Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940)





Director:     John Cromwell.

Starring:     Raymond Massey (Abe Lincoln), Gene Lockhart (Stephen Douglas),  Ruth Gordon (Mary Todd Lincoln),  Mary Howard (Ann Rutledge),  Dorothy Tree (Elizabeth Edwards),  Minor Watson (Joshua Speed), Harvey Stevens (Ninian Edwards),  Alan Baxter (Billy Herndon),  Howard da Silva (Jack Armstrong), 

This film is based on Robert Sherwood's Pulitzer-Prize-winning play.  



Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

1831.  Tom Lincoln complains about the terrible winter and now the terrible spring.  A couple of friends come over and tell Abe and Tom about a job paying a lot of money

The men pass New Salem headed to New Orleans.  They go over a little waterfall by the mill and the hogs spill out into the river.  The townspeople try to help catch the pigs.  Abe catches a pig and a pretty girl laughs at him.  Her name is Ann Rutledge. Abe talks to her a little, but then has to excuse himself.

The men get back on the raft.  Ann waves goodbye to Abe as the barge heads downstream to New Orleans.  He comes back to New Salem on the stage coach.  Ben Mattling, an old Revolutionary War soldier, gives everyone the same speech he always gives them.  Jack Armstrong goes into the Rutledge tavern and starts taking the liquor he wants. 

Lincoln decides to fight Jack Armstrong.  Jack tricks Abe.  He shakes hands with him and then tosses him over his shoulder.    Lincoln does the same to him the next time they grasp each other.  Lincoln defeats Jack Armstrong.  They appoint Lincoln in charge of making sure the the election is a fair one. 

Mr. Denton Offutt gives Abe the general store, lock, stock and barrel.  Mr. Offen is in debt to the sum or $1500 dollars. 

One of the local men helps Abe improved his education.  He tells Abe to name me the five verb moods.  Abe starts the process.   

John, Ann Rutledge's boyfriend, is going away for two or three months.  He gives Ann a pretty necklace. 

1832.  A man shows Abe the newspaper saying that Chief Black Hawk, a Sauk leader, and braves from the Sauks, Meskwakis and Kickapoos known as the "British Band" crossed the Mississippi River into the state of Illinois in April 1832.  The Governor calls for volunteers from the Illinois Militia.  A squad is going to war from New Salem.  They elect Lincoln their captain. 

1835.  The newspaper carries the headline that South Carolina threatens to withdraw from the union.  President Jackson charges the state with treasonous conduct. 

Abe meets Whig politician, Mr. Ninian Edwards and he tells Lincoln they would like him to run for the state legislature.  Lincoln will certainly think about it. 

Lincoln goes out to speak with Ann Rutledge.  He asks her about the letter she got from John.  At first Ann is very defensive and tells Abe that the letter is no concern of his.  But he gets her to laughing and she tells Abe that Tom writes that he doesn't know when he will be able to get back to New Salem.  Abe starts pouring his heart out to Ann and soon she asks him if he is declaring his love for her?  He says he is.  Ann says she's not sure she can love Abe, but if she did she would be happy enough to be loving and marrying a good, decent man.  She leaves. 

Abe attends a square dance.  He says he would like to dance but his feet don't work.  Ann dances so fast that she faints.  The doctor checks her out and says she's all right, but she should be taking her home now.  Abe tells her that he was scared when she fainted, but she tells him not to worry. 

"Vote for honest Abe."  Jack comes to tell Lincoln that Ann has the brain fever and has it pretty bad.  He goes over to the Rutledge house.  Ann tells Abe that she loves him, but she dies while in bed.  Abe wins the election easily.  He goes out to accept the adulation of his supporters.  

Abe says he isn't going to run for re-election.  He is going to study law up in Springfield with Judge Stuart's law office. 

A young fellow named Billy Herndon runs over to the Stuart and Lincoln law offices.   Billy is coming in late to his job and Lincoln asks him where's he been?  He was down in the saloon and Abe cautions him to be careful drinking so much liquor.  Billy then tells Abe that Ninian Edwards has invited Abe over to his place.  He wants Abe to meet his sister-in-law:  Mary Todd arriving from Kentucky.      

Abe walks into the party.  Mary Todd notices him immediately.  She talks with Stephen Douglas for awhile, but soon replaces him with Abe.  Mary finds him fascinating and enjoys his stories, but her sister Elizabeth wonders how Mary could reject Stephen Douglas in favor of Abe Lincoln? 

