There is some thing exceedingly charming approximately seeing communicate show host Conan O’Brien deconstruct the genius of Abraham Lincoln — no longer Lincoln the president, however Lincoln the self-deprecating comedian.
This is one of the myriad pleasures derived from watching CNN’s new six-element miniseries “Lincoln: Divided We Stand,” which aired its first episode on Valentine’s Day. It is a cliché to factor out that Lincoln became certainly one of America’s finest presidents, if now not the Divided best. He freed enslaved people, received the Civil War and changed into beforehand of his time on monetary problems. Yet aside from being a high-quality president, Lincoln was additionally a fascinating guy. It is that this element of America’s 16th president this is captivatingly delivered to the fore inside the documentary, that’s narrated with the aid of “This Is Us” and “Black Panther” big name Sterling K. Brown.
There are such a lot of intriguing nuggets of information to pick from right here. We can begin with how the series recollects the cruel hardships of Lincoln’s formative years. Lesser historians want to romanticize America’s pioneer days, but as a younger Lincoln’s family moves from the hinterlands of Kentucky to the ones of Indiana, he isn’t precisely experiencing the bucolic idyll concocted by limitless dreadfully trite early Disney movies. Lincoln lives in abject poverty and ought to paintings to continue to exist from a totally younger age; his loved mom dies while he is simplest 9; his emotionally distant father temporarily abandons him with his older sister (who also later dies) so that he can discover a spouse in a close-by city; and, whilst Lincoln teaches himself to read and turns into interested by knowledge, his father physically abuses him due to the fact he wants his son to be a farmer.
That last element was the one that struck me the most, possibly because it’s far undervalued while people reflect onconsideration on the Great Emancipator. Lincoln became an autodidact and his thirst for information, and apparent pleasure in being capable of research extra about the arena round him, is clear each in this documentary and to all of us who has examine his early speeches and poems. He took significant pains, figuratively and actually, to locate books, newspapers and honestly something else he should get his palms on to enhance his education. His mind was skeptical and had a knack for keeping apart truth from baloney; it also had an artistic and intellectual aptitude, loving eloquent prose and probing thoughts. This trait may additionally even give an explanation for why Lincoln thrust himself into politics at an early age, in reality savoring the deliver-and-take of the Second Party System that noticed Lincoln align himself with the Whig Party (the greater “liberal” celebration with the aid of current requirements, although the term need to be carried out really anachronistically right here) with the Democratic Party, which at that time became ruled by way of Andrew Jackson.
These traits sharpened Lincoln’s mind and made him into the mythical wit whose comedy chops have been so deft that Coco seems simply in awe of them nearly two centuries later. It brings to thoughts the famous line from “Game of Thrones” person Tyrion Lannister, “A thoughts needs books like a sword desires a whetstone, if it is to hold its facet.” Hearing O’Brien regale audiences with a number of Lincoln’s maximum legendary sharp comedy moments (I dare now not wreck them right here) is a fantastic pleasure of this documentary, mainly when you consider that Lincoln’s endearing potential to poke amusing at himself is paying homage to O’Brien’s personal humorousness. (I’ll just say it: My hunch is that Lincoln would had been on Team Coco.)
Yet the documentary is likewise sturdy due to the fact, when important, it takes Lincoln Divided off of his pedestal. While simplistic historians have a tendency to view Lincoln as a god-like guy who with a sweep of his hand freed enslaved human beings, the fact is far extra complicated. To its credit score, the miniseries is going into detail about the horrors of slavery: The families ripped aside, the physical and psychological anguishes inflicted on its victims, the reality that America’s Divided economy relied on the degradation and subjugation of millions of humans. There were ladies and men in Lincoln’s time who wanted to abolish slavery altogether and receive African Americans as equals — however Lincoln became not one of them. He opposed slavery on precept, to make certain, but become willing to just accept its lifestyles in states in which it already existed as lengthy because it did not increase beyond them. He believed African Americans should in the end be freed, but because the documentary astutely observes, concept they should be sent again to Africa, despite the fact that for most of them America was the only domestic they’d ever known.
