I've posted enough Lincoln photos.
At the end of last year, after a lifetime of avoiding the Civil War, due to nothing but a perverse desire to be the black sheep in a family of War Between the States aficionados, I found myself reading several books about Lincoln, both because the books themselves sounded interesting (one turned out to be, the other not as much as hoped) and because I finally had to admit that this hole in my education had grown to be too embarrassing. Anyway, one day at the library, after failing to find some other books I was looking for (and still waiting for...), I ended up with a copy of Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals. I only knew two people who had read this book and while one loved it, the other--whose opinion I trusted more--had been more ambivalent ("It's okay, but..."). That hesitance was enough to make me pass on it when it was first released, plus I often stubbornly refuse to read books that are popular, well-reviewed, and seen being read by everyone everywhere; the demon of perversity wins too many battles with me. Of course, though, when given the choice between a popular, well-reviewed, seen everywhere book and having nothing to read on the train that week, well, I gave in to the available book.
In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Jefferson Smith is awed by the Lincoln Memorial.
Team of Rivals, as you all know by now, is about Lincoln's decision to staff his cabinet with several men who had lost to him the Republican nomination for president. Instead of creating a den of vipers, though, Lincoln's political skills and just plain likableness turned the potentially divisive group into a tight-knit unit that helped the nation weather some of its most difficult moments. Until, that is, some of them--or at least one--did turn out to be vipers, and factionalism and other outside forces did get the better of them.
Upon closer reading, this is a dreadfully simplistic way of looking at the events. Goodwin's choice of main characters--Attorney General Edward Bates, Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase, and Secretary of State William Seward--were presidential hopefuls in 1860, but presidential campaigns were very different at that time because candidates didn't actually go out and campaign against each other. They didn't even debate. So it's not as if Lincoln found himself at a cabinet meeting sitting across from Edward Bates saying, "Uhhh, sorry I called you a weak old granny who'd nap while the union fell apart," or "Mr. Seward, I'm sure you understand it was just campaigning when I said you were a pompous windbag. And Mr. Chase, you know I was just teasing when I said you'd sell your mother to the devil for a shot at the presidency." Almost none of the cabinet members knew Lincoln, let alone considered him a rival of any sort. There may have been a little contempt or disdain for the country lawyer from "the West", but not the real, personal animosity. And while they did there jobs well, they didn't all particularly like each other. No one liked Chase, many people in and outside the cabinet became jealous and suspicious of the close friendship Lincoln formed with Seward, and later Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, who although not a presidential candidate had years before rudely ignored and made fun of country lawyer Lincoln during a case they were supposed to be working on together. The much older Bates seemed to float on the outside of things, chiming in when necessary.
And this all didn't last that long anyway, since we never found out how the group would have worked if Lincoln had survived the full four years of his second term. Bates retired after Lincoln was elected, and other members of the administration planned to leave as well. Chase, who had executed his duties brilliantly, also constantly complained about his position, the other cabinet members, and Lincoln's outshining him, then connived to run against Lincoln in 1864. He handed in his resignation several times, seemingly just in order to be asked to rescind it so he could show how desperately he was needed, until he pulled that stunt one too many times and Lincoln accepted it. Soon after, though, as a consolation prize, he landed a spot as Chief Supreme Court Justice, but that was mostly because Stanton, who had more personal support for the job, had the misfortune of having made himself irreplaceable as Secretary of War.
