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A Different Perspective: David S. Reynolds on Lincoln's Dilemma

“Lincoln’s Dilemma” is a four-part, non-fiction Apple TV+ miniseries about the almost unimaginably difficult choices that faced newly-elected President Abraham Lincoln in the period leading up to the Civil War and the conflict itself. As a candidate, Lincoln's most important promise concerned keeping the country together. But as we see, Lincoln began to understand that enslavement was an insurmountable divide. 

The series features a range of scholars who bring context and illuminate the overlooked characters in this story about the past and present. The series' voice talent includes narration by Jeffrey Wright, with Bill Camp as Abraham Lincoln and Leslie Odom Jr. as Frederick Douglass. "Lincoln's Dilemma" comes at a moment when ideas about who we honor with statues, and how we teach history, have become contentious debates. Professor David S. Reynolds, whose book Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times provided a basis for the series, explained in an interview how the arguments about best teaching history have value in reminding us of the importance of understanding our past.

The series begins very thoughtfully with a real-life tightrope walker who was a popular entertainer in Lincoln’s time. Why is that such a good metaphor?

There was an incredible tightrope walker named Charles Blondin who went back and forth across Niagara Falls, many times forward, then backward with a man on his shoulders and pushing a wheelbarrow. Pretty amazing. And Lincoln a few times compared himself to Blondin. Once people approached him early in the war, and they said, "Can't you make this a more anti-slavery war from the very beginning?" He said, "I have to be very careful. I have to be like Blondin because if I lean too far in one way, we're going to lose the Border States. We're going to lose Kentucky, Missouri. We still had people in bondage in slavery but they were loyal to the Union. I have to be right on my tightrope the whole time." And he had to wait for just the right minute to release the Emancipation Proclamation. Even though he hated slavery as much or more than almost anybody in America, still, he had to be Blondin. First to get elected but secondly, when he was in office to try to keep the North together, to try to keep it together. And it was not just the way he say himself. There are a lot of political cartoons of him as Blondin crossing that tightrope over Niagara Falls.

This series shows us how Lincoln’s strategy evolved over time. And I was particularly struck by the idea that he talked to some of the fugitive enslaved people, and how did that affect him?

He had been exposed to slavery early on when he traveled down to New Orleans, and he saw enslaved people on a boat in Kentucky. He talked to fugitive slaves, he had such a deep sympathy actually for African Americans. And they influenced him. They became kind of his conscience. I think that's one thing that the series shows very, very well. One fugitive slave named Frederick Douglass, of course, very famous, was always kind of goading him, and was always in his ear driving him toward emancipation. And Lincoln wanted that as well. But Douglass was such an active force. And Lincoln was the first to allow African Americans into the military. And he thought that without the African American participation he never would have won the war. And then at the very end of the war when he walks into Richmond, he meets these previously enslaved people who surround him when he walks into the Confederate capital, which has fallen, and he says, "You are now free as air, you're free as the air now." And one of them actually got on his knees to him, he said, "Get on your knees to your Maker. You don't have to get on your knees to me, just go on and do your best in life." So, he was really inspired by African Americans. And the film shows that as well.

I think of research for a book like this being in archives with parchment documents. Was that what it was like?

In the old days, when I wrote some of my earlier books, I had to go into a lot of physical archives because all the old newspapers and books were there. But there are full runs of newspapers from the 19th century. Even Lincoln's hometown newspaper, the Sangamon Journal, or in the Illinois State Journal, they are online. And it's just incredible. You can sit at your computer and literally do word searches. You can learn so, so much right now sitting at home. And also, so many old books are on Google Books, and also on archives online. And so, even during COVID, I continued my research toward another book I'm working on. It's just incredible nowadays.

We are in the midst of a debate about history taught in schools that is unprecedented in my lifetime, and much of it has to do with enslavement and its consequences and aftermath. This series was not intended as commentary on that debate, but it is a powerful reminder of the importance of rigorous, fearless engagement with the past.