Lincoln became, undeniably, a racist. He made it clear, during a key second in his well-known debates with Democratic Sen. Stephen Douglas of Illinois, that he did no longer view African Americans as identical to whites. He changed into no longer an abolitionist and changed into most effective a chum to racially marginalized corporations up to some extent. He took political risks in his early years while advocating in opposition to slavery, however there had been others who took even extra ones. And even as Lincoln suffered excessive hardships as a child, the documentary makes it clean, they were not anything in comparison to the residing hell persisted by way of American slaves.
Only the first three of the six episodes have been given to Salon for evaluation, and consequently is left off at the Battle of Fort Sumter in 1861 and the begin of the Civil War. I have no concept whether the collection will do justice to Lincoln’s visionary leadership for the duration of the Civil War, or the occasions that gave birth to the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment, or how he handed economically innovative measures like the Homestead Act, the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act and the Pacific Railways Acts. It touches on Lincoln’s lifelong battle with depression and different intellectual fitness problems; those had been defining aspects of the man’s existence, and if the miniseries keeps to mine that ore, it will do a remarkable public service both for our information of Lincoln and on the complexity of the human mind.
The identical can be stated of the way it discusses the first-rate abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass, who is in brief introduced in these early episodes. Hopefully the later episodes will pass into tremendous element about Douglass, specifically considering the fact that his 1876 speech on Lincoln perfectly summed up Lincoln’s leader legacy — specifically, that even though Lincoln merits credit for his braveness and morality in in the long run acting to loose enslaved human beings, “in his pastimes, in his associations, in his behavior of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white guy” and that “he became prepared and willing at any time in the course of the first years of his management to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity inside the coloured human beings to sell the welfare of the white people of this u . s ..”
These are not criticisms of the miniseries, as a substitute a touch upon threads that I hope will be greater absolutely explored and receive their due. I can sincerely say proper now that the principles were laid, which seems promising.
There is one shortcoming within the documentary that couldn’t were helped, given that this turned into filmed earlier than Election Day 2020, however it’s far regrettable however. One of the primary motives Lincoln couldn’t prevent the Civil War become that his presidential predecessor, James Buchanan, turned into virulently seasoned-slavery and openly sympathized with the South’s choice to secede. The parallels among Buchanan/Lincoln at some stage in the Divided 1860 election and Donald Trump/Joe Biden in the course of the 2020 election are hard to Divided overlook. On both occasions, the facet of the u . s . that misplaced an election refused to simply accept that the facet that won must be allowed to manipulate, using some distance right-wing arguments and claiming that the prevailing facet posed an existential threat to them or become by hook or by crook illegitimate regardless of irrefutable information to the contrary. On each events, the outgoing management (Buchanan, Trump) refused to paintings with the incoming one (Lincoln, Biden) despite the fact that there were terrible crises (a Civil War, an epidemic and depression) that required instantaneous attention. There are even similarities inside the little information, which includes how Buchanan and Trump had been each corrupt (however, Buchanan become not a candidate inside the 1860 election and in no way attempted to physically forestall Lincoln from taking office). While the filmmakers could not have recognized to a actuality that Trump could act like Buchanan after Biden’s victory, it still weakens the miniseries that so little interest is paid to Buchanan’s reaction to Lincoln’s victory. It might be like creating a documentary about Biden’s presidency however most effective giving cursory attention to how Trump created the conditions that Biden would should confront.
Yet that is a minor quibble in the grand scheme of factors. Lincoln is one of those historic figures who keeps on giving, a person whose protean presents and complex character makes it possible even for historians like myself to continuously research new things. Whether the miniseries is describing in detail how Zachary Taylor betrayed Lincoln after the latter campaigned for him in Illinois at some point of the 1848 presidential election or exploring the try to assassinate Lincoln in 1861 (The Washington Post these days profiled a woman who helped defend him), it’s far full of fun little gems — and sober reminders of the ugliness that coils underneath the floor of America’s past — as a way to make any extreme Lincoln scholar take a few moments to stop and think.
That, I suspect, is what Lincoln could have desired.
New episodes of “Lincoln: Divided We Stand” air Sundays at 10 p.m. on CNN.