Abraham Lincoln was a towering enigma, a sturdy pillar of conflicts and contrasts.
He was a sad man who made people laugh, a rough-hewn rail-splitter who preferred to be inside with a book. He lost four political races … then won the presidency and changed the nation.
“There’s nothing bigger … than the Moby Dick of American history, which is Abraham Lincoln,” said historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose Lincoln documentary debuts on Presidents Day weekend (8 p.m. Feb. 20-22) on the History Channel.
She spent a decade writing her 2005 Lincoln book. One key part (which Steven Spielberg’s used for his 2012 “Lincoln” movie) was the complexity of freeing the slaves. “You see a man who’s contradictory about whether he’s going to go for emancipation, or just is going to go for union,” Goodwin said.
Other contradictions filled his life, she said. “He’s got all sorts of depression that he’s sufferig, but humor is the way he gets his resilience. He loses two races for the Senate (and earlier races for the legislature and Congress), but he keeps going and he finally wins.”
Throughout it all, people saw him as this authentic frontiersman – tall (6-foot-4) and muscular, who worked briefly as a rail-splitter and at length on his family farm. Still, none of that was by choice.
That’s in the early parts of the documentary (mixing historians and re-enactments), the parts that producer Dave Sirulnick describes as “Abe before Lincoln.”
This was a frontier kid who was born in Kentucky, moved to Indiana at 7 and Illinois at 21. The pivotal event came when he was 9 and his mother died. Young Abe and his sister, 11, were left to forage for food and take care of themselves, while their father went back to Kentucky to find a new wife.
He returned with one (a friend’s widow), who brought furniture and – even though she couldn’t read – books. “She acknowledged that (Abe) was talented,” Goodwin said. “There was something special in him; she gave him the love that he needed.”
The books swept him to other worlds, Goodwin said. They “allowed him to think, ‘I can be something different than living this hard-scrabble way.’ And then he went for that vision.”
His father had discouraged books, school or other distractions from hard work. But he did open Abe’s eyes in other ways. He was a skilled storyteller, something the son expanded on. And the dad’s odd jobs included flatboats trips down the Mississippi; Abe did the same, with his dad and as a young man.
Graham Sibley, who portrays Lincoln in the film from ages 21-56, found those river trips easy to relate to. Sibley is an actor from Illinois (which calls itself “the land of Lincoln”), but he also made frequent trips to his mother’s roots in Memphis.
“My grandparents used the N-word,” he said. “It was a different time in the ‘80s and ‘90s. when we were just sort of around all of that, seeing the Black help … in their white uniforms.”
That was what Lincoln saw – on a much more horrific scale – on flatboat trips to New Orleans. He emerged as a staunch opponent of slavery … even though he was undecided on how to end it.
In Illinois, he became a storekeeper, ran for office and, self-taught, got his law license. A judge was so impressed with his folksy courtroom style that he helped propel his political campaigns.
There were losses and then the presidency. He was, Sirulnick said, “the right man for the right time.”
Why? That’s something Goodwin probed in her 2018 book, “Leadership in Turbulent Times” … which will be a History mini-series on Labor Day weekend.
Lincoln shared traits with key leaders, she said. “The first one is humility – the ability to acknowledge errors and learn from your mistakes …. And empathy is absolutely essential – the ability to understand other people’s points of view. And then you’ve got resilience …. From failure, you keep going.”
Lincoln faced devastating losses. There were the deaths of people he loved – his mother, his sister, his son. There were brutal defeats on the battlefield. He survived; he kept his country together at its most fragile moment.
“Abraham Lincoln” documentary, History Channel
— Sunday (Feb. 20): First part, 8-10:33 p.m., rerunning at 12:03 a.m.
— Monday: First part, 5:30 p.m.; second part is 8-10:33, rerunning at 12:03.
–Tuesday: Entire mini-series – 3 p.m., 5:30 p.m. and finale from 8-10:33, rerunning at 12:04.
— Also Sunday: George Washington mini-series from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.; U.S. Grant from 2-8 p.m.
— The Lincoln and Washington series are from Doris Kearns Goodwin; so are two upcoming ones – Theodore Roosevelt this spring and “Leadership in Turbulent Times,” on Memorial Day weekend.