Saturday, June 21, 2008

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln - Part II

I began reading this book way back in March and blogged about it on the 23rd.

This book is pretty long. The chapters are long, too. (Note to self: I prefer short chapters in case I ever return to writing.) It has taken me a while to become involved with the book. Some readers have posted less than flattering comments about Goodwin's writing. I can understand that but now I am at the point where I am very much enjoying both her style and her story. The book is in two parts and about 26 chapters.

I have not made it to the 1860 Presidential race yet. The first part of the book is about the lives of the five men (Stanton, Chase, Lincoln, Seward, and Bates) preceding that event. It is a giant undertaking because to discuss the rivalry you have to know about each of the five men - almost like a bio of each before the subject even gets started.

There are several things that I have found particularly interesting. These things don't really have to do directly with the subject of the book. That surprises me some since it was the subject of the book that originally interested me.

But books are like that sometimes.

And that's one thing I've noticed in the book very quickly is how important are books to all of these men. It simply cannot be overstated.

I suppose the next thing that impresses me is just how difficult life was in the United States during that period. It was hard in many ways, too. Earning a living - and by living I mean the most basic food, shelter, and clothing - was excruciatingly hard and tenuous at best. Gaining an education was up to the individual and pretty much required determination and ambition beyond anything imaginable by our present standards. Books and paper were not only scarce but nearly nonexistent. Medicine was amazingly crude and bleeding was commonly employed and once in this portion of the book is probably responsible for a death.

Death is the other hard part of life then. Lots and lots of death. Mothers frequently, and I mean frequently, died giving birth. Children died from illness and injury. Everyone died from disease. Animals, too. When the mothers died the children usually got a step-mother and often that wasn't such a good experience. When the fathers died the children were often farmed out to other family members. Often that wasn't a very good experience either.

So the harshness and hardness of life was a significant part of the development of the character of each of these five rivals. And of the five none had more hardship than Lincoln himself.

Another thing I found so interesting was the idea that someone could make his life better. This was still a stunningly new concept. In the old world it simply was not possible to improve one's life. The very fact that the possibility of a better life might be achieved was such an amazing thing. The means of improvement was books and self-education and unimaginable effort and enough ambition to start and stay.

The culture and fact of slavery has to be listed as something that looms over everything else. I wrote prejudice and bigotry first because it isn't only slavery I notice. Women are nearly slaves and children maybe a little worse. But really those aren't the correct words. I don't know the right words. I don't really know the right concepts even. If things were hard for white men they were in many ways somewhere next to intolerable for white women and children. For black men and women things were considerably worse than intolerable.

I know I am making broad generalizations and certainly there were many individuals whose quality of life was better or worse than others. People adapt and you see that but compared to our world today things were so different.

There is a place in the book where Goodwin recounts a story where one of the rivals takes his family on a vacation into the south. During the trip the family, riding in their carriage or wagon, pass a group of black boys. The boys are young, none over 11 or 12. There are a dozen of them. They are naked. They are in pairs and the pair is tied at wrists. There is a rope around each neck that ties them all together much like a team. Behind them is a tall white man with a whip who mercilessly strikes them in order to drive them on. Earlier that day they have been torn from their own families and sold at auction. Their new owner drives them to a horse water trough where they drink. Then they are allowed to rest where the children collapse in spasms of fear and tears. The wife is sickened and tells her husband she cannot and will not continue the vacation and begs to leave the south as soon as possible. The husband concurs and they turn around and flee the horror they've witnessed.

I thought that in a way that group of 12 black children could represent the entire population and the master with the whip could represent the times they lived in. Someone might say that I am overreaching the plight of women and children if not the blacks. But women worked so hard and were so often pregnant and had so many fewer ways to find individual freedom and expression. Children were nearly chattel it seems to me. I'm not saying they weren't loved. I'm not saying any of this was totally unnecessary either. It was so hard to survive and the need to survive and live imposed its own constraints.

One of the most interesting thing to me was the difference in the nature of the relationships between men during this time. Or at least some of the relationships experienced by these men and described in this book are surprising to me. They are emotional relationships - romantic relationships but they are non sexual. They have all the markings of romantic relationships though including jealousy and infatuation. I did not realize this at all.

I'll write more as I read more.

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