Review Essay

American Heritage: Lincoln. New York: Byron Preiss Multimedia, 1997.
A House Divided: The Lincoln-Douglas Debates. San Mateo, Calif.: Grafica Multimedia, 1995.
James M. McPherson. His Name Was Lincoln: A Multimedia Biography. Pleasantville, N.Y.: Sunburst Communications, 1996.

Because Abraham Lincoln holds an enduring fascination for many Americans and for citizens of other countries, each new medium of communication has grappled with Lincoln's life. Printing presses have issued a continuous stream of books and pamphlets on Lincoln beginning with the earliest campaign biographies published to support his political career. Beginning with D. W. Griffith's epic film The Birth of a Nation (1915), actors have portrayed Lincoln on the big screen. Other actors have interpreted Lincoln on stage and television. More recently, computers have offered new ways to explore the meaning of Lincoln's life and legacy. CD-ROM publications offer unique possibilities for approaching the study of Lincoln. Multimedia CD-ROMs are capable of providing users with large quantities of text, high-resolution images, video segments, digital-quality music, and interactive activities. Unlike books and films, multimedia CD-ROMs free users to choose their own learning paths through information on a particular subject. A House Divided, His Name Was Lincoln, and American Heritage: Lincoln are excellent examples of the possibilities and pitfalls of presenting Lincoln's life in the CD-ROM medium.

One of the great turning points in Abraham Lincoln's political career—and life—was the series of debates in which he participated as a candidate for the United States Senate in 1858. Between August 21 and October 15, Lincoln and his opponent, Democratic incumbent Stephen A. Douglas, traversed the state of Illinois in a series Page  [End Page 79] of seven debates over the great political issues of the day. In five of the seven debates, audiences numbered from ten thousand to twenty thousand people. Only in the southern sites of Jonesboro and Alton did smaller crowds of fifteen hundred and five thousand people, respectively, turn out to see Lincoln and Douglas debate. Although Douglas was re-elected to the Senate, Lincoln's performance in the debates spread his reputation as a Republican spokesman across the North and placed him on the path to the presidency.

Grafica's A House Divided: The Lincoln Douglas Debates examines this fascinating period in Lincoln's life and places it within a larger historical context. The interface is organized around the structure of the Reddick Mansion, the Italianate home of William Red-dick, a staunch supporter of Stephen A. Douglas. The Reddick Mansion is in Ottawa, Illinois, the site of the first Lincoln-Douglas debate. Each of the four rooms in the mansion provides different information and activities related to Lincoln and Douglas's historic 1858 confrontation. The user is "met" at the front door by a female guide in period attire, who explains how to navigate the program. Additional information from the guide is available throughout the program via a help and index screen that provides the content of each of the four rooms in the house. As the user moves through the mansion via mouse clicks, he or she can choose activities or presentations by clicking on various objects.

In the Parlor, users can play a selection of twenty-nine songs from the mid-nineteenth century by selecting the piano. The selections include middle-class parlor music like the "Rosebud Quickstep," mournful spirituals such as "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," folk songs such as "When I Lay My Burden Down," work songs like "Quittin' Time Song," and lively banjo and minstrel music like "John Henry." Excellent musicians and vocalists perform each of these selections, and the songs aid the user in "hearing" another time in American history.

Also in the Parlor is a game board that leads to a trivia game which tests users' knowledge of the era of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. In the one-player version, a user answers multiple-choice questions to obtain campaign funds for his or her candidate. Right answers yield campaign contributions and a piece of a portrait. Correctly guessing the person in the portrait yields a large campaign donation. In the two-player version, one contestant supports Lincoln and the other Douglas. By answering questions correctly for travel mileage, players move their candidates around the state of Illinois to each of the seven debate sites. The player who first Page  [End Page 80] transports his or her candidate to Alton for the last debate wins.

