Monday, May 28, 2007

Honest Abe, Politician

Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," is difficult to review in a brief blog. Goodwin discusses Lincoln's political skills by way of parallel biographies with his three major rivals for the 1860 Republican Presidential nomination, William Henry Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates. Along the way, Goodwin also discusses the lives of Mary Todd Lincoln, Edwin M. Stanton, Gideon Welles, the Blair family, and other figures in the Lincoln Administration.

Lincoln was the least likely of the four major contenders for the 1860 nomination. He had served on term in Congress, in the late 1840s, and he had lost Senate elections in 1856 and 1858 (back when Legislatures elected Senators). Moreover, he lacked the formal education and media stature that his opponents had attained. Seward was the front-runner by far, but Lincoln emerged as the consensus choice of delegates who were concerned that Seward, whose rhetoric on slavery was more inflammatory than Lincoln's, might damage the Republican Party in their own states.

Lincoln was able to emerge as the consensus candidate thanks to a number of factors, one of which was his cadre of loyal and canny political operatives in Illinois. Lincoln had the rare gift of making loyal allies as he lost elections, and he was a tireless political organizer. His allies were able to obtain the 1860 convention for Chicago before Lincoln made clear that he was a candidate, and they worked the delegates and packed the building with Lincoln supporters. Seward, Chase, and Bates, on the other hand, had the misfortune of alienating important groups and individuals as they won elections; those groups for the most part ended up in the Lincoln camp.

Once elected, Lincoln watched helplessly as the Southern states began to secede and President James Buchanan did absolutely nothing to stop them. Lincoln included Seward (Sec. of State), Chase (Sec. of the Treasury) and Bates (Atty. Gen.) in his cabinet, despite the fact that they had run against him. He later brought in Stanton (Sec. of War), who had personally humiliated him wrt a court case years earlier. This, in a time when one-term presidencies were the rule and not the exception. Seward and Bates recognized Lincoln's greatness, but Chase intrigued against Lincoln in hopes of securing the 1864 nomination for himself. Lincoln held his cabinet of former Whigs and former Democrats together through a mixture of timing, manipulation, and personal humor and kindness. He even kept Chase around, due to Chase's uncanny ability to raise money to fund the Union war effort. It didn't bother Lincoln that Chase was always scheming against him. After he accepted Chase's resignation, Lincoln nominated Chase as Chief Justice, knowing that Chase was absolutely committed to the rights of African-Americans, which Lincoln saw as the most important legal issue that would arise after the Civil War ended. Oh, yeah, and Lincoln held the Union together in the face of a string of military defeats, incompetent commanders, and political defeatists.

Goodwin explores the evolution of Lincoln's views on slavery and race, though that issue is addressed in more detail in Garry Wills's "Lincoln at Gettysburg," another book I highly recommend. Wills discusses the Gettysburg Address in great detail as well, finding influences going all the way back to Pericles. Goodwin, however, does provide an interesting take on the Gettysburg Address. She discusses Lincoln's childhood, in which he listened to his father tell stories ad nauseum. Lincoln himself loved to tell stories, and used stories to drive home important points he wanted to make. In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln, in a little over two minutes, told the story of the past, present, and future of America:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Liberty, equality, and democracy are the political ideals of most Americans, whether we may disagree on the precise meanings of those words and whether we have a ways to go before we fully achieve them. "Team of Rivals" is an excellent book, though it is very long and portions of it did not seem particularly relevant, particularly the parts involving minor players like Katie Chase and the various members of the Blair family. I got bogged down in some of that minutiae. However, I like the idea of using comparative biography to show just how exceptional our 16th President really was.


Maddy said...

I really should do something about my ignorance about American history. [strangely British history sort of fizzles out around the time of the Boston Tea party!]

Anonymous said...

Very good review. Not something I would have normally picked up to read, however now I will get it. I was just at the bookstore this afternoon and noticed that they have this on audio. I will probably get it in that format. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Randy said...

Right now I'm reading a work of literary criticism about John Milton titled "Delirious Milton," by Harvard's Gordon Teskey. I have no background in literary criticism, but the TLS's write-up of this one was so interesting that I got on Amazon and bought a copy. I have to read each paragraph two or three times to figure out exactly what the hell the author is talking about, but it seems worth it so far.

Anonymous said...

Now that you have brought Lincoln to the forefront of my mind, I recieved two of his quotes this morning, your article yesterday and the book which you reviewed. I wrote a post on Lincoln today. Love how this all works!

Randy said...

Last night, I read an article in the New Yorker that was based in part on the Goodwin book. The article was all about whether Edwin Stanton said, "now he belongs to the ages," or "now he belongs to the angels," immediately after Lincoln expired. There is support from people who were there for both versions of Stanton's utterance, though Stanton himself later said he used the word "ages."

There is also some discussion of whether Lincoln actually used the phrase "under God" in the Gettysburg Address. If he did, it was a deviation from the texts in his own hand. However, there is evidence that he did slip the phrase into the speech.

The article delves into the religious and political biases of the authors who write about Lincoln and about Lincoln's own unorthodox religious beliefs. Lincoln was a deist, at best, though he invoked God increasingly throughout the Civil War.

The article also veers off into Lincoln's obsession with Shakespeare's histories and speculates that he, like some of Shakespeare's tragic figures, viewed himself as a good man, pursuing a righteous course that resulted in the deaths of many innocent people. Lincoln was deeply affected by the carnage of the war he was charged with overseeing.

The author concludes that Stanton probably said "angels," based in part on Stanton's devoutly religious beliefs. However, I would trust that Stanton knew what he said.

Jennifer said...

Thank you for coming to comment on my blog. I liked your review.... One of Americas best presidents!