Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

So, Abraham Lincoln was the man. Apparently there was a reason we spent so much time talking about him in middle school social studies, and it wasn't because I went to public school in Illinois. Well, not completely.

First of all, I should mention that I read this on my Kindle. The print version must weigh 80lbs. This is a long one.


Secondly, I have to say that Lincoln has become my favorite president and the Civil War has become my favorite war. I want to read more about the war and the leaders involved and the Confederacy. This is clearly a compliment to Goodwin. This book pretty much rocks.

For one thing it isn't a biography, but a quadruple biography. Goodwin traces not only the life and career of our 16th prez, but those of the other 3 Republican presidential hopefuls. All three men joined Lincoln's cabinet creating his "team of rivals". See? It's a clever title.

Anyway, the book is freaking fantastic. It's the best kind of history book, excruciatingly well researched but not bogged down in the facts. It really focuses on the personalities of the important people of the time and draws the reader into life in war-time D.C. Did you know they had to get messages from the front by easily sliced telegraph lines? Yeah, life before texting sucked. The book also does the opposite of that thing that made high school history super boring, which is presenting the events as inevitable. Even with my public-school education I knew that (spoiler alert!!) the North won the war and Lincoln was assassinated, but Goodwin weaves together the dry facts of the war with the colorful emotions and impossible decisions Lincoln was faced with in such a way that I was on the edge of my seat thinking "What's gonna happen?!?!?"

One thing that particularly got me was the racial climate at the time. Probably the recent read of Uncle Tom's Cabin served as a comparison. As a Northerner (or "winner") we're sort of taught that the Union was all abolitionists, who (obviously) were for equality. So not true. Pretty much no one wanted freed slaves to be citizens, vote, mix with white folks or have any rights whatever. Some people thought we should ship them back to Africa or South America where they could eradicate a native population, colonize and start their own civil war. Classy, America. Even Lincoln didn't think mixed races could coexist. It's the most bizarre thing. In context, it wasn't that long ago that this-the most racially diverse country in the world-thought the only way to have two races in one place is to enslave one of them. People wanted to keep the Irish out.

The other stunning thing to me is the evolution of the American attention span. Y'know those "American-style" debates they are trying out in Britain? Think back to the last one you saw. Each person gets something like two minutes to make their argument and one gets a 30-second rebuttle. In those actual Lincoln-Douglass debates (for Senate) they each spoke for two hours. No soundbite. No 4 second blip. Two hours of nuanced, detailed discussion of issues people care about. Farmers came in and stood in the hot sun the whole day to observe this. Can you imagine? I haven't sat through anything longer than 2 hours since "LOTR: Return of the King" opened. We live in a sad world. It's no wonder we're stupid.

I can't recommend this book highly enough to people with an interest in American history and strong arms (or an e-reader).

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