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Arts & Culture

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: Abraham And Mary Lincoln, A House Divided

Promotional image of Abraham and Mary Lincoln
Courtesy of WGBH
Promotional image of Abraham and Mary Lincoln

Airs Monday, July 25 & August 1, 2011 at 10 p.m. on KPBS TV

Abraham Lincoln was a dirt farmer’s son determined to make something of himself. Mary Todd, the daughter of Kentucky slave owners, had unparalleled political ambition. He came to be known as the “great emancipator.” She came to be seen as a Confederate sympathizer. He would become more central to America’s image of itself than any other chief executive. She would die unnoticed and totally forgotten. Together, they ascended to the pinnacle of power at the most difficult time in the nation’s history.

Their marriage was long and turbulent, and knew many trials, including the loss of two children. "Abraham And Mary Lincoln: A House Divided" weaves together the lives of the two Lincolns, drawing us into their long-vanished world.

David Grubin is the producer and director of this six-part series. Written by Geoffrey C. Ward and David Grubin. David Morse is the voice of Abraham Lincoln. Holly Hunter is the voice of Mary Todd Lincoln. David McCullough narrates.


The first episode aired on Monday, June 20, 2011 at 10 p.m. - It tells the story of the Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln's childhoods - his in a remote backwoods log cabin, hers in a wealthy Kentucky home - and describes their courtship. Mary sets her heart on the raw, socially awkward Lincoln, saying later: "He'll be President of the United States one day. If I had not thought so I never would have married him."

Episode two aired on Monday, June 27 at 10 p.m. - The Lincoln marriage is both tempestuous and passionate: she has a temper; he suffers bouts of depression. But they share a powerful political ambition that sends Abraham to the House of Representatives and later, with the country splitting apart over slavery, sees him run for president. On election night, when the results finally come in, Abraham goes home and tells his wife, “Mary, Mary, we are elected!”

Episode three aired on Monday, July 11 at 10 p.m. - When the Lincolns arrive in Washington in 1861, the country is breaking apart. The country’s president-elect is unknown, untested and mistrusted. His wife, the daughter of a Southern slave owner, is suspected of being a Confederate sympathizer. As Abraham leads a confused and frightened people through the most terrible conflict in their history, disaster strikes his own home: Willie Lincoln — the child Mary says will be “the hope and stay” of her old age — dies.

Episode four aired on Monday, July 18 at 10 p.m. - Tormented by her grief and losing grip on sanity, Mary Lincoln turns to spiritualists for comfort. Though bowed down with sorrow, her husband never loses sight of the tragedy consuming the nation. With the war going badly in the east, enlistments drying up and morale low, Abraham Lincoln takes a step that changes the country forever and, in doing so, he changes himself. On January 1, 1863, the 16th president issues the Emancipation Proclamation, liberating millions of Americans from bondage. The move turns the Civil War from a conflict over union into a struggle for freedom.

Episode five aired on Monday, July 25 at 10 p.m. - As 1863 begins, it seems the Civil War will never end. One-hundred Union soldiers desert daily and hundreds more die of disease. Opposition to the war begins to spread. Some Northerners resent fighting to free black slaves; others are furious with Abraham Lincoln for the devastating Union casualties. Weighed down by the criticism, Abraham is desperately anxious. Mary Lincoln, worried about her husband, spends money compulsively, plunging herself into terrible debt.


Episode six aired on Monday, August 1 at 10 p.m. - This episode tells the story of the last 16 months of war — the battle of Gettysburg, the Union victory that changed the conflict’s course, and Abraham Lincoln’s battlefield dedication that changed America’s conception of itself. It follows Abraham’s final political struggles and charts his differences with his wife: he remains dedicated to bringing the South back to the Union; she speaks privately of revenge. With the surrender at Appomattox and the Civil War finally over, the president tells Mary Lincoln they can find some happiness again. Just days later, he is shot to death. The brutal assassination exacts a terrible toll on a war-torn nation and the president’s emotionally fragile wife.