Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided

SUBJECTS — U.S./1812 – 1865; Biography;

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Families in Crisis; Marriage; Grieving; Leadership; Father/Daughter; Mother/Son; Romantic Relationships;

MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Respect; Responsibility, Fairness.

AGE: 10+; No MPAA Rating;

Documentary; 2001; 360 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.

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For a movie worksheet for this film, see Film Study Worksheet for a Documentary.


This PBS documentary describes the life of Abraham Lincoln and Mary, his wife, from birth to death. The films are suitable for those who know little about Abraham and Mary Lincoln and also for those who are fairly knowledgeable about our 16th President and his wife.


Selected Awards: None.

Featured Actors: David McCullough, Narrator.

Director: David Grubin.


“Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided” is not limited to political events and the history of the period, but also presents information about the background, personalities, and family life of Mary and Abraham Lincoln. It provides a rounded picture of this famous and star-crossed couple.




“Abraham & Mary Lincoln: A House Divided” is excellent for viewing with a child in middle school or high school who is studying the Civil War. This documentary shows the human side of Abraham and Mary Lincoln. After seeing the film, share with your child Walt Whitman’s poem, Oh Captain! My Captain! It is important that children understand the sentiment Whitman presents in his poem. It is also important that they understand how poetry illustrates feelings that otherwise are difficult to express and that they share the beauty of poetry with their parents.


This film is a documentary and provides its own historical background.

One of the many strengths of this series is the description of the development of Lincoln’s attitude toward African-Americans and the parallel change in his reasons for fighting the Civil War. At the beginning, for Lincoln and most of the North, the war was about preserving the Union. In 1860 Europe was controlled by a resurgent aristocracy with the U.S. standing as the world’s leading representative democracy. If it were not able to keep itself together, this would be further proof that democracy was not a viable governmental system. The cause of democracy would have been set back generations, if not completely discredited. Lincoln, while he hated slavery, had pledged during his first election campaign to permit the South to keep its “peculiar institution.” When he swore his oath as President, Lincoln swore to uphold the Constitution, which at the time had been interpreted by the Supreme Court as protecting the property rights of slaveholders. Even after the South seceded, Lincoln did not challenge the existence of slavery. Out of political necessity, he assured the slaveholders in the border states that they would not lose their slaves if they remained in the Union. In the early period of his Presidency, Lincoln proposed returning freed slaves to Africa.

However, freed slaves and other blacks served as soldiers and fought valiantly for the Union side. See Learning Guide to “Glory”. Lincoln came to believe that if blacks were willing to give their lives for the nation, they should also have the benefits of citizenship.

Faced with horrifically high casualties, Lincoln searched in his conscience for a reason for the war other than merely the maintenance of the Union, as important as that was. The Emancipation Proclamation issued on September 22, 1862, was a political, foreign relations, and war measure. It freed slaves only in areas not under the control of the Federal Government. In the Gettysburg address, see Learning Guide to “Gettysburg”, Lincoln combined the two goals, stating that the way to honor the fallen at Gettysburg was:

— that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. (This Version from Hay Draft.)

By at least 1864 the Civil War had became a war to end slavery. Even before the war was over, Lincoln, by personally lobbying the Congress, attracting support from opposition Democrats as well as from Republicans, pushed through the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. From that time on, slavery was illegal throughout the nation. The 13th Amendment was passed by Congress on January 31, 1865.

Lincoln’s ultimate judgment as to the purpose and cause of the Civil War focused on the slavery issue. In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln put it this way:

Both [the North and the South] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

The Second Inaugural was given on March 4, 1865. It is significant that Lincoln at first justified the war as an effort to protect democracy by keeping the Union. However, by its end, he could explain the bloodletting only in religious terms as a consequence of the sin of slavery and justify the immense number of casualties as needed to end slavery.

Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, 1865. Abraham Lincoln was shot to death by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865.

