This film features many, many meetings between Lincoln and his cabinet where he discusses the nature of the presidency, slavery and many other topics. Because these discussions are quite lengthy, it was difficult to remember the exact order in which they occur. As such this spoiler is a summary of the broad strokes.
President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) leans back in a chair at an Army camp. He listens to two African American soldiers from the segregated Union army battalion recount a recent battle explaining that since the Confederacy doesn’t take black prisoners their battalion repaid the favor. The younger of the two soldiers expresses a desire to move up the ranks and maybe one day work for Lincoln himself, an idea that makes Lincoln smile with pride. Two young white soldiers who just enlisted who heard Lincoln speak at Gettysburg arrive and show their admiration by reciting the Gettysburg Address. However, they become flustered and forget the final part, leaving the younger African American to walk off reciting the final portion.
The Civil War has been raging for four years and the Union has been struggling to hold itself together. Lincoln has just been re-elected and has been weighing the decision to push forward with the 13th Amendment. Having passed the Emancipation Proclamation a year and a half ago and seen that the people haven’t pushed him out, he feels that the time to abolish slavery is now. With the help of his Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), Lincoln begins reaching out into the House of Representatives to find the support he needs to pass the Amendment.
Lincoln returns to his residency within the White House. He sits in a chair and describes a dream he’s had about being on a quick moving boat heading to shore. His wife Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Fields) listens intently and offers an interpretation before complaining about being simply his soothsayer instead of a wife. Lincoln makes a joke but soon retreats and leaves Mary in to the care of the Lincoln’s house keeper, Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben) a former slave. Lincoln goes into a side room and finds his 12 year old son, Tad (Gulliver McGrath) asleep on the floor by the fireplace. Next to Tad are several slave plates photographs of young African Americans who were up for auction. Lincoln wakes the boy up and carries him to bed.
Seward pays a visit to three men William N. Bilboe (James Spader), Robert Latham (John Hawkes), and Richard Schell (Tim Blake Nelson) and tells them that in order to garner the two-thirds majority necessary to push the measure through they will need to find and convince several Democrats to switch their votes. While Bilboe sees no problem in bribing the politicians to switch their votes, Seward gives them two stipulations: the money they receive will only be for their accommodations and fees and they may not even mention Lincoln.
Lincoln meets with Francis Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), an influential Republican, in the hopes of persuading him to lend his support to the Amendment. Blair suggests that if Lincoln will allow Blair to meet with several members of the Confederate States government to begin to negotiate a peace, that he will support Lincoln’s Amendment. Lincoln allows Blair to go and begin negotiations in secret aware that if the peace talks are made public it will derail the Amendment (since it was initially suggested as a means of threatening the South into rejoining the Union).
Bilboe, Latham and Schell watch the arguments about the Amendment in the House. The main rival to the passage of the Amendment is the former Mayer of New York City Fernando Wood (Lee Pace) while the main backers are James Ashley (David Costabile) and Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) a Radical Republican and proponent of equal rights for African Americans for over 30 years. Knowing that several members of the House were not re-elected by their constituents, the trio of operatives begin looking for 20 party members they can bribe with political patronage under Lincoln’s second term. In exchange for jobs, they will vote in favor of the Amendment.
Tad is riding a small carriage attached to a donkey through the White House when his older brother, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), returns home from college. Mary is surprised by how much luggage he has brought home if he’s going to be returning after the presidential gala forcefully ignoring the fact that Robert clearly has other intentions. Seeking out his father, Robert bitterly complains that he will be the only man over the age of 15 present that will be without a uniform and that the only reason no one spits on him for being in college is because he is the president’s son and the public loves Lincoln.
That evening at the gala, Stevens arrives and is coldly greeted by Mary Todd Lincoln. Mary upset that Stevens had her household affairs investigated when she redecorated points to the line of people she is holding up talking to Stevens. She says that it must hurt to know that Stevens will never be as loved as Lincoln. After this mildly humiliating exchange, Lincoln and Stevens meet privately to discuss the Amendment. Both men agree that they must do whatever it takes to get it passed despite the fact that they do not see eye to eye on many things.
Blair returns from the South and informs Lincoln that he has the support of Blair’s republicans. With the support of both factions of Republicans, all Lincoln needs now are the 20 Democratic votes or abstentions. A trio of delegates from the Confederate States of America which includes Vice-President Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley) and Secretary of War John Archibald Campbell (Gregory Itzin) - begin the journey to Washington. They are brought by Union Soldiers to Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris) in Virginia and present him with the terms of their peace treaty. Grant, unimpressed by the demands to remain sovereign tells them that if they would like to meet with Lincoln, they better be prepared to surrender.
Back in Washington, the rumors of a peace agreement to end the war begins to derail the Amendment’s progress. Several party members who were in the bag inform the trio of operatives that they have changed their mind. Lincoln meets with the trio and encourages them to do whatever is necessary to secure the necessary votes as quickly as possible. The trio point out that the rumors of a peace delegation is derailing their maneuvers which drives Lincoln to send a telegram telling Grant to delay the delegation in Virginia to keep them from reaching Washington before the Amendment is passed. Bilboe tells Lincoln of a Representative who could be swayed and Lincoln arranges a personal meeting with the man to change his mind. The trio sets to work on Democratic Congressman Wells A. Hutchins (Walton Goggins) by offering him a position as a postmaster in a state office once his term is up.
