Review: CNN Offers a Complex Lincoln

By Edward Epstein

Washington, D.C.

Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021


In promoting its six-part series on the life of Abraham Lincoln, CNN says “his legacy is not black and white.”


That certainly is borne out in the first two hours of the six-hour series “Lincoln Divided We Stand” that is airing on the network at 10 p.m. on Sundays. The documentary shows that Lincoln was a complex figure – an idealist who was a practical politician and a man whose views on race evolved to the point that he led the United States into a revolution on race relations that is still incomplete.


Television has given us no shortage of documentaries and dramatized mini-series about the life of Lincoln. The fact that they continue shows how central the 16th president remains to our national life and how much we measure ourselves against him in good times and bad.

But the CNN series is one for 2021, a time of Black Lives Matter, a frighteningly revived white supremacist movement and debate about whether public figures of yesterday were woke enough about combatting racism. Lincoln comes in for his share of criticism in the series from younger historians who pop up as talking heads in the series. They fault him, saying that while he opposed the expansion of slavery he wasn’t an outright abolitionist, and that he held racist views about African Americans.


The series is also one for the short-attention-span era of video games and Twitter and Instagram. It’s for viewers who don’t mind about 15 minutes or more of commercials jammed into an hour-long show. If that bothers you as it does me, better to record it for later viewing.

The series features a dazzling and at times dizzying array of talking heads, whose views are diced and spliced into snippets that range in length from as little as three or four seconds to at the most 10 or 15. Not exactly time for complicated pronouncements or nuance.


The oldsters in the group include noted Lincoln and Civil War era authors such as Harold Holzer, Sidney Blumenthal, Allen Guelzo, Eric Foner, Catherine Clinton, Michael Burlingame, Louis Masur, Adam Gopnik, Mary Frances Berry and the Lincoln Group of DC’s own Edna Medford Greene, who is a Howard University historian. The younger set includes some who might be less familiar to Lincolnistas: Kate Mazur of Northwestern University, Chris Bonner of the University of Maryland and Chenjerai Kumanyika of Rutgers University. For leavening and in the interest of self-promotion, CNN has thrown in its own commentators Van Jones and John Avlon and even comic Conan O’Brien, a Lincoln afficionado who hosts a late-night show on TBS, one of CNN’s sister networks parent Time-Warner.


The shows also include re-enactments of key events featuring a Lincoln who doesn’t look anything like Lincoln and a Stephen A. Douglas who reminded me not of the short, portly Illinois senator, but rather of the Warner Brothers cartoon character Yosemite Sam.

The shows hit all the highlights. For instance, the second episode opened with Lincoln’s 1854 Peoria Speech in which he relaunched his political career by objecting to the Kansas-Nebraska Act and attacked slavery as immoral. Then it’s on to the creation of the Republican Party, the momentous 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates, Lincoln’s 1860 Cooper Union address, the Republican convention that nominated him for president and the election of 1860 that brought him to the White House and greatness.


Lincoln is not presented as a man of mythic greatness. As Greene points out, “he opposed slavery but whether he felt there should be equality is something entirely different.”

Kumanyika is the most critical of Lincoln. “His anti-slavery views were about the nation’s ideals, not out of concern for blacks. … People say he was a man of his time but so were Garrison and Douglass,” he said, referring to abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass.


But, of course, Douglass and Garrison could not have been elected president. Rather it fell to Lincoln, a man who opposed the expansion of slavery but not its abolition, to get elected and within a few years end slavery, preserve the union and set a course for broad civil rights for the four million freed slaves before an assassin cut him down.