"There must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race," Lincoln said in the speech.
Spielberg's film depicts Lincoln as a resolute opponent of slavery, willing to deploy all the powers of his office to destroy it.
Yet "The Abolitionists" paints another portrait of Lincoln. It recounts how he supported colonization plans to ship willing slaves back to Africa. It says that Lincoln once floated a peace treaty offer to the Confederates that would allow them to keep slaves until 1900 if they surrendered. At one White House meeting with black ministers, Lincoln virtually blamed slaves for starting the war, the film's narrator says.
Blight, the Yale University historian, says Lincoln always personally hated slavery. He publicly spoke out against it as early as the 1840s, and spoke often about stopping the expansion of slavery.
Lincoln hoped to slowly end slavery without tearing the nation apart, Blight says.
"He was a gradualist," Blight says. "He was trying to prevent a bloody revolution over it. He couldn't."
He couldn't because of the pressure exerted by the abolitionists and the slaves themselves, other historians say. Blacks did not wait for white people to free them, they say. At least 180,000 blacks fought in the Civil War. And Douglass was one of Lincoln's harshest critics. He constantly pushed Lincoln to move aggressively against slavery.
The historian William Jelani Cobb wrote in a recent New Yorker essay on slavery:
"On the hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, it's worth recalling that slavery was made unsustainable largely through the efforts of those who were enslaved. The record is replete with enslaved blacks---even so-called house slaves---who poisoned slaveholders, destroyed crops, 'accidentally' burned down buildings."
As for Lincoln's true feelings about blacks, that matter may always be subject to debate.
"No historian would doubt that Lincoln was a man of his times," says Dunbar, author of "A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City." "He was a racist, and never truly believed that blacks could live in America after emancipation."
Other historians say Lincoln was evolving into the leader that Spielberg depicts.
The historian Gates once wrote that Lincoln initially opposed slavery because it was an economic institution that discriminated against white men who couldn't afford slaves. Two things changed him: The courage black troops displayed in the Civil War and his friendship with Douglass the abolitionist.
"Lincoln met with Douglass at the White House three times. He was the first black person Lincoln treated as an intellectual equal, and he grew to admire him and value his opinion," Gates wrote.
Gilpin says Lincoln was great not only for what he got right, but because he could admit what he got wrong.
"You dream of a president like that," Gilpin says. "Not only was he a brilliant manipulator and reader of public opinion, but he had the capacity for growth. He came into office because he was a moderate but he turns out to be the Great Emancipator."
Lesson: Lincoln led an epic battle against slavery, but the abolitionists lit the fuse.