Mary tells her sister Elizabeth that she has decided to marry Mr. Lincoln.  Elizabeth is utterly shocked.  She says Lincoln is lazy and shiftless and is always stopping along the way to tell silly jokes.  Mary says she is going to make Abe Lincoln live up to his great potential. 

The marriage ceremony is set to take place.  Stephen Douglas offers a toast to Mary Todd who will soon be Mrs. Abraham Lincoln.  The men in the bar gladly toast to her. 

Billy comes in to find a sullen Lincoln.  Lincoln tells him he has a letter he wants him to deliver to Mary Todd.  Lincoln tells Speed to give Billy the letter, but Speed throws the letter into the stove.  Lincoln is very angry that Speed did this, but Speed tells him if he is going to tell Mary Todd, he should do it up close and personal.  Lincoln says he would have to tell her that he hates her ambition for him.  He doesn't want to be driven onward and upward through his life until he becomes President of the United States.  He says:  "I want only to be left alone." 

Lincoln tells Joshua Speed that he will go out and talk to Mary, then he's going away someplace. 

Abe goes through the now abandoned New Salem.  He stops by the old Rutledge Tavern.  He imagines Ann walking across the way and goes to the spot where he and she talked about love. 

Abe goes to Springfield and over to see Mary Todd.  He tells her he has no plans, but to gain her forgiveness.  He tells her that he believes that their destinies are bound together for better or worse so he again presumes to ask her to marry him again.  Mary tells him that she loves him. 

November 4, 1842.  Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln marry.  "And then  -- years that marked the growth of a man, and of a nation."  Lincoln and Herndon are now in business as lawyers. 

The Honorable Abraham Lincoln, U. S. Representative from Illinois.  The newspaper in Illinois covers the story of how the South accuses the North of aiding slave escapes.  Southern senators claim the North is deliberately fomenting trouble over the slavery question.  The North is angered by the Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court that slaves are the property of their owners.  Then come the headlines of riots in Kansas where free-state and pro-slavery settlers struggle to control the fate of Kansas.  John Brown leads an insurrection against slaveholders at Harper's Ferry.  Federal troops break into the firehouse.  Col. Robert E. Lee arrests John Brown for treason.  

Lincoln is going to be running against Stephen Douglas for the senate from Illinois.  Douglas is surprised that Lincoln has finally decided to come out and fight.  Douglas prepares for a real fight because he does know Lincoln and doesn't take him for granted.

The Lincolns have a family portrait taken.  Their three sons, Robert, Willie and Tad are there.  Willie and Tad hear a band coming down the street and rush to the window to see it.  There's going to be a series of debates known as the Lincoln-Douglas Debates.  Lincoln delivers a great speech of high moral purpose and equality.  He delivers the famous line:  "A house divided against itself cannot stand.  This government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free."  The famous newspaperman Horace Greeley writes an editorial praising the words of Lincoln.

Now Lincoln becomes a known political commodity and is even being considered as a candidate for the presidency of the United States.  A whole bunch of important men come to Lincoln's house.  A minister asks about Lincoln's supposed atheism.  Lincoln says he will join a church as long as it follows the words of Jesus Christ.  Some of the men think he is a radical.  But a fellow named Crimmin believes that Abe can win the presidency. 

On election day Mary goes overboard, losing her temper and berating both Lincoln and his entire staff.  Lincoln asks that everyone step out of the room while he speaks with his wife.  He asks her why does she take every opportunity to make a fool out of her husband and herself?  Mary is shocked that Abe would speak so frankly to her.  She says he has ruined this presidential experience for her --  an experience she has waited for so long to enjoy.  The military escort comes in for Lincoln.  The captain says that threats have been made on Lincoln's life.   

Lincoln speaks to a crowd of his supporters and talks about the grave duty he now faces. 

War Between the States starts April 12, 1861. 



The myth of the Christ-like Lincoln has become a strong piece of Americana that does not seem to be amenable to a more balanced view of the man.  This movie presents this myth in top form with Raymond Massey as Lincoln and Ruth Gordon as his future wife Mary Todd.  

Lincoln suffered from a serious case of depression, that was compounded by the mental illness of his wife and the death of his young son while he was in the White House. 

Lincoln was too forgiving to a fault.  He would have been very soft on the South.  On the other hand, it probably would not have mattered.  Because the South seems to rule the United States these days.  These larger forces of economics, geography and social division are stronger than our ability to overcome their negative effects.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 


Historical Background:


See Young Mr. Lincoln (1939).



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