Monday, March 24, 2008

Learning From Lincoln

I've been doing a little "lighter reading" lately. Taking a break from theological treatises, or discussions on apologetics or other such philosophical subjects, I have been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's lengthy tome, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Though I've only read 153 pages of this ginormous book - which is 916 pages - I have been extremely inspired by what I've read so far.

It is a real page-turner that has fascinating insights on leadership, marriage, human nature, and many other things. The book is pretty much four biographies in one - following the political careers of, not only Lincoln, but his chief rivals as well: William Seward, Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates.

Here are some interesting things that have caught my eye so far:
  • William Seward - former Governor of New York, as well as a United States Senator - seems to be every bit as inspirational a figure as Lincoln was. He opposed slavery far more vehemently than Lincoln did. Perhaps if he had won the presidency (he was the front-runner among Republicans) the country would have been more divided than under Lincoln's tenure - I don't know. At any rate, I am tempted to buy a T-Shirt from that says, "I Love William Henry Seward."
  • Seward was not perfect, of course. He was so set on succeeding in the political arena, that his wife almost had an affair with one of his mentors. When he finally came to his senses, he wrote a long letter to her, apologizing. She was very gracious in response, realizing the natural disposition of a lot of men. In her response, she shared this profound quote: "Love is the whole history of woman, and but an episode in the life of man." I thought that idea was especially profound, and helps me understand the differences in the psyches of men and women.
  • Salmon Chase was born in Cornish, New Hampshire (a town that is about half-way between two of my churches - and also home of the Cornish-Windsor Covered bridge, the longest wooden bridge in the US and the longest two-span covered bridge in the world), and was schooled at Dartmouth College. During his lifetime, Chase had three wives die, as well as a number of children. In light of this tragedy, he was extremely depressed, but ultimately said, "Sometimes I feel as if I could give up - as if I must give up. And then after all I rise & press on." If a man who lost three wives and multiple children can decide to "press on," how about the rest of us?
  • Lincoln, himself, did not receive any real formal education. He pretty much taught himself everything - reading anything he could get his hands on. One time, a colleague of his walked in on him, as he was trying to teach himself geometry. There was tons of paper scattered everywhere on his table, and for two or three days he had been trying to figure out a way to "square a circle."
  • He also allowed his children to live without many restrictions, saying that "love is the chain whereby to lock a child to its parents."
  • I was greatly disturbed to read Goodwin claim that Lincoln "almost certainly found outlets for his sexual urges among the prostitutes who were readily available on the frontier" before he got married. She, of course, provides no footnote for this claim, showing that this is pure conjecture. After doing a little further research, though, I have now realized that she made this claim because of a belief that is gaining a little momentum lately - that Lincoln had homosexual tendencies. Thus, she tries to explain Lincoln's awkwardness around women - and apparent dearth of material on a love-life before marriage - by going to an extreme. This extreme is uncalled for, especially if people don't realize she has not footnoted her claim. Still, I can see her reason for doing it - in light of erroneous claims about Lincoln's sexual orientation.
  • When debating whether people should bring out the blemishes of George Washington - thus making him more human - Lincoln thought there was merit in "retaining the notion of a Washington without blemish" saying that "It makes human nature better to believe that one human being was perfect [and] that human perfection is possible." Though coming from a different paradigm than me, I highly applaud Lincoln's desire to maintain that human perfection is possible!
These are some of my preliminary thoughts on the book, and the characters that are documented in it. I look forward to many more pages of enlightening reading! I, of course, would highly recommend the book to everyone.


Corey said...

The part about Lincoln having few restrictions on his children is quite fascinating. Obviously parenting is pretty interesting to me these days. I'm quite curious to know how his children turned out given the long leash.

Shawn Brace said...


I will let you know how the children turned out, if the books shares that. I'm sure you could do a quick Wikipedia search to see that as well!

Rondi said...

Sounds fascinating. I'm glad you shared your thoughts so far! I could never read a book of this heft during the school year, as I rarely read except late at night =( Will have to check it out for the summer...

Shawn Brace said...


It is a good read, but a bit discouraging because it is so long - which is somewhat ironic. I very much enjoy reading the book, but also want to get it over with so I can feel as though I've accomplished something!!

Bulworth said...

I gave up reading the book--its 900+ pages proved a pretty literally heavy read--and finally turned to the audio CD version.

I've since been on a Lincoln-reading (and listening) binge of sorts. I guess there are worse addictions to have.

Salmon Chase was the most religious of Lincoln's cabinet, but also its most scheming, which is unfortunate.

Seward was actually a bit more conservative than this "irrepressible conflict" statement would make him appear. After Lincoln's death Seward (who was also severely injured on the night of Lincoln's death by co-conspirator of Booth's) continued to serve in the far more conservative Andrew Johnson's administration and appeared to approve of Johnson's far more conciliatory (to the White South) Reconstruction policies.