“Lincoln was an exceptional historical work, biography, and political studies. As Goodwin notes in the introduction, Lincoln has been the subject of a vast body of historical work (indeed, Frederick Douglass proclaimed at Lincoln’s funeral that everything about Lincoln had already been said). Yet, by examining Lincoln’s life through the prism of his rivals on the campaign trail and members of his cabinet, Goodwin has done a remarkable job in portraying Lincoln (not that I would really know – I haven’t read anything else on Lincoln, so I’m really making this up).
I came away with an incredible amount of respect for Lincoln and some of the other great men of his day, an appreciation of our political process, a sense that our current political shortcomings may not be as exaggerated as the press would have you believe, and an appreciation for the potential of one person to change the course of human events.
My one worry is that Goodwin potentially gave the reader a one-sided portrait of Lincoln; he is shown to be uniquely great figure in American history, with hardly any shortcomings. That said, he probably was just that badass.
A few favorite quotes (but didn’t mark many down, so these are somewhat random):
“More accustomed to relying upon himself to shape events, he took the greatest control of the process leading up to the nomination, displaying a fierce ambition, an exceptional political acumen, and a wide range of emotional strengths, forged in the crucible of personal hardship, that took his unsuspecting rivals by surprise. That Lincoln, after winning the presidency, made the unprecedented decision to incorporate his eminent rivals into his political family, the cabinet, was evidence of a profound self-confidence and a first indication of what would prove to others a most unexpected greatness. Seward became secretary of state, Chase secretary of the treasury, and Bates attorney general. The remaining top posts Lincoln offered to three former Democrats whose stories also inhabit these pages— Gideon Welles, Lincoln’s “Neptune,” was made secretary of the navy, Montgomery Blair became postmaster general, and Edwin M. Stanton, Lincoln’s “Mars,” eventually became secretary of war. Every member of this administration was better known, better educated, and more experienced in public life than Lincoln. Their presence in the cabinet might have threatened to eclipse the obscure prairie lawyer from Springfield.
It soon became clear, however, that Abraham Lincoln would emerge the undisputed captain of this most unusual cabinet, truly a team of rivals. The powerful competitors who had originally disdained Lincoln became colleagues who helped him steer the country through its darkest days. Seward was the first to appreciate Lincoln’s remarkable talents, quickly realizing the futility of his plan to relegate the president to a figurehead role. In the months that followed, Seward would become Lincoln’s closest friend and advisor in the administration. Though Bates initially viewed Lincoln as a well-meaning but incompetent administrator, he eventually concluded that the president was an unmatched leader, “very near being a perfect man.” Edwin Stanton, who had treated Lincoln with contempt at their initial acquaintance, developed a great respect for the commander in chief and was unable to control his tears for weeks after the president’s death. Even Chase, whose restless ambition for the presidency was never realized, at last acknowledged that Lincoln had outmaneuvered him.”
“After living with the subject of Abraham Lincoln for a decade, however, reading what he himself wrote and what hundreds of others have written about him, following the arc of his ambition, and assessing the inevitable mixture of human foibles and strengths that made up his temperament, after watching him deal with the terrible deprivations of his childhood, the deaths of his children, and the horror that engulfed the entire nation, I find that after nearly two centuries, the uniquely American story of Abraham Lincoln has unequalled power to captivate the imagination and to inspire emotion.”
“Lincoln already possessed the lifelong dream he would restate many times in the years that followed— the desire to prove himself worthy, to be held in great regard, to win the veneration and respect of his fellow citizens.”
“Stanton would not allow himself such leniency. A clerk recalled finding Stanton one night in his office, “the mother, wife, and children of a soldier who had been condemned to be shot as a deserter, on their knees before him pleading for the life of their loved one. He listened standing, in cold and austere silence, and at the end of their heart-breaking sobs and prayers answered briefly that the man must die. The crushed and despairing little family left and Mr. Stanton turned, apparently unmoved, and walked into his private room.” The clerk thought Stanton an unfeeling tyrant, until he discovered him moments later, “leaning over a desk, his face buried in his hands and his heavy frame shaking with sobs. ‘God help me to do my duty; God help me to do my duty!’ he was repeating in a low wail of anguish.” On such occasions, when Stanton felt he could not afford to set a precedent, he must have been secretly relieved that the president had the ultimate authority.”