Stanton is one of the main reasons why the book's concept, that Lincoln took the risk of bringing his rivals for office into his cabinet, doesn't quite work so neatly. The book opens with the four Republican hopefuls waiting for news from the convention of who had won the nomination, then cuts back and forth between mini-biographies of each man. This is fine, but it's apparent early on that Bates doesn't have the same stature as Lincoln, Seward and Chase, earning less page time, and less, seemingly, of the author's interest (though to be fair, this is probably because he wasn't that interesting--although undoubtedly a very nice man). When Lincoln gets to the White House, Bates recedes more. He was a fine attorney general, but other than as a representative of the conservative wing of the Republican party (back then that just meant someone who wasn't a fire-breathing abolitionist, hardly what it means now), he feels like a corollary to the story, hardly part of the drama. He had been surprised to have a chance for the presidency at his age, and while he was disappointed that he had lost, Bates didn't go into his job feeling roiling jealousy of Lincoln, with an eye towards using it for a platform to win the job in 1864. And even his role as the conservative in the group was superseded by others in the administration from the same faction, such as the much more aggressive Montgomery Blair. So Bates is seemingly treated like an equal to the others, but he wasn't. In fact, after all the time devoted to him during the first part of the book, he disappears in favor of Edwin Stanton, who doesn't get the full biography treatment because he wasn't Lincoln's "rival."
My enjoyment of the book also has two layers--on the surface, it's an enjoyable read that goes deep into the lives of the main players and the times in which they lived (and don't forget, since I don't know a great deal about the Civil War, a lot of information about the war itself is news to me, sadly). Seward comes off as an intelligent, dedicated man who thought he was doing all the right things and would eventually reach the position he thought he had deserved and earned. He made a number of campaign mistakes, though, and alienated the wrong people at the wrong time. Chase seems like a hard, ambitious, self-righteous man, who probably wouldn't have been able to admit making a mistake or recover from that error. Lincoln, as seen in other books, was intelligent, but also, perhaps more importantly, a good reader of other people, and an astute handler of others. His greatest quality, though, may not have been his brilliance, but his kindness; he seemed to have never carried a grudge and had the ability to look beyond the little everyday pettiness that comes with political life. In this book, he is, apparently flawless, and that may be a criticism--the person I knew who had read this book and wasn't overwhelmed by it warned me that Goodwin fell in love with her subject a little, always a danger for biographers. But then again, I suppose it's hard to find a lot of Lincoln-bashing evidence.
Another person who seems to have awed the author is Kate Chase, Salmon Chase's daughter, who served as a hostess for the widowed Treasury Secretary and became the belle of Washington. She and her father were extremely close; Chase raised his daughter with a close, critical eye, returning her letters from school with an evaluation of how well they were written. He gave her the finest education possible and expected her to excel, which she did. He lucked out when she also turned out to be beautiful and elegant. Kate gets a great deal of time in this book, with descriptions of her appearance, clothes, shopping trips, parties, and romances; she's a much more vivid character than Bates, one of the supposed rivals.
The much-heralded Kate Chase Sprague.
Mary Todd Lincoln also gets her fair share of space (again outmuscling poor Bates). Of course that's because her life was inextricably intertwined with that of Lincoln's, but also because she's one of those historical figures that has attracted either virulent detractors or committed defenders (sort of like those Richard III groupies). In her own time, she was the subject of constant speculation and tabloid condemnation. Part of this is because she and Lincoln were from a "Western" state (back when Illinois was "the West"), and weren't part of Washington society. Even worse for those times, Mary was from Kentucky and therefore regarded with suspicion by Northerners, who thought she might be a secret Confederate partisan who would influence Lincoln to take it easy on southerners and back off on abolition. Mary, a bright, educated woman, seemed to have determined to overcome all this by becoming Washington's most fashionable hostess, but unfortunately went about this by spending amounts of money on clothes and furnishings that would have been high in ordinary times, but was unseemly during wartime. Admittedly, Mary was in a tough position here. If she hadn't tried so hard to be a society leader, she would have been the subject of Washington gossip, but when she did try, she was sneered at for the money she spent to get that way. You wish, though, that she could either have had the shopping ability to hew a middle road, or the "I don't care what you think" personality of an Eleanor Roosevelt, or even the political astuteness to say, "In these times, it's honorable to wear last year's dress" or whatever. Personally, I think Mary's clinginess and neediness would have gotten on my nerves, but Goodwin is pretty fair to her--she's obviously sympathetic, but doesn't let her off the hook for her ill-timed tantrums or extravagance.
