Thursday, November 17, 2011

"Team of Rivals" has lessons for today

One of my goals in reading biographies is to seek out models of people who have dealt with life's problems in a more effective way than I have. Doris Kearns Goodwin has turned her historical analysis on Abraham Lincoln in a comprehensive manner that lets her readers understand the context of his life.  Barack Obama has referred to the mechanics of the Lincoln administration.

Doris gets inside the minds of the people Lincoln had to deal with. She goes into diaries, newspaper accounts and personal correspondence to get a a fuller view of what people thought of Lincoln and how he dealt with it. He was a man of principle, deserving of the moniker "Honest Abe," but more importantly a practical man. He listened very carefully to understand what others thought and was forgiving of their mistakes. He had a sense of humour that allowed him to deal with the stresses of life. On top of all that he was clever. He dealt with (as we all do) people who had contrary interests, only he did it better.

The author starts off by giving a lot of background of two of Lincoln's presidential rivals, William Seward and Salmon Chase, both of whom expected to be president and felt entitled to the honour. Other key players included Edward Bates and Edwin Stanton. Lincoln picked these men because of what they were capable of doing for their country in its hour of greatest need. There was rivalry amongst them, but Lincoln was able to harness their efforts to re unify America.

Important events covered in detail include Lincoln's early political efforts, his presidential nomination and campaign, selecting his cabinet and changes over the years and of course the American Civil War and Emancipation. Always there was a reason why something shouldn't be done and usually Abraham was able to understand the people involved better than others, wait for the proper moment and eventually prevail.

Doris Kearns Goodwin dealt with some modern thoughts on Abraham Lincoln.  One was that his wife was very unreasonable, even insane. When you understand some of the history you can appreciate she was part of his success. In her own right she was knowledgeable about politics and very literate. She was from a wealthier, connected family, but chose Abraham over richer suitors. She did have stress including the death of a son while in the White House.  She was the butt of much resentment and sometimes over-reacted.

Another twist one hears is that Lincoln was gay or at least bisexual. Doris Kearns Goodwin points out that we make judgments based on our cultural base.  Abraham Lincoln shared his bed with men both in his youth and even at the White House. He was open about it and we have to understand it was not an unusual event and certainly not necessarily an indication of homosexuality.

Another key point for me was that slavery was inherent in the American Constitution. There are those who maintain that Americans should makes laws in accordance with the founders' wishes.  It is impossible to avoid internalizing a culture into the law and it is also true that compromise is necessary in a political context.  Nothing humanly framed should bind future generations that inevitably live in a different culture.  True justice is an elusive goal, but each generation deserves an opportunity to work closer to it.  It is true that we do not want popularity to determine the rights of those with less power so sober reflection is necessary to change anything that is critical to modifying the framework we must all live in.

We all know the end. Lincoln's assassination is one of the better known historical events. The tragedy plays out today. Lincoln would have been more forgiving and understanding of the defeated southern people. Because he wasn't there to offset the vengeful efforts of those who picked up the slack, resentment built up that affects American politics today.

Abraham Lincoln is an excellent model to aim for and I am thankful the author identified him for his unique way of dealing with conflicts. I have watched Doris Kearns Goodwin on tv a few times and always found her insightful for today's politics. Obviously it flows from a strong historical understanding. My intention is to look for more of her insights.

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