Wednesday, August 27, 2008
An Unalloyed Substance
Trolling a bookstore in Minneapolis a good 20 years ago, I found a then-recently-released book called Lincoln On Democracy. Edited by New York Governor Mario Cuomo, the book was a collection of Lincoln's speeches and writings about subjects related to democratic self-government, and it also included several essays about Lincoln by other writers. The book had been compiled as a kind of textbook for a delegation of Poles who were gathering in New York to make plans to steer their fledgling democracy. With his humble background and his unshakable faith in the wisdom of the American populace, Lincoln is considered by many to be our greatest democrat, and he became Chapter One of the assistance we would give an aspiring democracy.
That collection was my real introduction to Abraham Lincoln, and it hit me like a thunderbolt; it remains the most moving book I have ever read. I knew of Lincoln, of course, but only the elementary school platitudes and dusty summaries. His speeches and writings were a revelation, showing a gentle spirit and a kind of universal fatherly love and a force of inarguable logic that I had never encountered before. (In a spasm of enthusiasm, I loaned the book to someone and never saw it again--thus teaching me both that my enthusiasm was not due to a quirk in my personality and also never to loan books I care about.) From this introduction, I was eager to learn more, and that book led to Carl Sandburg's great biography, and thence, in an attempt to understand the context from which so many of the speeches and letters sprang, to Shelby Foot's epic three volume history of the Civil War (which, by the way, looks daunting but reads like a gripping novel).
It's sobering to find a single person entwined in the narrative of great historical movements in such a seminal way as we find with Lincoln and the Civil War--indeed, his election as President caused seven states to immediately secede from the union (talk about giving a guy a complex). For most of us--for me, certainly, life is not like this. Hitler is similarly fascinating, though the natures--and legacies--of Hitler and Lincoln are found at opposite poles of the human experience. History is full of fascinating figures, of course, (though I remember an admonishment of a friend a couple decades ago that individuals really had little to do with the broad strokes of history) but for me Lincoln towers above them all, and I find myself almost powerless ever since to pass over any book about the man that I see in the bookstore.
Here's one I'm so glad I didn't try to resist: Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Goodwin is the author of numerous books, and a Pulitzer Prize winner for 1995's No Ordinary Time about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. She was featured quite prominently in Ken Burns' 1990 PBS documentary on the Civil War and is now a frequent commentator on one of the major TV news stations.
This book is simply magnificent. She has the great advantage, of course, of having picked as her subject this rarest of persons in the rarest of circumstances. Almost every detail of the story intrigues us: the glorious enigma of Lincoln himself, with his improbable origins, his unique nature and his tragic and poetic end; the heart-rending drama of secession and civil war, which is both grand and sweeping and moving with its rules and protocols and chaos, and also of utter moment on an individual scale, with vast numbers of dead and wounded, with families torn apart and friends made mortal enemies; the personalities of the other key players in our country's greatest drama, intelligent and able and articulate men and women with strong opinions and ideas--men like the gallant and kind and noble Robert E. Lee, and the crusty and utilitarian U. S. Grant and his partner W. T. Sherman, and women like the devoted but unstable Mary Lincoln and the enterprising Kate Chase. It's a story that just doesn't get old for me; it's more gripping than any fiction. Especially as fleshed out by Goodwin, who has combed through a huge amount of material--the usual sources, of course, but also a mountain of private letters and diaries and other works by the ancillary players in the story. This approach gives us a palpable sense of the key players in the drama, and makes the history come vividly alive for us.
