Towering humanity

It’s difficult to know where to begin with Doris Kearns Goodwin’s account of Abraham Lincoln’s rise to power and the events that followed, the absolutely excellent Team of Rivals. This is partly because it’s a Jolly Big Book – getting on for 800 pages of tightly spaced and heavily detailed text, which I was only able to finish on holiday thanks to the delays caused by a certain Icelandic eruption – but more substantively because Lincoln himself was so utterly astute, magnanimous, humanitarian and intelligent that I found myself wondering whether, against all the evidence to the contrary, this was suffering from a bit of hagiography.

And the thought of this post being in any way a meaningful addition to the vast bibliotheque about Lincoln doesn’t even warrant a moment’s consideration; in fact Goodwin alludes to facing this peril herself on the very first page of the introduction, when she quotes Frederick Douglass, a latter-day ally of Lincoln’s, who said when dedicating a monument to the President:

Any man can say things that are true of Abraham Lincoln, but no man can say anything that is new of Abraham Lincoln.

So with that in mind, I’ll restrict myself to saying something about the book, not the man. I was a little wary before starting out that my almost complete lack of knowledge of Civil War era United States would mean that the people and events described would remain opaque and confusing. But Goodwin achieves the feat of making each of the ‘rivals’ (Lincoln and his three main competitors for the Republican Party presidential nomination, later members of Cabinet) come alive in distinct and recognisable form.

This is thanks to a structure which takes each man – and to a lesser extent the supporting cast as well, including several women – in bite-size chunks, cycled through within each chapter. Perhaps it helps also that many of the ‘characters’ are naturally vivid: without even looking back at the text I can easily recall Salmon P. Chase, the jealous, arrogant Treasury Secretary who coveted the presidency and could never admit to his own shortcomings, or William Henry Seward, the front-runner for the nomination who, unlike Chase, overcame his disappointment and became Lincoln’s closest confidante. But I also think Goodwin deserves a big dollop of credit for bringing out differences in personality without ever sacrificing the historian’s sense of balance.

As for the account of Lincoln: what struck me most about the man apart from the qualities listed in the opening paragraph was his canny and prescient ability to rise above any personal feelings of animosity or resentment he may have had towards his rivals – men who frequently screwed him over, to be frank – in order to bank political credit for down the line. But this does not seem to have been done in a remotely cynical way, motivated instead by an amazing ability to see petty (and often not so petty) squabbles and ill-feelings for what they were: the manifestations of human frailty.

Having completely failed to keep a note of key passages when reading the book, and not wishing to delve again just yet (I’m sure I will in time) I’ll resort to ending this post with a quotation cited at the close of the book, just as I began with a citation deployed by Goodwin at the beginning. It’s Tolstoy, pondering why Lincoln was so widely revered in comparison to other world leaders:

He really was not a great general like Napoleon or Washington; he was not such a skilful statesman as Gladstone or Frederick the Great; but his supremacy expresses itself altogether in his peculiar moral power and in the greatness of his character. Washington was a typical American. Napoleon was a typical Frenchman, but Lincoln was a humanitarian as broad as the world. He was bigger than his country – bigger than all of the Presidents together.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I was a little misty-eyed after reading this. Left me thinking I really should open something by Tolstoy.


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