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Aired February 19, 2001

Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided

From the Collection: The Presidents

Film Description

In 1882, Mary Todd Lincoln was an old woman living on a hill on the outskirts of Springfield, Illinois. She kept her curtains drawn, never went outside, never received visitors. Neighborhood children pointed up at her window and hurried past, frightened by "the crazy lady" in the upstairs room.

Forty years before, Todd had married, in the parlor of this same house, a tall, awkward lawyer, and still wore his ring, inscribed with the words -- "Love is eternal." At the time she was an aristocratic southerner, he a backwoods politician. She had once said of her future husband: "He is to be President of the United States some day; if I had not thought so I never would have married him, for you can see he is not pretty." Her husband was elected President, a president who has become more central to America's image of itself than any chief executive before or after him. "Self-made man," "savior of the union," the "great emancipator" -- his life has been swept up into the nation's mythology.

More has been written about Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln than any other Americans, and yet, A House Divided is the first dual biography. The film follows the couple from their strikingly different childhoods in the South to their years in the White House. It uncovers their public ambitions and their private fears. It paints a vivid picture of a complicated marriage, of a couple who loved each other passionately, quarreled intensely, and who were frequently forced to mourn. And it describes the impact of Lincoln's brutal assassination on the nation and the sanity of his wife.

As the first dual biography, A House Divided does much more than explore the personal story of one of the most intriguing couples to have lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, it also reflects on the time of the Lincolns' lives and the parallels with a nation at war. Elected to the Oval Office only to see the nation split in two, Lincoln led a confused and frightened people through the most terrible conflict in their history. At the same time, his own household mirrored the fissures that tore the nation apart and divided families from Maine to Mississippi. The great emancipator was married to the daughter of a slave owner from Kentucky, a woman who was frequently accused of being a Confederate sympathizer and whose brother lost his life fighting Lincoln's armies.

Directed by award-winning filmmaker David Grubin (Napoleon, Truman, FDR, LBJ, TR, The Story of Theodore Roosevelt)A House Divided weaves stunning and evocative original cinematography of battle scenes and White House dinners, of cabinet meetings and shopping sprees with beautiful daguerreotypes and photographs to create a vibrant sense of America in the mid-19th century. To help tell this story, Grubin has pulled together an impressive cast of leading scholars and cultural commentators. They include Doris Kearns Goodwin, Linda Levitt Turner, Charles B. Strozier, Mary Genevieve Murphy, Jean Harvey Baker, David Herbert Donald, Douglas L. Wilson, Judge Frank J. Williams, Mark E. Neely Jr., Donald Miller, Margaret Washington, and David E. Long.