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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