Saturday, December 15, 2012

Lincoln: A Man Who Belongs To The Ages

Team of RivalsThe Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln
 by Doris Kearns Goodwin (2006, Simon and Shuster Paperbacks)

In Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin presents a complete portrait of one of the most enduring and captivating figures in American political life, a politician who played a hugely significant role in shaping American history and its way of life for generations.

Goodwin does a marvelous job developing the story of Lincoln’s life and circumstances, starting from his impoverished upbringing in rural Kentucky to his career as a circuit lawyer in Illinois to his eventual election to public office and the Presidency. But it’s Lincoln’s term as President that provides the most compelling aspects of this book, a period when competing political factions were at work leading up to, and during, the Civil War.

In these pages, Lincoln is presented as a compassionate, rational, well-spoken and eminently likable man, a political aspirant who appears awkward and fumbling at times, but whose deep humanity and purity of heart eventually win over skeptics and opponents. He’s a man who holds the highest hopes for himself and his fledgling nation and never loses faith when the going gets rough. As the title suggests, this book also explores the lives of Lincoln’s contemporaries, including his chief political rivals and adversaries, some of whom would go on to become members of his Cabinet and close confidants.

Goodwin demonstrates historical writing at its best, meaning at its most accessible. The tone of this book is formal, straightforward and measured. She draws upon vast resources of personal letters, diaries, correspondence, newspapers reports and government archives to give an almost play-by-play account of Lincoln and the people close to him during this turbulent and divisive period in American life, when slavery and secession threatened to tear the Union apart.

All of the key moments in Lincoln’s life (his election to the Illinois General Assembly, his winning the Presidency, his marriage to Mary Todd, the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation, The Gettysburg Cemetery Address) are rendered with a sharp and unbiased eye; these important moments are made all the more riveting with Goodwin’s talent at weaving multiple narratives into the mix.   

Throughout Team of Rivals, I was fascinated by the sheer volume of correspondence among politicians, soldiers, generals, civil leaders and socialites. Everybody was writing letters and keeping diaries and angling to be heard. I was also intrigued by various modes and speed of communication in the mid 19th century. For instance, during Lincoln’s inaugural Presidential address in 1860, it took seven days (via pony express) for a transcript of the address to reach the west coast so that newspapers in California could report on it. To demonstrate how starved people were for information back then, Lincoln would spend countless hours in the Washington telegraph office, anxiously awaiting the latest news from the battlefields.

A final thought about Team of Rivals is how effective Goodwin is at fleshing out Lincoln the man. Abraham Lincoln was a man who loved his family and friends; and who loved his work and his country. He was a man who aspired to the highest principles of human conduct, both in and out of office. At the conclusion of this book, I was reminded of a quote by Aristotle: "Do not listen to those who exhort you to keep to modest human thoughts.  No.  Live, instead, according to the highest thing in you. For small though it may be in power and worth, it is high above the rest."

Lincoln did live modestly and unpretentiously, but his thoughts, ideas and dreams were of a higher order than most. In Team of Rivals, those hopes and dreams – and the man’s great legacy – remain firmly intact and will continue to inspire.

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