The United States is bitterly divided. Television pundits and historical scholars argue it may be the most turbulent time in the country since the Civil War. That bitter and bloody chapter of American history may have been the end of the American experiment save for the leadership of one man, President Abraham Lincoln. He is remembered as The Great Emancipator, the person who ended slavery and preserved the Union even as the rise of the Confederate States of America tore the country apart. Lincoln’s story is so epic, it’s easy to forget that under 200 years of myth and legend, Abraham Lincoln was just a man, like anyone else.
The new CNN documentary series, Lincoln: Divided We Stand, examines the historical significance of Abraham Lincoln by comparing his incredible achievements and struggles with his humble upbringing and early adversities, seeking to discover how a working class boy from a log cabin in Kentucky grew up to become one of the most important figures in the history of America. To realize this vision, the series features interviews with numerous historical scholars, extensive reenactments of pivotal moments from Lincoln’s life, and a keen eye towards connecting overlooked details from Lincoln’s youth to his legendary presidential feats. The whole journey is tied together by narration from This Is Us star Sterling K. Brown.
Lincoln: Divided We Stand is produced by the Glass Entertainment Group, led by CEO Nancy Glass. While promoting the launch of the series, Glass spoke to Screen Rant about her work on the series and her passion for the secret history of one of America’s most important figures. She reflects on the notion of seeing Presidents as larger-than-life icons and how valuable it is to find the vulnerable humanity underneath, since that’s what informs the significance of their more high-profile accomplishments. She also talks about working with CNN and how vital it was to take precautions to make the production as safe as possible during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
Lincoln: Divided We Stand debuts Sunday, February 14 on CNN.
I watched the first episode of the series. I love interviewing movie stars and directors and all that, but my dream interview would be someone like Jon Meacham. I love the idea of seeing American history in the context of the President.
You know, by the way, Jon Meacham is so funny. I went to hear him speak. I’m a huge fan, I read everything he writes. I’m with you on that.
I’ve been to the Lincoln Memorial once, and I was moved. I saw the statue of George Washington, that Greek-style thing with the muscles and the ripped abs at the Smithsonian. It’s a bit ridiculous, but it still inspired me like nothing else, you know what I mean?
I do, yes I do.
Do we need a window of time where we can deify certain Presidents?
I think what Lincoln does, this docuseries, is give you the human side of Lincoln. We cover all the stuff we’ve already heard, but we get into the real details behind them. You find out things like, he wasn’t an abolitionist. It’s different. You find out about all the tragedies in his life. His children dying, being abandoned, being beaten up by his father because he wanted to get an education… By the way, did you like the first episode?
Oh yeah. I thought it was great. When you get to a certain point in time, there’s a degree of interpretation. There’s no witnesses. There’s no video tape. There’s no candid photographs. It’s interesting to see different historians contradict one another while digging towards the truth. There’s so much myth, and there’s a man somewhere under there.
Yes, absolutely. We had 22 Lincoln scholars. Some of the nation’s most authoritative Lincoln experts. We had Pulitzer Prize authors, political commentators, professors, civil rights leaders… It was interesting to get their input, to get their takes, to help us build this biography.
The coolest president in my lifetime was Obama. He was cool, he had a hip image. But when you ask about his record on, say, gay rights, and how he had to “evolve” on that issue, it’s kind of one of those things where you don’t necessarily want to acknowledge how backwards that seems now. We might have to wait until he’s been dead for 20 years before we can really criticize him for taking so long to fully endorse gay marriage.
But you know what? I think the fact that you can evolve makes you cooler. It’s easy to stick with what you have always believed. It’s a lot harder to say, “You know what? I’m going to rethink this.” I admire somebody much more, who is willing to rethink. I really think that’s what made Lincoln a great man; his ability to look at something and go, “Maybe I got this wrong.”
Yeah, that’s a great way to see it. There’s an attitude of, “Never apologize, never compromise.” Then how are you going to grow? Were you already fully formed and perfect, you never had to learn anything in your whole life?
That’s right, that’s right. You see? It’s interesting. Obviously, you’re a very thoughtful person…
So you’ve thought this through. I hope that people watching it will think it through, also. By admitting what we don’t know, by seeking answers, we can come to better conclusions than the ones we’ve automatically assigned to situations. I’m sure you’ve learned that as a journalist. You go into an interview, you think one thing, and by the end, you realize, “Oh my God, that’s what’s going on!”
Sure. I always have notes and questions written down, but I’ll only use a fraction of them, because the conversation is going to go where it’s going to go.
That’s so funny, I do the same thing. And that’s what we sort of applied to Lincoln. We had a very interesting process. Everybody on the staff of the show, we all picked a bunch of books to read. We all read different books, and then came together and debated out what the important points were in his life, and how we were going to get there. We debated out the timeline, what were the important things to cover. Everybody came at it from a different place, because we all had different literary and historic references.
Something I’ve always been curious about is whether a President has to shape history, or if they have to acknowledge the history around them and guide their country through that. My question for you is, could anybody have been Lincoln? Or did Lincoln enact history in a way that could have only been done by him?