Indeed, this is her angle. Obviously, a single field can be plowed only so many different ways, and this book covers the same ground as any exploration of Lincoln's presidency. But Goodwin's novel idea is to focus on Lincoln's interaction with his Cabinet, three members of which were his rivals for the 1860 Republican nomination for president--Salmon Chase, William Seward and Edward Bates. All three were eminent statesmen, and all were better positioned and (so they thought) better suited for the office of President than Lincoln; indeed, his capturing of the nomination was considered a long shot by almost everybody, though Lincoln himself worked carefully and with keen political savvy to prepare the ground for this outcome. Compounding one of history's great surprises, after beating them out for the nomination Lincoln then brought all three rivals into the highest positions of his Cabinet--Chase as Secretary of the Treasury, Seward as the Secretary of State, and Bates as Attorney General. These men, plus Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, and War Secretary Edwin M. Stanton, were Lincoln's closest advisers and confidants during this singular time in history. I can't imagine a better way to reveal Lincoln's real character than to witness how he dealt with these men to make policy during a civil war.
Much of Lincoln's interaction with his Cabinet was well-documented, and the Cabinet members all either kept diaries or voluminous correspondence, so that both their public and private reflections--about Lincoln and themselves and each other--are available to us. With these, and the diaries and letters of their spouses and children and courtiers and so on, Goodwin puts us right in the beehive for the duration. And it's amid the backdrop of the age's ablest statesmen that we're able to see Lincoln's true stature.
I spoke a bit in a previous post about the almost universal underestimation of Lincoln that prevailed at the time of his nomination and election and on into the first three years or so of his first term as President. Coupled with his goodly nature, the vitriol of others toward him gives him a Jesus-like pathos. With a really astounding consistency Lincoln was considered an idiot, an illiterate, a backwoods unsophisticated man wholly unequal to the tasks he faced and the office he held. Because he was little known at first outside Illinois and Indiana, there were few people connected with the halls of power in the East who had firsthand knowledge to counter the tide of hysterical invention; thus, the disparaging opinion of Lincoln was widely held by the ablest men of his time, including (at least at first) the men whom he beat out for the Republican nomination. With his lack of high society graces, much prized by most of those in official Washington, it took people a long time to take the man's measure. Some, like Chase and McClellan, who were blinded by their own ambition, never fully did. And it's the strength of history's judgment of Lincoln that causes the failure of these men to acknowledge his greatness to be a blight on their own characters and legacies.
There seems no better way to champion a person than to see his enemies turned first into friends and thence into strong advocates. The serious and blustery Edwin M. Stanton, Lincoln's War Secretary, makes for a good example, beginning his service believing that Lincoln was not up to his task and ending up with a loyalty that nearly killed him when he chose to continue serving through precarious ill health rather than abandon his chief. Likewise Secretary of State Seward, who by all accounts had every right to expect the nomination and election for himself; he became Lincoln's closest friend, and an eloquent advocate of his boss.
I'm awed by the unexpected combination in Lincoln of an easy, genial nature coupled with an iron and dogged confidence in his own judgment. Even without executive experience or firsthand knowledge of foreign affairs--at least part of the rationale for dismissing him as beneath his office--he displayed great political acumen, usually reading a situation far better than the more experienced men he installed beneath him (something I think about with our present-day politics). In the beginning, his cabinet members--many of whom seemed at first to think they would just run the government from their second-tier posts--were shocked to find their advice carefully considered and then discarded for the President's own counsel. But Lincoln deeply loved this country and understood fully its founding principles and mechanisms; and so he was very careful to grasp and protect the prerogatives of the office of which, he knew, he was but a brief occupant. This self-reliance and internal compass seemed to exist in a man almost entirely without vanity or self-importance. (How often the very opposite prevailed: mediocre men asserting their own greatness.) He never once boasted of his accomplishments or gloated in triumph nor took anyone else to task for having advocated what he knew to be a wrong policy. He absorbed numerous volleys fired against his person, so often from those close to him who were tasked with assisting him, and yet he never fired back, even when it might have been devastatingly satisfying to do so. This seems the rarest of characters to be found in politics.