In the Gallery, users can view a collection of ten political cartoons of the era, each with its own brief historic context. Users can also zoom in on the details of the cartoons. Throughout the mansion, stereoscopes provide access to four narrated photo-essays—two provide information about the events leading up to the Lincoln-Douglas debates and their aftermath. A third provides a dramatic reading of excerpts from Frederick Douglass's autobiography, and a fourth gives a similar reading of excerpts from Mary Prince's poignant description of her sale into slavery and separation from her family. Through a combination of music, images, and dramatic reading, each of these essays evokes a better understanding of the horrors of slavery and the stakes over which Lincoln and Douglas waged their political contest.

By choosing the grandfather clock in the Hallway, users have access to a skeletal time line of major political events from the Declaration of Independence in 1776 to Lincoln's election as president in 1860. In the Hallway and several rooms, portraits on the wall lead users to a collection of images and text on such subjects as abolitionists, the debaters' families, Bleeding Kansas, the Republican party, westward expansion, and other contextual information.

In the Library, users can access a map showing the debate sites, with dates, times, and estimated attendance. Appropriately, the Library contains the major textual resources of A House Divided. A disappointingly brief bibliography provides the titles for twenty-two books relating to the debates, their context, and their protagonists. Much more substantial and useful is John Splaine's A Companion to the Lincoln Douglas Debates, published by C-Span Publications as a companion to the C-Span coverage of the Lincoln-Douglas debate re-enactments. Splaine provides essential information on the background of the debates—Illinois, the status of sectional politics, verbal techniques in debate, and Lincoln and Douglas themselves. He then offers a chapter on each debate, summarizing each candidate's major arguments and the structure and physical context of the debate. Helpful appendices offer biographical sketches, a glossary, a brief bibliography, and an overview of late-twentieth-century presidential debates. A College Resource Guide provides twelve teaching modules for use in political science, journalism, English, speech, or American history classes. Each module provides teaching goals, teaching methods, and points for discussion.

The Library also contains the text of each of the seven debates. A user can search within the text of any debate for particular words Page  [End Page 81] or phrases. All of the textual materials in the Library are stored in Adobe Acrobat format. The interface presents this material through a separate Adobe Acrobat reader. This format has major advantages in terms of flexibility for formatting, copying, and printing textual materials. However, it also has serious limitations. For example, the user cannot simultaneously search the text of all seven debates for a word or phrase.

The choice of the text itself is likewise problematic. Because the debates were not scripted, historians must rely on the accuracy of reporters in the audience and the recollections of the participants themselves. The standard text, and the one included in A House Divided, is Paul M. Angle's The Complete Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858 (1958), which relied heavily on Lincoln's own scrapbook of newspaper reports that he revised. More recently, Harold Holzer has suggested that while Democratic and Republican newspapers doctored their own candidate's errors of grammar, stylistic lapses, and even content, they left the opposing candidate's words alone. Therefore, Holzer has assembled the unedited Democratic version of Lincoln's talks and the likewise uncleaned Republican version of Douglas's comments in his The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The First Complete Unexpurgated Text (1993). Unfortunately, although Splaine's Companion and the College Resource Guide refer to Holzer's edition, the Library does not contain a version of this alternative text.

Even the inclusion of both texts would fail to address the serious concerns that Douglas Wilson raised in his thoughtful review of Holzer's volume in the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association.[1] Such interactive electronic media as CD-ROMs have much to offer historical study in this area, but A House Divided fails to seize the opportunity. Both scholars and students would benefit from an electronic edition of the Lincoln-Douglas debates that provided both the text of the debates from friendly sources (as Angle did) and from hostile sources (as Holzer did), which the user could view side-by-side on-screen. Such an electronic edition also should allow the user to compare the two texts electronically and to produce a hybrid or synoptic text that combines the two source texts and identifies differences between them. Other eyewitness accounts of the debates would further enrich such an electronic resource. More attention to the texts of the debates and a better mechanism Page  [End Page 82] for viewing and searching them would have enhanced A House Divided as both a research and a teaching tool.

