by Brad Nelson
I fairly recently finished Doris Goodwin’s biography of Lincoln, Team of Rivals. I was initially inspired to read this book because of the many bizarre comments by the Paultards (aka “Libertarians”) and others regarding Lincoln which tended to be unhinged and exaggerated. Biggest amongst Paultards is the Lincoln hit piece, The Real Lincoln.
I haven’t read this book, and have no plans to. But I get the gist of it from talking with the Paultards and from reading a critique or two of the book. The conclusion is: Lincoln was a tyrant. The Civil War had nothing to do with slavery. And, by the way, Lincoln was a tyrant.
For some reason the world is full of odd conspiracy theorists and just crank revisionist histories. I knew a little about Lincoln going in — the basics, and a bit beyond — but had never read an entire book-length biography of the former president. I had heard that “Team of Rivals” was one of the better ones.
And it was. Suffice it to say that even some good can come from the mania of the Paultards, if only because they might spur you to find the real <em>real</em> Lincoln.
And the real Lincoln is all that those in reverence of him say he is. And more. I never before had realized the depth of this man and the goodness of his character. This, of course, is in contrast to the fact that he was a key player in prosecuting a tremendously bloody war against the rebel states. Such are the ironies and contradictions contained in real life, as opposed to the simple-minded world views of the conspiracy theorists and revisionists.
To me, Lincoln was like the opposite of Steve Jobs. From afar, Steve Jobs is a great guy. But it seems those who got close to him found out that he was a tyrant, although a brilliant one. The reverse is true of Lincoln. His rivals thought he was just a country bumpkin. And when he became president (shades of Bush and Cheney), everyone just assumed that Secretary of State Seward was actually running the administration.
And Seward himself — initially — wanted to do just that, thinking along with the others that Lincoln was just a backwoods hick who had a knack for getting the country crowds to like him.
But by the end of Lincoln’s first term, not only did most of his previous rivals revere him as a man perhaps as great or greater than Washington, but many of the people who still disliked him (including many Southerners) came to admire his brilliance and personal character. When they got to know the <em>real</em> Lincoln, as opposed to the myths or caricatures, they were impressed. One would think this would be a good lesson for the Paultards.
There has never been another like him. The book itself sees Lincoln in the context of his main rivals: Seward, Blair, Bates, Chase, and their various large and powerful families and friends. One may well come away with the impression that “politics has always been thus.” There is no shortage of bickering and back-biting. Chase was, frankly, an asshole, but Lincoln kept him around because he was so bloody successful as head of Treasury in financing the war.
Of extraordinary note was the relationship between Lincoln and Seward. Lincoln had basically screwed Seward out of a sure-thing presidential nomination in 1960. Seward was like the Romney of the time. It was his turn and he was the overwhelming favorite. He was extremely well known and basically had the nomination all but sown up.
But through various chance circumstances, Lincoln miraculously came out on top. A series of one-in-a-million events transpired in combination that gives credence to a common belief that Providence had some say in this man’s election.
Lincoln’s first act as president-elect was to ask Seward to take the top cabinet post as Secretary of State, which he eventually did. There was inherent rivalry and tension there. But Lincoln wanted the best of the best. And I had no idea before reading this book that Seward was such a great man. Truly great. Talk about being eclipsed by someone else’s shadow. But it’s also true that Lincoln tended to bring out the best in people.
And perhaps never, ever, has there been a political friendship among two top office-holders as developed between Seward and Lincoln. We just don’t see that these days, and perhaps that has never existed anywhere in high-level American politics before or since. Seward had the geeky chess club brain, and all the political-machine brawn behind it, and yet not only was he able to subordinate himself to Lincoln and forget his own presidential ambitions, he was eventually glad to do so.
So back to my original observation: How are any of these dead white men relevant to our time, as great as they may have been? I don’t have the answer to that. The only observation I can make is that our own time is diseased, much as Lincoln’s time was, and perhaps we can see what it takes to right the ship. Hopefully, it won’t take a full-blown civil war. But it will take leaders of enormous wisdom, courage, and good character who can articulate a vision for America that Americans can understand and cherish once again. A tall order. They don’t make Lincolns every day.