44 of 46 people found the following review helpful
Great narrative, but wholly uncritical
, 1 April 2011
This review is from: Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Paperback)
The massive scholarship of this work is clearly evident in the 754 pages of highly readable narrative history. I was reminded of Robert K. Massie's histories of the European powers around the Great war; lots of characters, finely drawn, which give a real sense of the human side of great events. The key unique piece of this book is the interplay of the principal characters; the team of rivals, who form Lincoln's cabinet. Along with them, Doris Kearns gives fair due to the women in their lives, who are clearly all women of substance and ability; with perhaps the exception of Lincoln's wife, Mary, who often appears spiteful and small-minded.
As a political narrative, it has real merit; but I have a couple of reservations which perhaps challenge the scholarship. Firstly, there is very little analysis of the military side of the Civil War. At one level this is fine, as this is a political history, and there are enough great military histories of the Civil War. At another, it is a weakness. The war was Lincoln's foremost challenge; he was elected just before the it started and was killed as it ended. Beyond descriptions of his very human actions with individual troops; visits to the front and decisions around commuting sentences, the war plays an oddly distant, unconnected, almost exogenous role.
It leads to my second and wider discomfort. Every action in Lincoln's career is interpreted as a masterly and courageous move; even if it involves inaction. In three areas this seems to be a little too sympathetic.
First would be Lincoln's vacillation in not firing General Maclellan. There is no discussion of whether this should have been done earlier, and yet Maclellan wasted a vast army which could have challenged Robert E. Lee's Army of Virginia much more and earlier than it did.
Second would be the Abolition of Slavery. In other histories I have read, it is suggested that the slavery decision was at least partly driven by the need to head off British and French recognition of the Confederacy. There is no mention of this here. Instead, it is part of Lincoln's flawless political pacing towards his ends, in this case in the teeth of opposition from lesser beings.
Third would be his willingness to tolerate dissent and on occasion outright betrayal from those around him. The key case is Salmon Chase, who actively plots against the President in search of the 1864 nomination. The rationale is that Lincoln is above such personal trivia and focused purely on maximising the human talent deployed against the issues of the day.
I ma not sure there is a single instance where Doris Kearns cites a material mistake being made by Abe Lincoln. I am afraid somewhere early on, I stopped buying this utter faith in Lincoln's courage and prescience and started interpreting his actions in my own way as I read the rest of the book. The narrative can be interpreted differently, with Lincoln as a man who sometimes did feel doubt and did feel challenged in facing up to others. I found it more believable to see Lincoln as the 'rail-splitter' from Illinois seeking to face up to men with more social standing and education, as well as the most turbulent and violent period in America's history. I fail to see why the memory of a truly great President is marred by the idea that he was not flawless, that the almost Christ-like omniscience he displays in Doris Kearns' vision is just too perfect to be true.
Surely how much more satisfying that he is a man with weaknesses and imperfections, like the rest of humanity? Surely there is only courage when there is fear? I realise Lincoln is an almost mythical figure in US history, but the point of books like this is that they show the real human being, not the myth.
So all in all, a fine read, but keep your critical faculties close by.
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