What Did Abraham Lincoln Sound Like?
The video above is from Jimmy Fallon, who had Pee Wee Herman dub over Daniel Day Lewis' lines in the new Lincoln trailer. The joke here is that DDL's vocal choice is totally wrong and is not the booming bass we expect from one of history's great orators.
But Lincoln died before the first sound recording was ever made, so we have no first hand way to judge his voice. Is Lewis making a strange decision with this voice? Or is he right on?
Historians agree he's pretty much dead on. Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer tells the Smithsonian
“Lincoln’s voice, as far as period descriptions go, was a little shriller, a little higher,” says Holzer. It would be a mistake to say that his voice was squeaky though. “People said that his voice carried into crowds beautifully. Just because the tone was high doesn’t mean it wasn’t far-reaching."
When researching Lincoln's speech at Cooper Union, Holzer discovered that spectators were initially put off by Lincoln's entire presentation, from looks to sound.
“They all seem to say, for the first ten minutes I couldn’t believe the way he looked, the way he sounded, his accent. But after ten minutes, the flash of his eyes, the ease of his presentation overcame all doubts, and I was enraptured... I am paraphrasing, but there is ten minutes of saying, what the heck is that, and then all of a sudden it’s the ideas that supersede whatever flaws there are.”
To me this feels more majestic than a guy who just gets up in front of a crowd and knocks em dead with his baritone. Lincoln was a gawky, weird looking guy whose squeaky tenor voice and probable bluegrass twang might have made him seem dumb, or just strange, to sophisticated people of the time. But he made up for that with the content of his speeches, and the way he delivered them.
Somehow we've come to a place where Lincoln has lost his folksy background; we've forgotten about the rail splitter in favor of the brooding president. But the woodsy qualities are what made Lincoln Lincoln, and they would have been present in his speaking voice right up to the end.
Perhaps the best iteration of Lincoln comes in Young Mr. Lincoln, the classic by John Ford (whose films Spielberg spent the entire movie War Horse homaging). Henry Fonda's timeless performance feels like the precursor to Daniel Day Lewis', and in some ways maybe Lincoln can be considered a sequel to that great film.
In the meantime Disney is going to have its hands full educating people whose knowledge of Abraham Lincoln comes largely from car dealership President's Day sales. They're probably going to be wondering why George Washington isn't in the movie.