The Sitting Room contains perhaps the most appealing feature of A House Divided. There, a user can choose to view a dramatic re-creation of Lincoln's House Divided Speech of June 16, 1858, or Douglas's Tremont House Speech of July 9, 1858. Although not a part of the debates, those two speeches launched each man's campaign for the Senate, set the tone for the debates, and contain some of each candidate's most eloquent oratory. R. Frederick Klein credibly dramatizes Lincoln's famous speech in the Capitol (now the Old State Capitol State Historic Site) in Springfield, with the exception of his anachronistic beard. Don Lowery's Douglas is less convincing, as Lowery stumbles over some of the Little Giant's powerful rhetoric. Despite those shortcomings, the two video segments are an aural treat. Indexing and annotation render the recreations of the speeches even more useful, as a user can view particular portions of each speech and peruse notes that illuminate that particular section.

Paper documentation for A House Divided is sparse. A brief guide to installing and navigating the program is included with the CD-ROM. The program is simple to use, and the more extensive resources in the Library are wisely presented in electronic form. For teachers, high school and college students, and those with an interest in this defining moment in Lincoln's political career, A House Divided is a valuable tool. Scholars will find the product of lesser use because of the limitations of its search functions and its sole reliance on Angle's text of the debates.

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James M. McPherson, in cooperation with the Lighthouse Group, created His Name Was Lincoln: A Multimedia Biography, the second of the recent electronic presentations of Lincoln's life. This splendid dual CD-ROM set distributed by Sunburst Communications offers an attractive overview of Lincoln's entire life. The two CD-ROM "volumes" are entitled Peace and War. The first volume, Peace, examines Lincoln's life from his birth to 1861 through a series of six topical/chronological chapters. From a central menu screen, a user can select any of the six chapters, identified by quotations from that period in Lincoln's life. An illustrated time line presents major public and private events in Lincoln's life in chronological order for the period covered by this volume. Also available under a Tools menu is a remarkably detailed index of names and subjects that includes both volumes, a brief bibliography, and an image gallery for each chapter. While Page  [End Page 83] the entries in the index provide chapter and section references, the entries are not linked electronically to allow the user direct access from the index.

Each of the six chronological chapters in the first volume includes a documentary multimedia presentation, selections from Lincoln's writings, excerpts from the writings of Lincoln's contemporaries, a section called "Lincoln's America" that provides historical context, video commentaries by historians, and interactive activities. Each chapter also contains a bibliography of suggested readings and direct access to the relevant portion of the time line. Chapter 2, for example, includes a ten-minute multimedia essay on Lincoln's flatboat voyage to New Orleans, his life in New Salem, his military service in the Black Hawk War, his campaigns for the state legislature, and his decision to move to Springfield and practice law. Period and modern photographs illustrate each essay. Superb period music enhances actor Michael Moriarity's narration, which is interspersed with dramatic readings of the words of Lincoln and those of his contemporaries. Actor Chris Sarandon provides the voice of Lincoln.

The "Words of Lincoln" section provides nineteen selections from Lincoln's writings during this time, ranging from personal letters to legislative pronouncements. A user can "open" various drawers of a desk to reveal various documents. Choosing a particular document with the mouse produces an enlarged version on parchment paper in a typeface that is difficult to read. The interface provides a list of all of the Lincoln documents in the chapter but offers no provision for searching or printing the documents. Another section, "Voices from the Past," provides dramatic readings of contemporaries' comments on Lincoln and his world, from second law partner Stephen T. Logan on Lincoln's performance in the legislature to Chief Black Hawk's sense of betrayal at white Americans' broken promises.

A fourth section, "Lincoln's America," provides images and brief textual material on personalities, events, and places related to Lincoln's life. In chapter 2, this section provides information on Henry Clay, Black Hawk, New Orleans, New Salem, the Erie Canal, railroads, and the antebellum transformation of agriculture. The section in each chapter labeled "The Scholar's View" provides video segments in which historians reflect on aspects of this period in Lincoln's life. In that section in chapter 2, Richard Current, Michael Burlingame, and Harold Holzer provide information on Lincoln's early political career, his romances, and his first impressions Page  [End Page 84] of Springfield. In contrast to disembodied "facts," these short commentaries provide users with the perspectives of active Lincoln scholars and personalize the interpretations presented in the publication as a whole.

