The Original A-Team

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.

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9 thoughts on “The Original A-Team

  1. Thank you so much for this post. I’ve picked this book up a few times at the bookstore, but felt discouraged by its heft (and my complete lack of time for leisure reading at the moment). Based on this review, I’m adding it to my summer reading list!

    Have you read ‘Lies My Teacher Told Me?’. Might be right up your alley.

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  2. Great post. I am so going to go out and buy this book. I’ve seen some docs on Lincoln, on his assassination, on John Wilkes Booth (who is a very interesting figure in his own right) but I would really love to read an in-depth book about that turbulent and momentous time in our nation’s history. Thanks for the recommendation!

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  3. I hear you about the lack of leisure reading time, Erika. I really didn’t want to read this for exactly that reason, but I’m glad I did. I hadn’t heard of Lies My Teacher Told Me, but I just looked it up, and it sounds great. I’m definitely buying that one. I think my students would enjoy it, too. Thanks for the suggestion.

    Thanks, Molly. I was wondering what had happened to me, too. I’ve been more than a little depleted since the funeral, and just couldn’t work up the energy to post. It’s nice to know I was missed.

    Welcome Gwen (you’ve been cracking me up over at AAYSR!)– I can’t say enough how much I enjoyed this book. I’ve been recommending it to everyone. I hope you like it as much as I did!

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  4. Glad you read it Stacie. It’s on my Kindle waiting for me. I have been a Lincoln lover for years and I have been wanting to read that book. I will be happy to share my thoughts when I start it. Your enthusiasm is pushing to the front. I have a few things to finish first.
    How are you feeling about Obama the 44th?
    Bonnie

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  5. inmate1972

    “I love it when a plan comes together”. Sorry, couldn’t resist the Hannibal quote from A-Team. I loved that show.

    Great post! I, too, loved that book. Interesting ruminations about the lack of depth in teaching history in our schools.

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  6. I’m glad to see so many people are interested in this book. Really does make you think about what’s wrong with the way we’re taught history … the way we’re taught in general. I read some of the teacher blogs that abound on the web and I wish I could have worked with such creative and innovative people when I was a kid … and I wish the kids I’m teaching now could have had such creative and innovative teachers, too. Maybe then they would have stayed in class?

    (Thanks for picking up the reference, Inmate! I used to love that show, too!)

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  7. Beautiful review of this book. I remember sitting a few years ago with a great-cousin( my mothers 2nd cousin?) who is a physics professor. He is a soft-spoken, quietly funny and very warm person who also happens to be really, really smart. We got talking at a family event and must have spent at least an hour listening to him tell me with excitement all of the wonderful things about physics and the universe and what they are trying to discover. And it was so engaging and exciting and all I culd think to say was where were you when I was in 7th grade developing my dislike for science. I am fascinated by the sciences now, a passion was there that I didn’t even know about because no one ever awakened it.

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