This musical play reveals the behind-the-scenes drama between Lincoln and his family and between Lincoln and his fractious Cabinet, set against the backdrop of the Civil War. Actual period songs and original music written to fit the era weave through the piece.
Lincoln's family, initially excited to move to the White House, experiences personal upheaval that parallels that of the nation. Mary Lincoln is brutally excluded by Washington society and turns to a friendship with Elizabeth Keckley – a free black seamstress and former enslaved person, who had used her skill with the needle to buy her own freedom and build a thriving business in the nation's capital. When the Lincolns lose their beloved son Willie, Elizabeth comforts them both, but her presence and character challenge the notion that a just nation can tolerate the continuation of slavery. Elizabeth Keckley is played by two actors: the character in the scenes at the White House and an older narrator who reflects back on that time.
Meanwhile, Lincoln grapples with William Henry Seward and Salmon P. Chase -- two of his principal rivals for the presidency – whom he has appointed as Secretaries of State and Treasury. Lincoln's understanding of human character helps him manage these oversized personalities. They in turn force him to grow. The friendships and antagonisms among these three powerful men cause Lincoln's thinking to evolve on the issue of slavery.
These forces together bring Lincoln to the conclusion that, for the slaughter to have meaning, it must be for the goal of abolishing slavery and winning freedom. Overcoming his belief that the Constitution gives him no power over the issue, Lincoln finally decides he can use his authority as Commander-in-Chief to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. But the state of the war prevents him from moving forward; the Union must win a battle before he can take this momentous step.
By play’s end, Lincoln has overcome almost unimaginable burdens to unify and strengthen his “houses” – family, cabinet, and country – but his foreshadowed death prevents him from enjoying the peace he has desperately sought and finally achieved.