Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Add This Great Work to Your History Bookshelf

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraha...
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The more I study American history, the more I realize how little I really know. I just completed Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals in which she explores the inter-workings, personalities and politics of the Lincoln administration.   Every American schoolboy or schoolgirl knows that Lincoln presided over the most difficult period in American history save the George Washington era.  Most know that he struggled with a series of second rate generals until Grant emerged. And that he was tragically assassinated just as the War Between the States ended.
But how many of us know that many of the cabinet members opposed Lincoln in the primary?  That many of those thought he was unqualified for the office?  That one of them – Salmon Chase – actually tried to build support to oppose Lincoln in the 1864 election?  Or that Lincoln’s opponent in 1864 was former General McClelland, who so famously failed to take advantage of his superior numbers early in the war.  Or that the Democratic Party had a substantial “peace wing” that was prepared to negotiate an end to the war in 1864 that would not have required the freeing of slaves?  Or that his first love was one Ann Rutledge, who he undoubtedly would have asked to marry, however, she died very young, sending young Lincoln into a deep lasting depression.  He was in such despair that friends feared for his life.
The book summarizes his early life, but really begins with Lincoln as a young lawyer in Illinois, and tracks his career, which had numerous, severe setbacks, through his very clever strategy to win the 1860 nomination, up to his assassination.  My admiration at Lincoln’s talents only grew as I read this work.  I had no understanding of his deep political skills but Goodwin brings out his knowledge of human nature, ability to connect to people, and his careful analysis of the landscape that let him out-maneuver rivals.  The book is appropriately subtitled The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln, with his plain appearance, lack of a formal education (he was almost entirely self-taught, quite literally reading with candlelight after long hard days of farm labor), from the humblest of situations, was consistently underestimated by the press, rivals and even foreign governments.  To a certain extent he probably used that to his advantage.  Widely disparaged in the press and by political opponents as “that rail splitter from Illinois” as the Presidential election unfolded, and even more in the early days of his administration, by the end of the war, “rail splitter” was a term of admiration and endearment.
Of course, as the title suggests, he was also able to overlook, not just slights, but harsh, demeaning rhetoric from rivals to recruit the best possible Cabinet ministers.  (As an aside, one forgets how the Cabinet has exploded in membership – his consisted only of a handful, including War, Interior, Treasury, Attorney General, State and Postmaster General.  It is probably time to downsize our current Cabinet).  Many were reluctant recruits, believing that they were far more qualified to be President than Lincoln.  Over the next five years however, he earned their respect, trust, and confidence and to a man they came to the realization that he was one of the greatest Presidents. 

One of the interesting facets of Abraham Lincoln was his spirituality.  He was clearly a Bible scholar.  His mother provided most of his early education, in part by reading scripture.  He was seen on numerous occasions, including during his Presidency, studying his Bible, and could quote scripture – including some fairly obscure passages, at will.  We can assume that he believed in God, however, it isn’t nearly so clear that he believed in an afterlife.
To her credit, Ms. Goodwin does not speculate on what would have happened in a Lincoln second term.  He made it crystal clear that he was completely opposed to a vindictive approach to the conquered South. His death put (only barely qualified) Andrew Johnson into the office.  One can question whether there was anyone who could have stepped in to follow the brilliant and immensely capable Lincoln and succeeded, but it certainly was not Johnson.  Lincoln’s death was a tragedy for the country, quite possibly for two generations, as the incredibly corrupt Reconstruction, rise of segregation and the Ku Klux Klan ensued.

When I read this kind of wide-ranging history, with references to hundreds of diary entries, letters, speeches, etc. I marvel at the time it must take to write such a work.  Ms. Goodwin, in her notes, mentions 10 years of research.  But she is not just a great researcher, she is a great story teller.  This could have been dry and dull but it is the opposite – great history and a great read. 
Highly recommended.

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