Finally, chapter 2 also provides an innovative, interactive map of Springfield, Illinois. Small photographs mark twelve sites associated with Lincoln. A user can choose any of the buildings to display a larger picture and textual information on the site. Choosing the Old State Capitol, for example, provides the user with information about Lincoln's legislative career, his legal career before the Illinois Supreme Court, his "House Divided" speech, and the fact that his body lay in state there before burial in Oak Ridge Cemetery.

Other chapters in both volumes provide similarly innovative materials. Those interactive sections include a Lincoln family tree with brief biographies and photographs of Lincoln's ancestors and descendants; a map of Illinois showing the sites of Lincoln-Douglas debates, with dramatic excerpts from each debate; a railway passenger car that details Lincoln's trip to Washington in 1861 with information on each stop, Lincoln's comments there, and the accounts of eyewitnesses; photographs of President Lincoln's cabinet, which users can select to hear a particular member's view on the crisis at Fort Sumter; a tour of cartoonists' views of Lincoln the president; a painting of the cabinet, through which a user may access their opinions on the wisdom of emancipation; Peter J. Rothermel's inventive nationalistic portrait of the "Republican Court" at Lincoln's second inauguration with biographical information on each of the people in the painting (some of whom had died before March 1865); and another railway car that charts the course of Lincoln's funeral train with eulogies, eyewitness accounts, and press dispatches.

War covers Lincoln's life from 1862 to 1865; it contains five chapters organized like those in Peace as well as an epilogue. The epilogue provides thoughtful video commentaries by historians James McPherson, Michael Burlingame, Richard Current, and Harold Holzer on Lincoln's enduring legacy. The section "O Captain! My Captain!" contains a narrated textual presentation of Walt Whit-man's famous eulogy for Lincoln.

His Name Was Lincoln also includes a printed User's Guide and a Resource Guide for teachers. The User's Guide offers basic instructions on the installation and use of the program, while the Resource Guide provides teachers with questions for classroom discussion, Page  [End Page 85] handouts, map exercises, vocabulary words, and writing assignment ideas. Each set of resources relates to one of the chapters in His Name Was Lincoln. The teaching ideas are designed for teachers of junior high and high school students. The Resource Guide is generally helpful, but typographical and especially factual errors diminish its overall usefulness. For example, the guide identifies Grant rather than Sherman as the Union general who presented the city of Savannah, Georgia, to Lincoln as a Christmas gift in 1864. It also indicates that approximately 100,000 African Americans served in the Union army, of whom 65,000 were killed—an astonishing casualty rate. In reality, approximately 179,000 African Americans served in the Union army, of whom about 38,000 died. Teachers must therefore use this guide with caution.

His Name Was Lincoln sets a high standard for the multimedia presentation of historical information. James McPherson has written a splendid text for the multimedia essays, and the photographs, dramatic readings, and period music vitalize Moriarity's narration and Sarandon's presentation of Lincoln's words. The publication's only serious deficiencies are its lack of printing capabilities and the awkward presentation of excerpts from Lincoln's own writings in each chapter.

American Heritage and Byron Preiss Multimedia Company have also released a CD-ROM publication, American Heritage: Lincoln, which is drawn from the same materials assembled by James M. McPherson and the Lighthouse Group for His Name Was Lincoln. American Heritage: Lincoln provides the same multimedia essays written by McPherson, though they are divided into multiple "documentaries." It lacks approximately half of the Lincoln documents, images, and video commentaries by Lincoln scholars. Also missing are several of the interactive sections and the epilogue included in His Name Was Lincoln. Furthermore, American Heritage: Lincoln has a substantially different interface. The main menu is a patchwork quilt. Choosing any one of eleven patches (which correspond roughly to the eleven chapters in His Name Was Lincoln) provides access to another patchwork quilt for that section. The user may then choose various patches to access the resources associated with that period of Lincoln's life.

