The Great Courses Launches First Entry in Documentary Series

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

The Great Courses, a continuing education company that produces and sells original lecture series, takes learning in a new direction with the release of its first feature-length narrative documentary, Going to the Devil: The Impeachment of 1868. 

President Andrew Johnson
Andrew Johnson was the 17th president of the United States, serving from 1865 to 1869. Johnson assumed the presidency as he was vice president of the United States at the time of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. (Image: The Great Courses/Public Domain)

“After nearly 30 years of crafting and curating nonfiction content that sets high standards for excellence and accuracy, Going to the Devil: The Impeachment of 1868 is our first full-length documentary film,” said Jason Smigel, Vice President of Product Development at The Great Courses.

“We are excited to bring this historical narrative to the American public and audiences worldwide.  It represents the next step in delivering authentic insights into important issues, discoveries and personalities of our time—and across history.”

Going to the Devil was created by The Great Courses in-house talent—written by journalist Elliot Blair Smith, directed by David C. White and produced by Alisha Reay—and features historical photographs and illustrations of the time as well as new, original video interviews with experts on the subject.

Forgotten History

Going to the Devil focuses in detail on the 1868 impeachment of U.S. President Andrew Johnson and the political factors that led to it.  The Great Courses said they chose this subject because in the wake of the Civil War and the Lincoln assassination, Johnson’s presidency and impeachment have largely been forgotten to history.

Johnson became the 17th President of the United States in April 1865 after Lincoln’s untimely death at the hands of Southern loyalist John Wilkes Booth.  Johnson was tasked with repairing a fractured nation shortly after the end of the American Civil War but chose to restore states’ rights and promote the supremacy of whites instead.

Throughout his presidency, he found fierce opponents in Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (R-PA), Senator Charles Sumner (R-MA) and Senator Benjamin Wade (R-OH), all progressive abolitionists.

President Johnson’s Popularity Slips

As his popularity slipped, Johnson soon found himself facing charges of violating the Tenure in Office Law for firing his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton.  However, he claimed it was part of a vast conspiracy by his political opponents.

“They just felt Johnson’s abuses, his wrong conduct [and] his violation of the way a president should act had piled up,” said David O. Stewart, lawyer and author of Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy, in the documentary. 

“Congress is disregarding the will of the president, the president is disregarding the will of Congress and you’ve got the Secretary of War arguably in mutiny,” said Stewart.

The Great Courses interviewed Stewart and two other historians for Going to the Devil: Harold Holzer, Director of The Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute and Lincoln scholar; and Brenda Wineapple, literary critic and author of The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation.  All three experts offer insight into Johnson’s presidency and impeachment throughout the feature.

A Crucial Time in America’s History

The Great Courses’ first feature documentary comes at a crucial time in American history.  With Congress and the public currently divided over the impeachment of President Donald Trump, the nation’s first presidential impeachment lends perspective to those that have happened since—including the current impeachment.  However, The Great Courses staff are quick to point out that Going to the Devil doesn’t soapbox.

“We present compelling and comprehensive content that informs and entertains, but never prescribes,” Kevin Barnhill, The Great Courses’ Director of Creative, said. “Audiences can make up their own minds what to think.”

Despite the change in content format, Barnhill expressed his confidence in the new film.

“This documentary is a giant leap in our ability to showcase the creative talent here at The Great Courses,” he said.  “From two studios in Northern Virginia we’re producing stellar nonfiction content that attracts audiences worldwide, and we do that by remaining true to our brand.”

Going to the Devil is now available to stream Wondrium.

poster for "Going to the Devil"