Saturday, February 6, 2016
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.