“Looking for Lincoln”

abraham-lincoln-statueI am pleased to see that the new PBS documentary, “Looking for Lincoln” is available for viewing on their website.  I’m not sure if this is the complete broadcast, but enough is included to give you a sense of the scope as well as content.  The program is divided into relatively small sections, which makes them ideal for classroom use.  My Civil War Memory class is getting ready to shift to Lincoln and memory so this video will be extremely helpful.  I was very impressed with the documentary.  Henry Louis Gates does a good job of sifting through Lincoln mythology in order to come to terms with a complex and sometimes contradictory man.  Gates utilizes Doris Kearns Goodwin, David Blight, Harold Holzer, Allen Guelzo, Drew Faust, and Louis Horton to sketch out salient themes in Lincoln’s life.  From there Gates explores the ways in which Lincoln continues to be remembered in our popular culture and political sphere.

A few moments stand out.  I was quite impressed with Gates’s interview with Lerone Bennett who is best known for his critical interpretatio of Lincoln on race and emancipation.  I’ve read some of Bennett’s writing and while I appreciate his much-needed corrective to understanding Lincoln’s racial outlook, he often picks and chooses evidence to help make his broader case surrounding his understanding of the Emancipation Proclamation.  As a way to challenge the mythology surrounding Lincoln and race, Bennett noted that for thirty years prior to the Civil War white Americans had defiantly spoken out against the institution of slavery.  His point was to question why they are not remembered as opposed to the excessive myth-making that has defined popular perception of Lincoln.  I think he makes an excellent point and it is one that I often wonder about.

Another moment that stands out is a short interview with a very wealthy Lincoln collector by the name of Louise Taper.  Viewers will see that her collection is quite impressive and includes a number of very personal items that Taper believes defines a loving relationship.  I only point this out because we are so often told by male historians that their marriage was an unhappy one or that Lincoln never truly got over his first love, Ann Rutledge.  Not too long ago I touched on this in a post about an article that I had my Lincoln class read by Jean H. Baker.

Finally, Gates visits with members of the North Carolina SCV duirng their annual convention.  At some point it gets tiring having to listen to the extreme vitriol that emanates from these people in reference to Lincoln.  They betray very little understanding of the past when they couch their analysis in terms of “tyrant” “dictator”, etc.  It’s all so boring and uninformative.  Interestingly enough, he is there during the ceremony to honor Weary Clyburn for his “service” to the Confederacy as a black Confederate – an event I covered in detail on this blog.  Gates doesn’t ask the obvious questions when confronted with the historical assumptions that are implied in the ceremony, which is unfortunate.  It’s not surprising given that his goal is not to be critical but to catalog the way various groups go about commemorating and remembering.  Gates simply admits that he never knew that blacks fought for the Confederacy.  My guess is that Gates must have had his suspicions given his professional training and understanding of the history of race and slavery.  After interviewing some members of the Clyburn family Gates concluded by saying: “They simply wanted to admire their ancestor’s courage.”  I couldn’t agree more.

All in all this is a first-rate documentary that should appeal to a wide general audience.  The website includes schedules for your local PBS affiliate so check it out.

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8 comments… add one
  • James Loewen Feb 8, 2009 @ 14:17

    It’s an important video. However, everyone, David Blight included, and Lerone Bennett especially of course, is too cynical about Lincoln’s opposition to slavery. As I relate in LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME, as early as 1855 or so, replying to his friend Josh Speed’s query asking him why he’s becoming a Republican, what does HE care about slavery, Lincoln recalled a steamboat trip they had taken together down the Ohio back in 1841: “You may remember, as I well do, that from Louisville to the mouth of the Ohio there were on board ten or twelve slaves, shackled together with irons. That sight was continual torment to me….”

