Monday, November 24, 2008

Review: Team of Rivals is good, but not well-rounded

I wish I knew of a well-rounded biography of Lincoln that gave him all the praise that Goodwin does in Team of Rivals while holding back none of the criticisms for inevitable mistakes. The author is battling people I don't care about: trolls attempting to reanimate the reputation of the slave-owning Confederacy, and idiot historians who try to carve a reputation for themselves by chiseling a piece out of Lincoln's. I'd rather see some balance to Goodwin's constant praise for Lincoln, especially in his occasionally-cynical political maneuvering that was probably necessary to get to victory.

Still, the book gives a good feel for history in the Northern states from the early 1800s to the Civil War, through the biographies of the four main rivals for the Republican nomination in 1860. Lincoln's ability to work with all his rivals in his cabinet was amazing, but has limited relevancy: Obama and Lincoln are very different, despite the gift of rhetoric and intelligence they both share.

Salmon Chase presents an interesting figure forpondering over morality. He was the only rival in Lincoln's cabinet who never came around to admiring him. Consumed with ambition, he never stopped scheming to be president and died unhappy because he missed that goal. At the same time, he was the strongest, consistent opponent of slavery and supporter of black men's rights of all the candidates, with positions far ahead of Lincoln's. His morality and ambition were in direct conflict, something he never quite worked out, and didn't seem that likeable a figure in the end.

Other points: the one interesting-to-me argument Goodwin takes up is refuting the theory that Lincoln was gay (not that there's anything wrong with that). She effectively demonstrates that men from that period were much more emotionally and asexually intimate than us folks.

The book helped me think about whether Lincoln could've saved the South from punishing Northern retribution and eventual repression of black populations. I still think he would've failed, that there was no real compromise between Northern desire for revenge and white Southern determination to oppress blacks. Still, Lincoln might have taken a bit of the edge off from either side, and that could've brought the civil rights era a generation earlier than what did occur.

Finally, I was struck by how many of these strong men had become emotional wrecks in their early lives due to the deaths of people they loved, even in a historical period when sudden death wasn't unexpected. We're a strange species to have evolved to be so dysfunctional following events that are very likely to occur. I think it shows how important relationships are to our survival that dysfunctionality is a necessary side-effect to the evoluntionary drive to create those bonds.

UPDATE: Guess I'm not done commenting - Goodwin weighs in on Lincoln's spirituality. He was clearly a deist, at least. She's convinced he didn't believe in an afterlife - I'm not sure she proved that, but maybe I'm forgetting her evidence. If she's right, you probably couldn't call him a Christian, so I guess he'd be unelectable today.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.