Wow, what a good question. Hmm… No. I think it had to be Lincoln. Look, if you look at everything that goes on in the world, there are people who emerge as heroes, as stars, and as villains. And I guess you have to have their particular makeup to emerge as one of those things. But again, there are parts of it, because of his historic significance, because of the changes he made, things he enacted, there are stories we don’t tell. One of the interesting parts of the whole story is Mary.
Yeah, she had a rough go of it.
I always ask people, “Did you think Mary was crazy?” And they’ll say, “Oh, yes.” But I don’t think she was. If you read everything about what happened to her in her life, she was a tough cookie. When her husband died, her country turned on her. And her children died, and the country kept turning on her. One of the stories that we told in our first meeting with CNN when we were pitching this was, I asked what they thought of Mary, and a lot of people thought she might be crazy. Here’s the story: She’s in her hotel room, and there’s a knock at the door. At this point in her life, her husband is dead and three of her four sons are dead. The man at the door is someone she knows very well, and he says, “Mary, I’m here to arrest you. You are being arrested and charged with insanity. Get dressed, because you’re going to trial right now.” She’s in shock. She walks across the street to her trial, and an entire jury is seated, composed of some of the most prominent people in Chicago. People who know they are there to convict her. She knows the judge because of her husband’s law practice. She’s been appointed a lawyer she knows. Then she sees the prosecutor, and the man sitting next to him is her son, Robert Lincoln.
The only one left.
He was embarrassed by his mother. He was embarrassed by his mother’s constant insistence on having money. She was not supported by the government the way she wanted to. She was a shopaholic. She was an obsessive compulsive. And she was kind of a loudmouth. So he wanted her put away, and he sent her to a sanitarium. But she was so clever, she found a way to get to the first, as they called her, “Lady Lawyer” in the United States, who worked on and eventually succeeded in getting her released. There’s all kinds of great stories. One of the other stories I also loved was the story of Lincoln and his sister being left alone for a whole winter while his father goes out to find a wife. And lo and behold, the woman who comes home with his father is a woman who believes in learning and books. And you saw, his father hit him when we would read. His father didn’t want him to read. That’s not what you would expect to be in the background of someone who had so much character and was a great and forgiving man.
He had such a massive legacy, such macro concerns, that there were other things, more personal things, the things that history would not necessarily remember, would inevitably fall by the wayside once his story gets too big for a small stage.
And these were the things that shaped his life. I think, by giving you that context, it makes him even more interesting. Even the things surrounding him. In the series, we talk about the Battle of Bull Run, which was a picnic. People thought that first battle was going to last about an hour, so they showed up for lunch to watch the battle. Then, it happened, and soldiers were slaughtered. The people sitting there, having a picnic, got up and ran. There’s a lot of interesting facts.
That’s a particularly important anecdote, because we’ve seen play-acting of civil war in the headlines. I mean, not to get too political or anything. Ahem.
Dissent and secession and treason is some kind of fun drama to watch with popcorn… And then it actually happens, and people are killed, and arrested and sent to jail and whatever we’re going to see happen in the future, only then does it become “real.”
It’s interesting, too, because when he was elected the second time, they called him the Ape from Illinois. Washington was in the South, and southerners just hated him! He walked into Confederate territory after a battle, with his son, and they looked around. That’s not something you could do today, obviously. I learned so much putting this together. It was really joyous.
Yeah. The way I see it, history is always going in the direction it’s going. You can’t stop it. Sometimes you can slow it down, but we all have a choice to rail against it or lead people towards it, towards the future. Progressiveness is such a dirty word in some circles, and Lincoln had to kind of trick people into accepting a new age.
Obviously, you think very deeply. I hope that people watch it will think as deeply as you do, although I suspect your deep thinking is natural. Well, as a writer, I guess you have to be! It was an exciting project, it’s fun to do all the research. I know a lot of people don’t think research is fun, but it really is. You discover these interesting nuggets. And also, it was a herculean shoot.
Oh right, we didn’t even touch on all the reenactments and stuff!
We had to shoot it through all the Covid-19 quarantines. A bulk of the filming was in August, and we had 150 people on the set. Nobody got sick, thank God. We social distanced, we tested like crazy. It made it very difficult.
I hear it’s terribly expensive to shoot anything. I know a lot of smaller productions are just postponed indefinitely because they don’t want to double or triple their budgets without having any of that money appearing on the screen, so to speak.
That’s true, but CNN is different. CNN were like, “Be safe, do what you can. Let us know what it costs.” They really care about what happens, and they really care about people. I think that’s unusual for a news organization, but they really care about people. And they were very concerned that we don’t do anything to endanger anyone. We were lucky. We took all the precautions, but you can never be too safe.
Nancy, it has been such a treat to talk to you. I can’t wait to see the rest of the show, and I hope I get to catch you on the next one!
I hope it starts conversations, that’s what I really hope. I hope it starts conversations, and gets people interested, and I hope it keeps viewers engaged!