The section entitled "The War to Abolish Slavery, 1862–1863" corresponds to the first chapter in the War volume of His Name Was Lincoln. In American Heritage: Lincoln, this patchwork quilt offers a variety of resources from this period of the war. By choosing either of two brass buttons on the quilt, the user can access "The Page  [End Page 86] Union Falters" or "Emancipation of the Slaves." Those multimedia documentaries written by James McPherson and again narrated by Michael Moriarity, offer a chronicle of the war effort in the fall of 1862 and winter of 1863 and the decision to make the abolition of slavery in rebellious areas a war aim. Chris Sarandon again provides the voice of Lincoln. By selecting any of three brass horns, the user chooses dramatic readings of letters or diaries by Lincoln's contemporaries. Selecting any of five patches with historians' initials launches video commentaries by James McPherson, Richard Current, or Harold Holzer. Three image patches provide access to text and images regarding the historical context of this period. Ten patches with writing on them give the user access to Lincoln's own documents from this period, though in a difficult-to-read font. Finally, a flag patch opens up an interactive investigation of the debate within Lincoln's cabinet over emancipation. The user can choose any member of the cabinet from a group portrait and hear that member's views.

American Heritage: Lincoln also provides a detailed master index to its contents, but unlike His Name Was Lincoln, the user can move directly to the resource from the index. Icons in the index inform the user what type of resource is available: documentaries, original documents, dramatic readings from documents, images and analytical text, video commentaries, and interactive investigations. Also included under a reference menu are a time line, a list of suggested reading titles, and a key to the type of resources each icon represents. Disappointingly, in both American Heritage: Lincoln and His Name Was Lincoln, users do not have random access to the excellent period music that provides background for the multimedia essays. Ultimately, because of the extensive omissions of material, American Heritage: Lincoln is less satisfying than His Name Was Lincoln. Furthermore, the interface in American Heritage: Lincoln, though clever, is more difficult to navigate effectively.

Multimedia CD-ROMs offer exciting possibilities for the study of Abraham Lincoln. By combining text, images, and video, they open up the process of learning by allowing users to take an active role. With multimedia publications, users can determine how much information they want and in what order they want to access it. Dramatized excerpts and period music effectively bring the user's sense of hearing into the learning process. The primary audience for each of these electronic publications is secondary and college students and those with a casual interest in Lincoln, by no means either a negligible or an unimportant market. However, Page  [End Page 87] publishers frequently draw too stark a dichotomy between scholars and students. Single publications, especially with the flexibility of electronic editions, can serve both groups. Should students be "spared" the results of scholarship when doing so yields over-simplified or distorted perceptions of the past? Or, should they have the opportunity to grapple with variant texts and discordant voices from the past? Juxtaposing Lincoln and Douglas in debate in A House Divided and providing first-person perspectives from Lincoln's contemporaries and later reflections by historians in His Name Was Lincoln and American Heritage: Lincoln demonstrate how electronic publication can begin to blur the dichotomy between scholars and students.

Still, each of these publications has serious limitations as a research tool, especially for scholars but for students as well. The relative inattention that these electronic publications accord to texts combined with their inability to search texts effectively undermines their utility for studying the primary sources that illuminate Lincoln's life and thought. They lack the editorial sophistication and flexibility of The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln: Complete Documentary Edition, recently published by the University of Illinois Press, or the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, which the Abraham Lincoln Association is making available via the World Wide Web. Furthermore, the CD-ROM as a medium has proven relatively transitory. For example, Grafica Multimedia, the publisher of A House Divided, no longer produces CD-ROMs.

By providing a detailed examination of one episode in his life or a broad overview of his entire life, A House Divided, His Name Was Lincoln, and American Heritage: Lincoln offer a flexible, but limited, new approach to the study of Abraham Lincoln. As tools for teaching, they offer glimpses of exciting possibilities, but the increased capacity and flexibility of electronic publication cannot substitute for careful scholarship and editing. Electronic publication can narrow the gap between historian and interested reader, between scholar and student. His Name Was Lincoln especially offers a model for an intellectually sophisticated and educationally compelling presentation of Abraham Lincoln's life and legacy. Page  [End Page 88]


  1. Douglas L. Wilson, "The Unfinished Text of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates," Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 15 (Winter 1994): 70–84. return to text