Some students sit in history class crying tears of boredom into the dust that fills the room. I’ve always believed it takes a special evil talent to take a subject as fascinating as history and make it boring, but many teachers can do this. History is about what people do, and seriously people, what we do is weird, inspiring, touching, funny, and fucked up. There is nothing boring about it. That’s why we invented gossip, romance novels, and People magazine.
Definitely one of the most interesting times in American history was the frantic middle of the nineteenth century. The country disagreed over whether to remain evil and keep slaves, then savagely attacked itself to decide the question. The Civil War was in many ways one of the first (or even the first) modern industrial wars with an incredible number of over 600,000 dead. It was also the first war fought using metal battleships and submarines.
In the book Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin takes us through several decades leading up to the war, and then through the war itself, with a focus on Abraham Lincoln. The “rivals” part of the book’s title concerns the three men who ran against Lincoln for President, who all were convinced to join his cabinet.
The book is 750 pages long, and the entire time I was reading—I’m not exaggerating this—I didn’t want to put it down. It was like reading a compelling novel that pulled me from page to page. When I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking about it, and if I had only ten minutes to read, I picked it up. Doris Kearns Goodwin won the Pulitzer Prize for this book, and she should have won two Pulitzer Prizes for writing such a book.
The best thing about the book for me is that Lincoln comes alive, and thankfully he is shown as a real person, not as a Great Being Who Became President. So we see that Lincoln had faults. You can make your own choices as to what counts as a fault, but I would cite the fact that he became so depressed as a young man that his friends were afraid he might commit suicide, or the fact that he seemed indecisive about replacing the grossly incompetent General McClellan. I’m much more impressed by Lincoln as a real human being, who did what he did in spite of flaws. Having one or two flaws myself, I don’t relate much to Great Beings, but from Goodwin’s book, I do relate to Lincoln.
The focus of this vast book is to show us the skill, the thoughts, and the passions of this human being as he became President against expectations, as he persuaded radically different people to work together in his cabinet, and as he led the country through a brutal civil war.
In Team of Rivals Goodwin has also focused quite a bit of attention on William Seward, Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates. In part this gives her more of a story to tell, as these were also intelligent, ambitious men who tried to become President before Lincoln brought them into his cabinet. In part the attention on these men, and others, also allows Goodwin to show how skillfully Lincoln dealt with a range of people, including those who disagreed with him.
Goodwin is a very skilled story teller, with a sense of how to increase the drama and interest of that story. This is evident from the fact that one of the characters in her “story” is Kate Chase, the beautiful and very popular daughter of Salmon Chase. From this book we learn much of the life story of Kate, as well as of the more obvious political figures (though it may be well argued that Kate was also a political figure).
As we would expect a history book to do, the book moves forward in chronological order, so we know the war is coming, and we know the assassination is coming. Like a novel, however, the book occasionally shifts point of view from one character to another, so that the reader may go for many pages reading only about Seward, before changing to spend an equal amount of time with Bates.
One of the techniques of this book that helps to make it such a compelling read is that Goodwin uses a tremendous number of quotes from written material from the time. Doing this allows us to “hear” the characters speaking in their own voices. It also indicates that Doris Kearns Goodwin did an enormous amount of research.
Among those voices speaking from the past, I was struck by a quote from Lincoln himself, as he disagreed with the United States going to war against Mexico on flimsy reasons. He oppposed the idea that we should “allow the President to invade a neighboring nation…whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary.” While Lincoln was referring to the war with Mexico, it’s remarkable to see this quote that might have been made regarding the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
And I have to say that even though I spent more than 700 pages knowing it was coming, I had tears in my eyes when I got to the assassination.