Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

Young Mr. Lincoln tells the story of the president’s early years—as a fledgling political candidate, a young lawyer with a sense for justice, and a community leader who had a way with people. The film, in many ways, portrays his initial, absolute embrace of the past, and his eventual slow turn toward what the future might hold for him. It does this in a number of ways: his seemingly apathetic speech while running for the senate, the exchange with Ann Rutledge, his encounters with Mary Todd, etc.

However, the chief example of the connection between past and future comes in the motherly theme running through the film. Before Lincoln is even on screen, a poem appears, written in the voice of Lincoln’s now deceased mother, Nancy Hanks. In it, she wonders what her boy Abe does now, and if he’s made anything of himself. Appropriately, in light of the poem’s placement at the beginning of the film, Lincoln’s connection to his mother comes up several times throughout, most notably in his relationship with Mrs. Clay, a frontier woman who gives him his first law book and whose boys give him his first trial as a lawyer. She reminds Abe of his mother, a fact he mentions on more than one occasion.

Mrs. Clay connects Abe to both his past and his future. Because she so reminds him of his mom, she leads him to reflect on where he has come from. She keeps him connected to that reality. However, because of the trial involving her boys, she also points him ahead toward his future.

The pivotal scene in this regard occurs when Lincoln quells the lynch mob. Abe sees the boys accused and taken off to jail. More importantly, he sees their mother weeping for her lost boys. As the men of the town decide to kill those boys, Lincoln knows what he must do. He has seen this woman, this visual representation of his mother. She reminds him of who he is and who he has been brought up to be. How can he not act on her behalf–a young man providing assistance to a mother in need? Were there any doubts in his mind about acting on behalf of the boys, her presence put them to rest.

In this scene, Mrs. Clay points him back to his roots, but she also points him forward to his destiny. He then walks over to the jail, stands in front of a battering ram—putting his own life at risk—and guides the mob in front of him to do the right thing. He uses all manner of rhetorical devices at his disposal, from righteous indignation to humor to the calling out of individuals, eventually leading the men to drop their weapons and go home. He reveals, in this moment, the seeds of a character that will only come into full bloom some thirty years later.

Young Mr. Lincoln portrays the life of a man in transition. It presents a man whose embrace of the past leads to his glorious (albeit tragic) future. It depicts a man whose humble and self-effacing nature endears him to people—“high” and “low” in society. And it reveals a man who willingly gives of himself in the service of justice and truth—here in smaller ways, but eventually, even unto his own death.

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