American Experience: Season 13, Episode 7

Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided Part 1 - Ambition (19 Feb. 2001)

TV Episode  |   |  Documentary, History
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Title: Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided Part 1 - Ambition (19 Feb 2001)

Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided Part 1 - Ambition (19 Feb 2001) on IMDb 8.4/10

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Episode credited cast:
Abraham Lincoln (voice)
Mary Lincoln (voice)
David McCullough ...
Narrator (voice)
Rest of cast listed alphabetically:
Jean Harvey Baker ...
David Herbert Donald ...
Herself (interviewee)
Union Infantryman (as Kevin Hershberger)
David E. Long ...
Donald Miller ...
Mary Genevieve Murphy ...
Mark E. Neely Jr. ...
Union Infantryman (as Timothy Smith)
Charles B. Strozier ...
Linda Levitt Turner ...


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Release Date:

19 February 2001 (USA)  »

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Aspect Ratio:

1.33 : 1
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User Reviews

Election to Antietam.
10 August 2015 | by (Deming, New Mexico, USA) – See all my reviews

I hope this review applies to the title above. The version I watched on YouTube was about 1:20 long and showed two sections labeled "Shattered" and "Ambition." The 16th president, Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860 and took office in 1861. The Union was falling apart over the issue of state sovereignty and particularly the issue of slavery. His election was the signal for seven states to leave the Union -- South Carolina first, then Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana, Georgia and Florida, a region that now is called the Deep South. Several other states hung in the balance.

Lincoln's cojones were in a vice because he couldn't say anything provocative, his primary objective being to hold the Union together, bringing the recalcitrant South back into it, if possible. He's much criticized sometimes for not being blunt about whatever feeling he had towards the abolition of slavery but in fact that's all he had to do. A public pronouncement on the order of, "I oppose slavery", and, poof, a dozen more states join the Confederacy. His debates with Steven Douglas in Illinois had made clear his believe that slavery was an evil and that it would have to disappear sooner or later. "A house divided against itself cannot stand," etc. That's what had cause the original seven states to secede in the first place. He was in the position of a tight-rope walker, the Flying Wallenda of 1860.

The program focuses not on the Civil War but on the president and his wife, just as the title implies. Not that the violence of the war is skipped. It's just not described in detail, the way it was in Ken Burns' unimpeachable series from PBS, "The Civil War." The North lost the first set battle that was fought across the Potomac in Virginia -- Bull Run or First Mannassas -- in which more than 600 federal soldiers were killed and the US Army routed from the field, but the name of the battle isn't even mentioned.

As Lincoln agonized over the war, he spent less time with Mary. She'd been used to giving him advice, almost running his life, in Illinois but she didn't know Washington and Lincoln no longer had the leisure time required to listen to her or even to be with her. The White House was dirty and filled with rickety and broken furniture when they'd moved in and, at Lincoln's suggestion, she went on a shopping trip to New York and Boston to refurbish the place. Congress had voted her about twenty thousand dollars to do it.

But the press followed her around, recording every expensive purchase, and she came under criticism for being a spendthrift at a time when the nation was struggling to survive. The White House now had a wall-to-wall Belgian carpet of enormous expense while some soldiers didn't have blankets. The rebukes were not entirely unfounded. She'd overspent her budget by almost half, and there were more spending trips to come. Yet similar criticisms are raised against almost every president and his family by his political opponents. The current president is lambasted each time he plays a game of golf.

The death of their young son Willie sent her into a deep depression. She didn't attend the funeral and was bedridden for days at a time. It didn't help that most of her family was fighting for the Confederacy and some were being killed. Lincoln began to worry about her sanity. Her only relief from depression was shopping and she became to elegant dress and decor what Imelda Marcos was to shoes. Her only confidante was her black seamstress, Ms. Keckley.

The episode ends with the Emancipation Proclamation, which Lincoln had written much earlier but waited until the victory at Antietam (some "victory") to make public. It was an Executive Order that freed only the slaves in those states that were controlled by the Confederates. But as historian John Hope Franklin points out, everyone knew that it was the beginning of the end of slavery, not simply a partial movement that was an end in itself.

It may also have helped Lincoln win the war. The film doesn't say so but the Confederacy had been dreaming of having an end to the war brokered by a European power that would legitimize the South. Not anymore. The Civil War had been a political conflict to save or sever the Union. Now it had become a moral one to end slavery. No other nation would interfere with an effort to abolish slavery.

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