    • Kevin Levin Feb 8, 2009 @ 14:21

      Professor Loewen,

      Nice to hear from you. I have to disagree with you on this point. It seems to me that the video struck just the right balance between Bennett’s cynicism and Blight’s distinction between Lincoln on slavery, his racial outlook as well as the understanding of slavery within the Republican Party. I think it is important that Blight was used by Gates for the purposes of laying out a historical overview while he treated Bennett as an example of memory.

  • Marc Ferguson Feb 7, 2009 @ 4:57

    I watched parts of the film, and it’s good. I agree with you about the interview with Bennett. He certainly does add an important perspective to our understanding of Lincoln and his place in our history. I also think I have a better understanding of why his take on Lincoln is so one-sided, since he comes across as a jilted lover. I suppose that’s the problem of setting up historical figures as heroes – when they fall, they fall hard.


    • Kevin Levin Feb 7, 2009 @ 5:00

      I couldn’t agree more Marc, which is in part why I don’t consider him to be a very serious or even interesting historian.

  • Greg Rowe Feb 6, 2009 @ 19:28

    I really appreciate the way Gates tries to present a balanced portrait of our collective memory of Lincoln. I’ve showed parts of this to my World Events class as we do our Lincoln legacy project and will have them axamine it in more detail when they finish to compare Gates’ conclusions with their own regarding Lincoln.

  • Sherree Tannen Feb 5, 2009 @ 3:45

    Hi Kevin,

    Thanks for this link. I watched the series all the way through. It was simply heartbreaking, and would have left me despondent had it not ended with Barack Obama.

    Thank you for what you have said, Crystal, and thanks to Henry Louis Gates for this powerful documentary.

    It is simply impossible for me not to view this film outside of the lens of memories of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and how comparisons were made to Lincoln, how the funeral was like Lincoln’s , the riderless horse, Jackie Kennedy stunned and vulnerable, horrified, as she opens the car door for herself, her pink suit bloody, my mother weeping and weeping and weeping. Walter Cronkite weeping. It is so hard to remember these things today. Our society is so hard. These discussions are truly killing me, and most likely others, too, who just remain silent because we are locked in our rigid postitions. Then there was the assassination of Dr. King, then Bobby Kennedy, then Malcolm.there were the little children killed in the school there were the beatings, the arrests, the body count of soldiers dead in Vietnam, the actual bodies brought back home to be buried, the lost dreams, the lost hopes, the loss, the loss, the loss. Let’s try to love each other, America let’s really give it a try.

  • Crystal Marshall Feb 4, 2009 @ 20:49

    Regarding your musings as to why other white Americans who actively opposed slavery are not as well remembered as Lincoln–to some extent that is true. In our culture, Americans tend to exclusively praise one figure and attribute the worthy actions of others’ to that one figure. Doing so requires less effort on our part; it is much easier to praise just one man–in this case Lincoln–and hold him up as a representation of others, even if Lincoln’s views don’t perfectly align with the views of the other anti-slavery white Americans.

    Many of my peers also remember that groups such as the Quakers opposed slavery and violence. And many recall learning about abolitionists–especially the more militant ones (perhaps because such stories appear more exciting and sensationalistic). Of course, these two groups were not the only groups that actively opposed slavery. I do agree that more of an emphasis should be be put on teaching about the many white Americans who spoke and acted against slavery in peaceful yet powerful ways–doing so is just teaching honest history.

    I find it interesting that this same line of thought is present in discussions about the Civil Rights Era in the 50’s and 60’s. Many of my peers, and myself included, often forget that many white Americans spoke and acted against the pervasive racism of that era. In one of my classes today we watched “A Class Divided” in which Iowa teacher Jane Elliott–who was white–conducted a two-day class exercize to teach her students about the horrible and degrading power of racism. It was comforting to be reminded that there were many courageous white Americans who stood against the racism of that time–just as there were many white Americans who stood against racism before, during, and after the Civil War.

  • Scotty Wiseman Feb 4, 2009 @ 18:06

    great! cant wait for Lincoln. you’re the expert.

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