I have been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, 750 pages charting the confluences that created the Lincoln presidency and the intelligence and integrity of Lincoln as president. The book is great. It’s a lot of reading, a lot of history I was never taught in school.
I thought I knew this story. Who doesn’t know all about “Honest Abe”? Well, that would be me. Or, it would have been until reading this book. Kearns Goodwin turns Abe’s story into something fresh and engaging — into a true page-turner in places. I couldn’t believe how utterly engaged I was throughout.
One of the interesting things for me was watching the movement of Lincoln’s thoughts about black people. Yes, there was the Emancipation Proclamation. Yes, there was the 13th Amendment. But there was also the idea that the government should buy slaves’ freedom from the south. And the idea that whites and blacks couldn’t live together side by side as free people. And my favorite: the idea of (voluntary or “voluntary”) resettlement. It was all, “Yes, yes, we need to end slavery, but we can’t be expected to live with those people, can we? Let’s send them … oh, I don’t know … to Costa Rica, maybe. To Mexico? To Canada? … ” You know, just away. (See, if this plan had worked, I might not be spending time and money on Spanish lessons today!) Watching Lincoln’s position shift was fascinating, seeing him come around first to the Emancipation (which only freed some slaves, contrary to the book-learnin’ of my youth) to the complete abolition of slavery.
I’ve never had any interest in reading a biography of Lincoln. And no wonder. The Abe I’ve always known is an irksome do-gooder ghost compared to the vibrant, compassionate, intelligent, funny, complex, self-effacing, charming, shrewd, clever man Kearns Goodwin introduces us to. This Lincoln is the one I should have studied as a kid. This Lincoln would have gotten me interested in the study of history, would have come off the pages as a whole, breathing man, a force to contend with.
It’s not all hearts and flowers, though. There are times when I think he was painfully slow to act, a slowness that got in the way of things that really needed to be done. A slowness, for example, that surely prolonged the war. I struggled with those stories, gritting my teeth and biting back my frustration … but at the same time realizing that, if the war had ended early, slavery wouldn’t have. Yeah, it would probably have ended eventually, but it’s also kind of important to me that slavery would end as early as possible, you know? So maybe I have to be thankful to hideous characters like General McClellan, the “young Napoleon”? Hmm … that chafes more than a bit.
It’s a credit to Kearns Goodwin’s writing that I got so caught up in this story, got angry enough at the ugly machinations of blindly ambitious operators like McClellan and Salmon P. Chase that I had to close the book, seething.
But therein, too, is my biggest problem with the book. There is no question but that I fall completely in love with Lincoln reading this book, just as so many people who actually knew him seemed to do. He is a man I wish I could have known, a talker who loved telling stories (sound familiar?). His skill at managing his often thorny cabinet, the legislature, dangerous situations, the international response to the war, and troop morale truly astound me.
The trouble with falling in love with Lincoln? I don’t want him to get shot. It took two weeks to force myself to read his assassination, crawling toward it at a page or two a day, wishing I didn’t know the end of the story. Everyone laughed at me for this one. It wasn’t as though my agonizingly slow approach, my reluctance to reach the moment, had the power to change history. And even if he somehow didn’t get shot, he’d still be dead today, one hundred forty-four years later. Still.
I finally forced myself to read through the end. And, as I had through the entire book, I learned things that shocked the crap out of me (for example, I had no idea Lincoln — though the most important — was only one of three targets that night).
The other trouble with falling in love with Lincoln? I have to wonder what else I missed, what other amazingly interesting stuff got watered down to boring pap and fed to me in grade school, in high school. I’m starting to think I need to go back and read through the whole of history and chart all the good stuff I was never taught.