What I like about the film is that we see Lincoln from a different perspective. Several of the commentators are deeply informed African American scholars. They have a good grasp of history. And above all, they're trying to see Lincoln in his own time, and not simply impose our points of view on his time. Because very few people from that era, whether Lincoln or Washington or lesser known figures, can fully live up to the standards of our time. And what the film tries to do is try to locate him in his own history, in part by probing the history of the African American experience that he was responding to as President. So, I think that's the real contribution. And I think that there's a good movement now toward revisiting the histories of formerly marginalized people. People that were once on the margins. I think that's very exciting and very important, too.

What do you hope people will take away from this series?

I hope they will take away from it the fact that the struggle towards civil rights is really a collaboration. Lincoln didn't do it alone. And he would be the very first to say he didn't do it alone, that he needed the collaboration of African Americans. It also shows the importance of a strong leader who does have a principled sense of justice. At the same time, a leader who has true compassion for others, even for the so-called enemy, true compassion, and what he called malice toward none and charity for all. And it shows a great leader who's willing to seek collaboration from people of different religious faiths, and people of different ethnicities as well.

How important was it to his achievements that he was a person of exceptional eloquence?

That was very important. His favorite genre was not the novel, not newspapers; it was poetry. He felt that poetry condensed feeling and meaning so beautifully and rhythmically captured it. He loved Shakespeare. He would recite Shakespeare from memory by the page, not to brag or anything, just because the passages meant something to him. He had barely any education, less than one year of schooling. And his greatest speeches are so short—the Gettysburg address is 272 words. It took two minutes for him to say and yet it's our greatest speech. Because it is like a prose poem. It condenses the meaning of America so eloquently and beautifully. Lincoln knew that it's only words. But words that really mean something and convey a message about America in this case.

Someone in the series says that he learned that you couldn't go around slavery but you had to go through it to keep the union together. Can you tell me what that means?

You couldn't evade slavery because slavery was the true sticking point at that moment, with both sides pointing to the Constitution and the Bible. The Southerners had come to believe that slavery was a positive, good. That it was actually good for Africans to be brought over to America and exposed to Western civilization. They convinced themselves of this, that there were enslaved people in the Bible, and you could interpret the Constitution as being pro-slavery. Whereas the North and Lincoln said, no, the Constitution is fundamentally in spirit against slavery, and the Bible in its true spirit is against slavery. So, it was a real collision of points of view. 

It really came to a head. You had to go through slavery; you could not evade it. There were about 200 attempts to compromise in the months leading up to the Civil War. They met and they compromised but nothing worked out. And finally, it did come to war, which was very tragic. It killed nearly 800,000 Americans. But that's the way. It was trial by fire, it was the fiery trial. And fortunately, we had Lincoln in charge at that moment.

Why is it important for us to study history?

Because we can learn from history. We can learn about times that were as divided as ours, even in the case of Lincoln, or even more divided than ours, and how people got through it. And the cycles of history. Because after Lincoln, there came Jim Crow. That was a reaction. It's a reactionary direction. But then after Brown v. Board, you have a cycling back towards civil rights. And then you have the swing now between the so-called alt-right and the radical left. 

We can learn that these cycles are happening again and again. But I believe that our progress ultimately is incrementally upward. I truly believe that. I think even the debates that are going on right now are ultimately positive and good for the country. They're awakening a consciousness about certain issues that are rarely on the front page of a lot of newspapers. Even though they're hotly debated and contested still, [the issues] are there in a way, for example, that they were not there during Jim Crow America. So to me, that's very, very healthy.

"Lincoln's Dilemma" is now streaming on Apple TV+. 

Nell Minow

Nell Minow reviews movies and DVDs each week as The Movie Mom online and on radio stations across the US. She is the author of The Movie Mom's Guide to Family Movies and 101 Must-See Movie Moments.

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