It's a lot of fun reading about these people, and I always enjoy going deeply into a time period and reading how people lived, and about what they did and thought. But seven hundred pages, Goodwin's writing style wore me out. I love quotes. I love primary sources. I love to read excerpts from letters and diaries, and especially from newspapers of the day. Goodwin quotes liberally from all of these, and they help readers gain a fuller picture of the people in the book. However, there's a time to quote verbatim, and a time to actually write yourself. I understand that Goodwin had a plagiarism issue in the past, where there was a problem with material taken from other sources that she didn't attribute. Now, though, she seems to have gone over the top to make sure she didn't make the same mistake again by putting quotes around even the most insignificant things. Look at these sentences:
"In Washington it was 'dark and rainy.' Arriving at the White House about noon, Noah Brooks was surprised to find the president 'entirely alone.'"
Looking at the notes, it turns out the quotes are from a book written by Brooks called Washington, D.C., in Lincoln's Time. I realize that plagiarism covers using a person's concepts or ideas without quotes or attribution, as well as copying exact words. But these two quotes don't fall under concepts or ideas, and the words themselves aren't so perfect and memorable that there isn't a way to convey the meaning otherwise. Couldn't we say that it was a stormy morning in Washington and that the president was by himself in his office? This may seem like an incredibly minor thing to pick at but seriously, imagine if every other sentence looked like those two. And this goes on for over seven hundred pages. How about: "Bates joined Seward,Welles, and Usher in the president's office for a 'pleasant' farewell."? Again, imagine this on every page, in almost every paragraph.
There's also the occasional vagary that annoyed me. Okay, mostly this one example about a dream Lincoln supposedly had before his assassination:
"Curiously, Lincoln had recently experienced a dream that carried ominous intimations. 'There seemed to be a death-like stillness about me,' Lincoln purportedly told Ward Lamon."
The first sentence states that Lincoln "had recently experienced a dream." Then, though, in the second sentence she throws in the word "purportedly" and now it becomes clear that this is just a story that's been passed around over the years; Goodwin even mentions another historian who has pointed out that Lamon's account of this conversation doesn't make sense because of the timing involved, so the story is questionable. But then she goes back and says that Lincoln often had dreams that he felt were fraught with meaning and told others about them (this was the age of spiritualism). Since there's so little reason to believe this story, I wonder why it was brought up at all, and if it was, it should have been introduced immediately as unreliable. Trying to bring it back to Lincoln's other dreams feels weak.
Occasionally bits of pop psychology intrude--after Seward's carriage accident, Stanton rushed to Seward's bedside and "ministered carefully to his friend, perhaps remembering childhood days when he accompanied his father on sick calls." That's just cringeworthy. All we need to know is that Stanton, Seward's good friend, went to him in his time of need and tried to help; all the rest is just weird embellishment. I like to think the author would want that one back. To be honest, though, these two examples, the unnecessary dream story and Stanton's childhood memories bothered me a lot less than the excessive quoting. That seriously drove me crazy. There were pages where I wanted to throw the book across the room as I read (if you choose to quote me, you can annoy me by writing, "Sometimes she "wanted to throw" the heavy tome "across the room.").
But I guess this is all nitpicking, I suppose, and certainly what bothers me might be seen by others as just necessary diligence. Like I said initially, the book is about interesting people living in interesting times, so it's unlikely you will be bored reading Team of Rivals." Well, most of the time--I guess you could argue that there's excessive detail and minutiae, but as I said, I enjoy being immersed in a time period, so I could live with that. I think the premise doesn't one hundred percent work, but that doesn't mean you won't learn anything from it. In the end, I think it's a good book, though not a great book, and not one I'll sit down and read again, or find myself thinking about much.
We are in the middle of a year of Lincoln-mania, and there will be books out that are better and worse. But Lincoln's story is so good it's virtually indestructible, and there may be still more about him to discover, no matter how much has been written already. There are always a million more stories to be told. And Lincoln, who knew a good story when he heard one, would have ended this by reminding everyone that he wasn't the first one to understand the value of befriending your rivals, and that it is always wise to "keep your friends close, but your enemies closer."
And then there's the Lincoln Tunnel.