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Quo vadis, Lincoln?

There’s much to glean from Lincoln’s Dilemma, which has exceptional moments, but is stumbles badly at the end.

(Image: Screen shot/Apple+)

MPAA Rating: Not rated at the time of this review
USCCB Rating: Not rated at the time of this review
Reel Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

George Washington is probably the most famous American president, but Abraham Lincoln is easily the most beloved. Common mythology states he preserved the Union, freed the slaves, and paid the ultimate price for his heroic deeds. All of these are true, but Lincoln’s Dilemma, a new miniseries on Apple +, gives details that portray a more complex, and perhaps even more heroic, picture of this great man and the nation he saved.

Lincoln’s Dilemma is broken into four-hour long episodes, roughly matching his four years in office. When Lincoln was elected, he was still in Illinois and had to take a weeklong train to DC and his inauguration. This journey would prove prophetic as there were threats to his life as he witnessed the divisions across the country.

By the time he was sworn in as president in March of 1861, several states had already succeeded from the union. The next month, the Confederacy took Fort Sumter, and the Civil War had begun.

Lincoln’s Dilemma focuses on Lincoln’s internal life, especially his philosophy, faith, and morality, as he tries to bring the Civil War to a close. It uses a combination of talking heads, mostly from academia, and charcoal animation to recreate events. The latter is far more compelling, the black and white drawings expressing the drama of good and evil involved in his discernment. The question Lincoln faced was not just how to end the carnage but what the nation would be (and could be) when finished.

While personally abhorring slavery, Lincoln’s priority was to preserve the union, even if that meant also preserving slavery in some form. Even if slavery was abolished, liberty did not necessarily mean equality. And there is plenty of evidence, at least initially, that Lincoln was not in favor of full equality for African Americans with European Americans. As a shrewd political leader, he also gave signals that placated Northerners who were sympathetic to the Southern cause. Everything was geared towards ending the war successfully apart from any other motive.

Yet as the war progressed, Lincoln’s tone began to change. One of the major reason was the bravery of African American soldiers. Many of them, including former slaves, voluntarily enlist, recognizing the moral dimension of the conflict. He also listened to the experiences of former slaves, especially Frederick Douglass, and searched his own soul. This pushed him, against the advice of some of his cabinet members, to give the Emancipation Proclamation and later promote the 13th amendment, ending slavery permanently. Thus, the Civil War becomes not just about keeping the states united but also ending a great moral evil.

One thing that stands out clearly among the many documents and individuals quoted is how public and private expressions were commonplace. Frederick Douglass’s abolitionist fervor comes directly from his Christian faith which teaches that all men are God’s children. The postmodern idea of Judeo-Christian ethics as a hinderance to freedom would be completely foreign to him. One thing that struck me about Lincoln’s faith was his profound humility. He was constantly reexamining his conscience and bringing in new information. He prayed for the ability to do the right “as God allows us to see the right,” acknowledging how our own desires often interfere with discernment. This isn’t an excuse for inaction or relativism but rather a recognition of our fallen state. This humility is best described in his forgiveness of the South after the Civil War, proclaiming in his second inauguration speech “malice towards none and charity to all.”

Unfortunately, the prejudices of the modern (or post-modern) age seep through at the very end. Many of the professors interviewed see the hesitation of Northerners and even Lincoln himself as evidence for deep-seated white supremacy that supposedly exists in nearly every social and legal institution today. They repeat typical far left talking points directly correlating the Confederacy to Donald Trump, the January 6th riot, and the removal of statuary, including that of Lincoln himself.

In an effort to falsely de-mythologize, they are in fact recreating their own racist mythology that blames all of America’s woes, however racially benign, on European Americans.

There’s much to glean from Lincoln’s Dilemma, which in its best moments feels like an American version of St. Augustine’s Confessions. Yet it trips so badly at the finish line that the series is a hard sell without serious qualifications. Abraham Lincoln was truly an American hero who was flawed, but who always sought to do right as God lead him to do so. In the end, he paid the ultimate price for his nation’s sins. He deserves not just to be immortalized in stone but to have a place in the hearts of every American.

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About Nick Olszyk 189 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online at his website, Catholic Cinema Crusade.


  1. The Christian faith does not teach that all men are God’s children. It teaches that Christians are God’s children by adoption. If we can’t get this simple, basic Christian doctrine right, then we will get a whole lot of other things wrong as well. Christianity is not humanism, and humanism is not Christianity.

  2. Given a choice between Lincoln and Washington as the most beloved President, I will take Washington. He won a war we should have lost, and kept the cause going against almost insurmountable odds, to accomplish a feat until then unknown to mankind: a colony successfully fighting for it’s freedom to become independent. Because of him, the farmers defeated the worlds greatest army. Through lost battles and retreats and the often lukewarm support of the colonial legislatures failing to provide the army with supplies, through the starvation winter at Valley Forge, he never gave up. By sheer force of personality he won the undying loyalty of the men he commanded, who would have followed him to the gates of hell. He had all the power in the world at the end, and never planned to be President. And after he was, he laid down his power and returned home.I have three ancestors who fought with the general, two of whom were shot by the enemy during their term of service. I am very proud of them. Freedom really isn’t free, for anyone. It is true the Generals’primary motivation was American freedom. All other considerations, including that of his own life and safety, were secondary. And to that I say, so what? I am weary of the professional victims, race baiters and woke hustlers who persist in peddling their lies about the country
    and viewing all things, even history, through the prism of race. Like any prism, the view from there is distorted.It is urgent that you understand if your children are being indoctrinated in school to hate their own country, and themselves, in a disgusting agenda pushed by propagandists. Make certain you counter-act the information they get by helping them understand the truth at home. As for Lincoln, he was a sound President who did the right thing, regarding both the country and the slavery issue. He gets the sympathy vote from most people because of the terribly sad and traumatic assassination on his life. However, absent George Washington, America the nation never would have seen the light of day, and the whole world would be a very different place.

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