Director D. W. Griffith's first sound film written by poet Stephen Vincent Benet portrays the Lincoln legend from the log cabin to his assassination.
A boy is born in a log cabin and is named Abraham. Tall Abraham Lincoln (Walter Huston) works in a store and wrestles Jack Armstrong. Lincoln splits rails and reads law with Ann Rutledge (Una Merkel), saying she taught him how to love. His debts delay their marriage. When Ann dies of disease, Lincoln becomes morose. Mary Todd (Kay Hammond) is courted by Stephen A. Douglas (E. Allyn Warren) and dances with Lincoln. On their wedding day Lincoln tells Billy Herndon (Jason Robards Sr.) that Mary scares him, and he backs out; but two years later they are married. In the senate race Douglas and Lincoln debate. Lincoln says he opposes the extension of slavery and secession. Lincoln loses the election and considers himself a failure.
Lincoln tells Republicans the union must be preserved, and he is elected president as their candidate. His cabinet intends to control his inexperience, but Lincoln orders Fort Sumter defended. When Confederate guns fire on it, the war begins. Lincoln calls for 75,000 volunteers. General Scott and Lincoln get bad news of Bull Run, and Washington is in danger. Mary doesn't want to move, and Lincoln stays. He pardons a soldier who threw his rifle away. With casualties mounting, his advisors want him to let the southern states go. Instead Lincoln emancipates the slaves in the rebellious states. The secret service reports there are 600,000 Copperheads in the north. Lincoln can't sleep. He sends for General Grant (Fred Warren) and puts him in command, while Mary complains of his cigar smoke. War secretary Stanton (Oscar Apfel) tells Lincoln it depends on General Sheridan (Frank Campeau), who hears cannons and attacks with cavalry. Stanton and Lincoln learn that Sheridan captured many prisoners.
Confederate General Lee (Hobart Bosworth) refuses to execute a spy, because he knows his army is nearly finished. Lincoln tells Grant to let the rebels keep their horses for planting and let Confederate President Davis escape "unbeknownst to yourselves." John Wilkes Booth (Ian Keith) complains that Lincoln suppressed jury trials and free expression. Lincoln is re-elected. At Ford's Theater Lincoln repeats the best lines of his second inaugural and Gettysburg address. During the play he is shot by Booth, who shouts "Sic semper tyrannis." The final scene shifts from the log cabin to the Lincoln Memorial.
Despite poor sound quality this generally accurate biography captures Lincoln's humor, psychological complexity, and dedication to the political union of the United States.