Perhaps my greatest pleasure this summer has been the opportunity to read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s acclaimed book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Not just another biography of our greatest president, Goodwin freshly illuminates the character of Lincoln by studying him alongside four of his most formidable political rivals – William Seward, Salmon Chase, Edwin Stanton, and Edward Bates. Impressively, Lincoln selected each of these men to serve with him in his cabinet, regardless of the fact that three of them served as his chief competition for the 1860 Republican nomination, and each strongly believed that Lincoln was a weak candidate unfit for the presidency. The book then follows the path of his 5-year presidency and shows how he was able to successfully steer the nation through the most perilous crisis it has ever faced.
I cannot recommend this book strongly enough. It moved me to tears on a number of occasions, and I came away from it with a deepened appreciation of the political and literary gifts, as well as the moral goodness of Abraham Lincoln, whatever his flaws. It’s a realistic, yet inspiring read.
Here are some selected tidbits from the text you might find interesting:
-Lincoln had a naturally melancholy temperament, and in many ways seemed to internalize the unbearable weight of the nation’s struggles. At the same time, he was a gregarious storyteller with a sharp, lively sense of humor. An illustrative passage from the book reveals an intimate portrait of Lincoln from the perspective of a visiting French ambassador:
“On first impression, he ‘left you with a sort of impression of vague and deep sadness.’ Yet he ‘was quite humorous,’ often telling hilarious stories and laughing uproariously. ‘But all of a sudden he would retire within himself; then he would close his eyes and all his features would at once bespeak a kind of sadness as indescribable as it was deep.’”
-Abraham Lincoln’s best friend was a blue ox named Babe.
-Lincoln was regularly criticized by Radical Republican abolitionists for his perceived hesitancy to press the slavery issue. Goodwin takes great pains to paint the political deftness needed to assuage the Radicals, keep the slaveholding border states like Maryland and Kentucky in the Union, & pacify conservative Democrats, and even Southerners (with eye toward eventual reunification). In the end, Lincoln moved on the slavery issue as he did with all weighty problems – with great deliberation and wisdom. He said that while he could be criticized for being slow to make a decision, he never wanted to be known to go back on a promise. The promises made by his administration – the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment (abolishing slavery) – were as powerful and hard-fought as any ever made by this government.
-Lincoln once instigated a barroom brawl before getting away in a rusty pickup with his loyal orangutan sidekick.
-Among Lincoln’s many nicknames were “Honest Abe”, “The Railsplitter”, and “Old Muttonsleeves”
-Lincoln exasperated Stanton, his Secretary of War, by making regular use of presidential pardons when it came to military punishments for cowardice or desertion. He made a point to offer clemency in all cases, except “where meanness or cruelty were shown.” Perhaps reflecting the same character elements, he spoiled his children, allowing his young son Tad to constantly interrupt important cabinet sessions.
-Abraham Lincoln really enjoyed Brokeback Mountain, except for that one part…
-I share many similarities with Lincoln; namely, we are both 6’5”, bearded, and quick with a joke. However, Abraham Lincoln never had a blog. How do you like me now?
-Lincoln very nearly lost the 1864 election. Peace Democrats (then known as Copperheads) ran on a platform of seeking immediate peace by ending the war on terms agreeable to the South. Though some Democrats differed on what those terms might be, they would certainly have involved repeal of the Emancipation Proclamation and a return of slavery to the Southern states. Their charges were laden with racist claims that what once had been a noble war for Union had become a “war for the negro.” I would offer that their near-success is a healthy reminder that while peace itself is a worthy end, the costs of such compromise must always be considered.
-Lincoln invented holding your breath.
-Lincoln disliked butterscotch candy and slavery.
-Lincoln showed an extraordinary ability to disregard the many offenses and attacks he faced as president. Time and time again, he extended forgiveness and favor toward those who maligned him (particularly Salmon Chase, his Treasury Secretary, who essentially ran a presidential campaign against Lincoln while in Lincoln’s cabinet). While some historians have claimed that this represented some flaw of passivity in Lincoln’s character, Goodwin effectively argues that these acts instead reflect his ability to set aside his feelings for the good of the nation. Salmon Chase was, after all, an excellent Treasury Secretary.
-Lincoln’s likeness appears on the penny, the five dollar bill, and thanks to my new branding iron, my cat’s anus.