The Lincoln Memorial

Willie Lincoln


Mary Todd Lincoln


Tad Lincoln



1. [ Standard Questions ]

2. Why did Mary Todd’s father remarry soon after his wife’s death?



1. What was Lincoln’s unpromising start as President?

2. Do you agree that Lincoln showed great self-confidence in his choice of cabinet officers? Give the reasons supporting your conclusion.

3. The United States was called an “experiment in democracy.” Can you explain that statement?

4. What was Lincoln’s plan to give the Union the moral high ground in the struggle over Fort Sumter?

5. What were the international and national political effects of the Emancipation Proclamation?

6. How did the Emancipation Proclamation change Lincoln?

7. How did the Emancipation Proclamation change the Civil War?

8. What was the Contraband Relief Organization and what did it do?

9. What is the name of the battle that was the bloodiest day in American History?

10. What did Mary Lincoln do that was unheard of for the United States at that time?

11. Who was Elizabeth Keckly and what was her contribution to American History?

12. [ Standard Questions ]



1. [ Standard Questions ]

2. What was Lincoln’s political role during the War?

3. What caused Lincoln to see African-Americans in a new light?

4. Describe Lincoln’s first meeting with Frederick Douglass and the effect that meeting had on Lincoln.

5. Why were there riots in New York after the publication of the Emancipation Proclamation?

6. What does the Gettysburg address tell us about Lincoln’s evolving view of the justification for the Civil War?

7. Do you think that Lincoln acted correctly in permitting Emily Todd Helm, his wife’s half-sister, to live at the White House despite her Southern sympathies?

8. Read the book of Job from the Bible. It is short. Tell us why, in the depths of the war, when it seemed as if there were nothing the Northern generals could do right, Lincoln would read this part of the Bible for solace.




1. Why did Mary Todd become conversant in politics?

2. Explain the dynamics of the relationship between Mary Todd and her father.



3. What was the source of Abraham Lincoln’s ambition?



4. Why would an event like losing one’s mother early in life predispose two people to feel a special bond?




1. How did Elizabeth Keckly help Mary Lincoln direct some of her grief at the loss of her son to activities that were beneficial to Mary and helpful to others? Describe how helping others can serve to assuage grief. For an additional example of this see Learning Guide to “Cry the Beloved Country”.



2. Describe the dynamics of the marriage between Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln during the early years in the White House. How was it functional, and how was it dysfunctional?



There are no Social-Emotional Learning Discussion Questions for Volumes Five and Six.



Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.



(Treat others with respect; follow the Golden Rule; Be tolerant of differences; Use good manners, not bad language; Be considerate of the feelings of others; Don’t threaten, hit or hurt anyone; Deal peacefully with anger, insults, and disagreements)

1. How did Lincoln learn to respect African-Americans?



(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act — consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)

2. In the depths of the war when it looked as if the North was losing and that he would not be reelected president, Lincoln said,

I desire so to conduct the affairs of this administration that if at the end when I come to lay down the reins of power and I have lost every friend on earth, I shall have at least one friend and that friend shall be down inside me.

Would you lose all of your friends in order to keep the friend deep down inside of yourself?

3. Describe as many of the ways as possible that Lincoln acted in conformity with this Pillar.



(Play by the rules; Take turns and share; Be open-minded; listen to others; Don’t take advantage of others; Don’t blame others carelessly)

4. Does it seem fair that black soldiers would put their lives on the line for the Union and yet return to slavery after the war?


Students can be asked to do the following:

  • Write a paper answering any one or a group of the Discussion Question set out above.
  • Give a class presentation, individually or in groups, responding to any of the Discussion Questions set out above


There are hundreds of excellent books on the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln. We suggest that you consult with your local librarian.


The Time of the Lincolns, A Companion Site to the Film from PBS. This is an outstanding website with additional information and lesson plans.

This Learning Guide was last updated on December 13, 2013.

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