I go on and on about Lincoln's character. But it is the seminal thing that emerges from every history of the period. There is nothing new in human conflict, and little of interest to me in the military maneuvers that characterized the war. An extreme trial like this always brings out the very best and the very worst of people; heroism and bravery and valor lived side by side with cowardice and treachery and treason and debauchery. But, to me, Lincoln stands as a singularity when the dust has settled. I don't know of a similar example in history. It's not his faith in the ultimate wisdom of the people--the core of his democratic fervor--that moves me, even if it's a big part of his character. (In fact, I'm not at all sure that I share any of that faith, especially lately.) But his ultimate faith in other people is yet another manifestation of that larger thing, that overriding "Lincoln-ness" that marked his whole personality. It goes hand-in-glove with his never taking offense at the personal snubs he suffered; with his refusal to give as good as he got; with his never failing to answer an angry, accusatory letter with a kind and understanding one; with his loving forbearance of a wife who was high maintenance perhaps to the point of mental illness; with his refusal to take credit for any happy occurrence, and his never failing to accept blame for bad things, regardless of who was actually responsible.
The other striking and unavoidable thing with which the book reacquaints us is the fierce intractability of slavery. That's not surprising, of course, since the issue brutally tore the country in two. But having been born a hundred years after the conflict, nothing in my lifetime even gets close to the deep trauma of this subject. To return to antebellum times and listen to the speeches and read the letters and editorials of the time is to be gripped with a panic at how insoluble the issue was. A knot forms in the pit of one's stomach as we read of the events bringing us closer and closer to our very nation falling apart in such a way that only the sacrifice of thousands and thousands of lives might possibly put things together again.
I remember being truly shocked at the passions aroused by the tabloid murder trial of O. J. Simpson. I wasn't surprised (so much as disappointed) by the fanatical public interest in a subject matter of no importance to any of us, but I was depressed and mortified to think that the race of an observer clearly appeared to play a role in how they perceived justice before the law. I'm sure there were white people who were peremptorily convinced of Simpson's guilt because of their own racism--a thing I deplored absolutely. But I was quite unprepared for the huge number of blacks who, it seemed to me, felt that Simpson's guilt or innocence was a function of racial reckoning. To me this was like carefully measuring a thing scientifically and then throwing the data out and declaring the answer you always wanted; what was the point of even having laws and trials in that case? And yet a lot of people clearly saw the situation differently than I.
In the same vein, having lived my whole life in Northern states, it is inconceivable to me how people could fail to see the wrong of slavery, much less to the point of being willing to kill for it. I know, of course, that once underway much of the fighting involved a sense of outrage at territorial violation (Shelby Foote tells of a captured Southern soldier being asked why he was fighting; he replied "We're fighting because you're down here."), and also at the Southerners' sense that they were being denied their rights of self-determination. I don't mean to pass these things off to one side. But both of those wrongs were a direct result of an insistence upon maintaining an economic system which was universally known to be wrong--indeed, even the Southerners themselves abolished slavery during the course of the war.
The first seven states' secession could be seen coming like an out-of-control freight train careening down the mountain. Lincoln's election, even when he was on record as saying he had neither the inclination nor, he believed, the authority to interfere with slavery where it already existed, was taken as the straw that breaks the back. It seems insufficient that I scratch my head in wonder at their motivation when they found no mystery in the dilemma whatsoever. For the principles they saw being violated they were willing to send their sons into battle. I don't know in how much stronger a flavor conviction comes.
The final irony is the realization that after all the turmoil and bloodshed and death, the war did not change the minds of others. At least it certainly did not in the "conquered" South. A century of brutal Jim Crow laws followed the war, and it seems clear that the war forced the country back into territorial integrity but left many minds unchanged.
Though the war per se is not Goodwin's focus, all this seems to connect the distant events of the 1860s with our present day. In any case, we have descended in an unbroken line from those days to these, from those people to the nation we are today. The 1860s are distant enough to seem antique, and the customs and manners of people are markedly different from today. But it's not so far back that we cannot connect, and the period represents a singular watershed for us.
I've refrained from putting in my favorite quotes, as I find it almost impossible to cull anything out (lest this too-long post become nearly as long as her book itself). I simply cannot give a higher recommendation to a book than to this one. It's a must-read.