Book Review: Team of Rivals

In fifth grade, Mrs. Redding taught me that Lincoln was a great president who freed the slaves. In eleventh grade, Mrs. Hilfiger taught us that Lincoln was a great president who cared about slaves, but maybe not as much as I wanted him to. In college I was chastised for using the word ‘great’ to describe anyone besides Frederick or Ivan, and made to think, at least implicitly, that reverence was for suckers.

Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, (Simon and Schuster) has won a bevy of awards from many esteemed organizations, but its heart seems to be with Mrs. Redding at Ericsson Elementary School. The book chronicles the rise of Lincoln and the men in his cabinet to power, and their role in seeing the nation through the Civil War and the long journey to Emancipation. The title refers to the fact that three key members of the wartime cabinet—William Seward, Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates—were Lincoln’s rivals for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860, and also to the overall makeup of the cabinet, which brought together disparate elements of the loyal Union (among them abolitionists, slaveholding Democrats, east-coast plutocrats, New England traders, immigrant groups, nativists, and frontiersmen) to subdue and reclaim a South generally united in purpose and thought.

Lincoln is often cited as the greatest president in history, but if there has been a smudge in the finish it has been historians’ inability to quite pin down his attitude on race and the slavery question. Historians (usually liberal-leaning ones) have always questioned whether Lincoln was quite as progressive on the topic of freed blacks joining white society as he’s traditionally been made out to be. The decibel level of the questioning was at a polite murmur when I was young, but it grew steadily through the years, and by the late ’90s most college-educated Americans took it for granted that Lincoln was not really progressive at all on race—that he was a pragmatist who either didn’t consider the race question a fundamentally important one, or he possessed racial views typical of any white male of the period.

The thinking has come back around in the last half-century or so. Lincoln’s progressiveness is back in our liberal good graces. Goodwin’s book is solidly in the pro-progressive camp. Goodwin’s argument is for Lincoln’s “political genius…not simply his ability to gather the best men of the country around him, but to impress upon them his own purpose, perception, and resolution at every juncture.”  Lincoln is repeatedly faced with crises originating in the fractured nature of his own side. Radical Republicans wish to do away with slavery immediately; Democrats want the Fugitive Slave Law enforced. Lincoln’s solutions are remarkable not in their brilliance but their simple consistency. Goodwin, again and again, demonstrates his refusal to give into emotion or pique, his constant focus on practical and long-term goals, and, above all, his remarkable ability to maintain his personal honor and integrity. This final quality seems to be the one which wins over the worst of his critics.

Skeptical readers may fault Goodwin for failing to puncture the sanctified nimbus which surrounds the sixteenth president, but doing so would have undoubtedly ruined the chief pleasure of the book, which is to be re-immersed in the kind of history which makes us believe that, well—that America is a great country. According to the book, there is never any doubt that Lincoln wishes to end slavery (in fact, he has wished to end it pretty much his whole life), but in Goodwin’s estimation he probably could not have proclaimed Emancipation very much earlier or very much later than when he did.

Lincoln and Black Colonization of Central America

A historian at George Mason has recently published a book, which relates a speech Lincoln made in 1862 to a group of free blacks, suggesting they colonize Central America:

“For the sake of your race, you should sacrifice something of your present comfort for the purpose of being as grand in that respect as the white people,” Lincoln said, promoting his idea of colonization: resettling blacks in foreign countries on the belief that whites and blacks could not coexist in the same nation. Lincoln went on to say that free blacks who envisioned a permanent life in the United States were being “selfish” and he promoted Central America as an ideal location “especially because of the similarity of climate with your native land — thus being suited to your physical condition.”

Hmm. Don’t know how Goodwin could have fit that into her book, as big as it is (754 pages!)

Does it matter? If our present society finds some utility in a righteous image of Lincoln, can’t we just leave his reputation alone? Well—no. History is supposed to pursue reality that once actually existed, after all.

And we don’t have to just throw our hands up in the air and settle for ambivalence, either. Goodwin makes good use of those 754 pages to obliterate for good a few lingering misconceptions about the Civil War itself—yes, state’s rights was an issue. No, it was not the overwhelming issue. The Confederacy clung to states’ rights to protect the institution of slavery, not the other way around. Yes, the North was willing to compromise to great lengths on the issue of slavery to avert war. But the northern states still uniformly objected to it, on various grounds moral, economic, and cultural, and they were willing to fight to keep it from spreading. And by the Battle of Gettysburg, in 1863, there really was no going back. The blood of millions had been shed, and the only price that could be paid for such a cost was the final eradication of slavery.

We can accept all those things, and it doesn’t mean we have to cough nervously and sidestep the fact that in Lincoln told a bunch of freed slaves in 1862 that he thought it might be best if they left and colonized Central America. Yes, it sounds like sort of a dick move. Yes, it’s a little embarrassing. In the end, he never seriously pursued the colonization idea in an official capacity (the book suggests abolitionists were annoyed with him for talking about it, and eventually got him to abandon it, although he did try to raise the issue in the private sphere for a while). What he did do was declare Emancipation and arm 200,000 freed slaves to fight in the war.

For Americans, the stripping away of our political innocence as we move through the education system is a rite of passage. But sometimes you get a little bit back. Lincoln has taken the big body blows, and remains standing.

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About hubzbubz

Currently residing in Brooklyn.
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