History Documentary Probes Lincoln Psyche


The History Channel’s latest revisiting of an American president, Lincoln, takes a different approach to examining the life of the iconic figure.

This is not the standard myth-building encomium that has come to signify most Abraham Lincoln biographies. Lincoln examines the president’s life through the filter of his lifelong depression.

Framed by a moment-by-moment account of his final day, historians scrutinize the defining moments of his life and, with the help of Lincoln’s actions and writings, paint a portrait of the man far more complex than the picture of the log-cabin building, slavery-abolishing hero the schoolbooks portray.

From the earliest days of his life, Lincoln was shadowed by death. One brother passed when Lincoln was very young. He lost his mother and two grandparents at nine. Heartbreak would follow Lincoln the rest of his life, losing a young sweetheart and later two sons and a couple of close friends during the Civil War.

Those events most likely led to his severe bouts of depression, as well as suicidal thoughts.

Despite Lincoln’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day debut, the documentary does not concentrate solely on his efforts against slavery. We learn that Lincoln is pulled out of a five-year midlife funk in 1854, when his old political nemesis, Stephen Douglas, pushed the Kansas-Nebraska Act through Congress.

The act, which organized the territorial governments of the future states, gave residents the right to vote on slavery. This sparked the abolitionist in Lincoln, flinging him back into politics and putting him on a fast track to the presidency.

The last four years of Lincoln’s life are packed into the program’s last hour. Discussions of the Civil War are accompanied by often gruesome battlefield photographs from the day.

The Emancipation Proclamation receives brief treatment. Though Lincoln considered it the proudest moment of his career, the documentary concentrates on the impact the Civil War’s tremendous death toll had on Lincoln’s psyche.

Given the vast amount of commentary that has been presented on Lincoln’s abolition of slavery, little more needs to be said about the subject. This study of the psychological state that motivated many of his actions is much more rewarding and interesting to history buffs who already know the particulars of his presidency.

Lincoln debuts Jan. 16 at 8 p.m. on The History Channel.