Saturday, February 6, 2016

Team of Rivals - Doris Kearns Goodwin

What are the factors which make a person? The question contains two parts. First is character: how is it that each of us becomes what we are? Second is the manner in which each of us are known: how we are understood, conceived to be by the world around us. In this latter account we are of our time, and, to the extent that we are remembered and reconceived in the minds of others, of other times as well. In this second estimation each is fully of the world. Of the first, that of character, similarly each seems shaped by their environment. Yet, the individual is somewhat transcendent of it - unique in a way that we have not learned to account for. Such transcendence is manifest in the somewhat surprising actions of people. Sometimes an individual's transcendence - their personality - moves beyond their small circle of associates to the wider world. Yet, to be thrust forward to the precipice of eternity requires the even less understood vagaries of the world and the forces that call certain generations to grapple with the problems of the ages. Then the transcendence of the individual may stand athwart opposing forces and forever leave its stamp. Abraham Lincoln was, by any measure, among the greatest of American personages. That he has become so is surely due to his character and the environments that shaped him, but it was also due to that great societal conflict, the Civil War, that Lincoln was able to forcefully leave his stamp on history.

Doris Kearns Goodwin's work traces the rise of Lincoln and his adversaries for the 1860 Republican Presidential Nomination. As an exercise in comparative biography Kearns Goodwin strives to show us how Lincoln and his rivals were men of their time; forged by riding the circuit, public service, negotiating positions on America's "peculiar institution," and their lust for power. In each man's rise we see the tenuous years of Antebellum America and how each negotiated their lives within it. Kearns Goodwin is masterful in drawing portraits of character; we feel that we have seen the essence of Lincoln, Seward, and Chase. Yet the work is somewhat uneven in balancing the genius of Lincoln's politics with the personal and social lives of he and his rivals. We are often left under-informed about the contexts of the political difficulties that Lincoln so tactfully threaded. While the force of his personality, in particular his capacity for forgiveness and magnanimity seemed to know no bounds, his politics was also eminently practical. Yet, the full situating and the subsequent implications of this practicality could stand a more thorough treatment.

More than anything this is a work of character exposition. That Lincoln's character was demanded by the historical moment is made manifest and how this was forged is accounted for carefully and brilliantly. As an historical analysis of politics the picture is less clear and forceful. Perhaps this is the legacy of Lincoln: it is the man who shines out from history.