Lincoln takes Robert out on a carriage ride and brings him to a military hospital where soldiers who had limbs amputated are being treated. Robert refuses to go in claiming that he knows that this is a trick to dissuade him from joining the army. While Lincoln meets with the injured troops, Robert sees a cart being pushed behind the hospital, red liquid trailing from it. Robert follows the cart until it is brought to a mass grave of discarded limbs which are being buried. Robert vomits and cries. When Lincoln finds him, he asks his son what is wrong. Robert responds that he has to join the war effort. Lincoln tells Robert what so many men wished they could say to their sons I am commander in chief and you are not going to war. When Robert resists this, Lincoln slaps him. Robert leaves enraged He can never be as great as Lincoln but he can’t be nothing.
Lincoln agrees to let Robert join the war effort- as a personal envoy under Lt. General Grant a fact that enrages Mary. She screams that Lincoln is sending his oldest son to die on the fields of battle so soon after losing a son to typhoid. When she tells him that he does not know grief, Lincoln rails against her saying that there are days when he wishes he could curl in the ground next to their deceased son’s coffin. He tells her that his grief is very real but that he must force himself to stay strong in order to carry the burden of the nation.
In the House, Woods grills Stevens on the stand determined to lay out that Stevens’ motivation is ultimately to give African Americans the right to vote so that they may be equal to whites. The idea upsets many of the Representatives who view African Americans as inferior but Stevens decides to set aside his reputation of supporting the cause of the African Americans so that he can get the Amendment passed. He announces to the House that he seeks only to acknowledge the equality of African Americans in the eyes of the law as something other than property. This upsets Ashley an ardent abolitionist but after the incident Stevens explains that he had to do it.
The day of the vote arrives. Before they can begin the vote, Woods and his associate stand before the House and announce that they have sworn affidavits from men in Virginia who claim a peace delegation has been sent to the capital. Using this as pretext postpone the vote, Blair has his man in the House second the motion upset that Lincoln would lie to push the Amendment through.
Bilboe races back to the White House with two of Lincoln’s aides. Lincoln writes a quick later which states “as far as I am aware, there are no delegates from the Confederacy in the Capital to negotiate a peace.” Bilboe returns with the letter which suggests to Blair and his representative that the Confederacy did not act in good faith. The vote commences. A group of African Americans are allowed to gather on the balcony to watch the proceedings.
The nation waits for news with baited breathe telegraphs announcing each vote casted by the Representatives. Lincoln sits in his office with Tad separated from it all. As each Representative casts their votes, Mary counts down the number needed until there are only six votes needed to pass the Amendment. Right before the final tally is announced, we cut back to Lincoln in his study. The sounds of bells and canons indicate the decision It passed!
Stevens asks the Speaker of the House if he may borrow the Bill for the evening and returns home to his housekeeper and lover, Lydia Smith (S. Epatha Merkerson). He tells her that he wishes she could have been there and presents her the Bill as a present. They get into bed to sleep and Stevens has Lydia read the Bill to him, savoring the monumental task that he has helped accomplish on behalf of the love of his life and her people.
Lincoln meets with the delegation from the Confederacy. Vice-President Stephens asks if the South would be allowed to rejoin the Union in time to block the Amendment but Lincoln says that slavery in this nation is finished. Stephens sneers that Lincoln’s Union is bound together by lies and that it wasn’t democracy but trickery that passed the Amendment. However, at this point General Sherman has reached Atlanta during his March to the Sea having cut his way through the South. The War is almost over.
Outside a house, Lincoln and Grant sit together to discuss the terms of surrender. Lincoln admits that if the administration of the Confederacy were to slip past the border he would not be too sad about it telling Grant that when the South surrenders it should not be punished too heavily. The men who surrender should be allowed to keep their horses and return home to their families. Grant tells Lincoln that now that the war is won, the country needs Lincoln now more than ever to piece it back together. General Lee formally surrenders to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse and returns to his plantation.
Lincoln and Mary sit in a carriage and discuss a relaxing vacation they can take after his second term is over. He dreams of going to Jerusalem to walk where David and Solomon walked all those years before. Mary laments that history will think of her as just a man woman, unaware of how she was Lincoln’s confidant and strongest supporter. That evening, Lincoln is drawing up the plans for reconstruction with his cabinet when he is informed that he will be late for his evening out with Mary at the theater. Lincoln laments that “It is time to go, though I would rather like to stay.” And walks off to his death.
We see a theater. Tad watches on as a play unfolds in front of him. Suddenly the actors retreat and a man stands on the stage to announce that the president has been shot. Tad screams and cries out for his father as we transition to the room where Lincoln is surrounded by his closest friends and advisors. Robert sits by his father’s bedside as Mary cries and the Doctor declares Lincoln dead. He is eulogized briefly before we cut back to a speech Lincoln gives about a hopeful future for the United States moving forward from the Civil War.
You can send in your spoiler to other movies by going here.