 1860 and 1875.

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Fernando Wood (Lee Pace)

Fernando Wood, who was born in 1812, represented New York in Congress after serving as mayor of New York City. In this portrait, he is in his early 40s.

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Alexander Hamilton Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley)

Alexander Hamilton Stephens governed the Confederate States of America as Vice President during the Civil War; he had previously represented Georgia in Congress. He was just shy of 53 when most of Lincoln is set. The photo above was taken between 1865 and 1880.

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Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben)

Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker and confidante, Elizabeth Keckley helped establish the Contraband Relief Association in 1862. She was about to turn 47 in January 1865. The date of the image above, provided by the Documenting the American South project at the University of North Carolina, is unknown.

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James Mitchell Ashley (David Costabile)

James Mitchell Ashley, 40, represented Montana in Congress and was a chairman to the Committee on Territories. The portrait on the left was taken between 1860 and 1865.

* This post originally mispelled the last names of David Strathairn and Sally Field.

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

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