Death, Mortality, Abraham Lincoln, and His Secretary of War

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If you want to know why Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals is such a thing of beauty, look no further.  The following two pages (at least on my Kindle) shows you how jam packed this book is with ideas and humanity.  Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton were polar opposites in personality, but were a perfect team when working together.  The one thing they both personally shared was a deep understanding of mortality due to the fact that both of them suffered the tremendous loss of loved ones.  As well as losing family members, Lincoln’s first love died when he was young.  Stanton lost his first wife at an early age.  Excerpt:

That Lincoln was also preoccupied with death is clear from the themes of many of his favorite poems that addressed the ephemeral nature of life and reflected on his own painful acquaintance with death.  He particularly cherished “Mortality,” by William Knox, and transcribed a copy for the Stantons.

Oh!  Why should the spirit of mortal be proud?
Like a swift-fleeting meteor, a fast-flying cloud,
A flash of lightning, a break of the wave,
He passeth from life to his rest in the grave.

He could recite from memory “The Last Leaf,” by Oliver Wendell Holmes, and once claimed to the painter Francis Carpenter that “for pure pathos” there was “nothing finer…in the English language” than the six-line stanza:

The mossy marble rest
On lips that he has prest
  In their bloom,
And the names he loved to hear
Have been carved for many a year
  On the tomb.

Yet, beyond sharing a romantic and philosophical preoccupation with death, the commander in chief and the secretary of war shared the harrowing knowledge that their choices resulted in sending hundreds of thousands of young men to their graves.  Stanton’s Quaker background made the strain particularly unbearable.  As a young man, he had written a passionate essay decrying society’s exaltation of war.  “Why is it,” he asked, that military generals “are praised and honored instead of being punished as malefactors?”  After all, the work of war is “the making of widows and orphans – the plundering of towns and villages – the exterminating & spoiling of all, making the earth a slaughterhouse.”  Though governments might argue war’s necessity to achieve certain objectives, “how much better might they accomplish their ends by some other means?  But if generals are useful so are butchers, and who will say that because a butcher is useful he should be honored?”  

Three decades after writing this, Stanton found himself responsible for an army of more than 2 million men.  “There could be no greater madness,” he reasoned, “than for a man to encounter what I do for anything less than motives that overleap time and look forward to eternity.”  Lincoln, too, found the horrific scope of the burden hard to fathom.  “Doesn’t it strike you as queer that I, who couldn’t cut the head off of a chicken, and who was sick at the sight of blood, should be cast into the middle of a great war, with blood flowing all about me?”  

Great Moments In American Politics: Pulling a Gun While Being Drunk in the Senate

A lot of people hate Congress, but what they don’t realize is that it has improved!  What follows is the behavior of Senator Willard Saulsbury of Delaware as reported in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals.  (Sualsburg was pat of the group that opposed the Emancipation Proclamation):

In the Senate, Willard Saulsbury of Delaware took to the floor to prevent a vote sustaining the administration on the suspension of habeas corpus.  He could hardly keep his footing during a liquor-fueled harangue, while he inveighed against the president “in language fit only for a drunken fishwife,” calling him “an imbecile” and claiming that he was “the weakest man ever placed in high office.”  Called to order by Vice President Hamlin, he refused to take his seat.  When sergeant at arms approached to take Saulsbury into custody, he pulled out his revolver.  “Damn you,” he said, pointing the pistol at the sergeant’s head, “if you touch me I’ll shoot you dead.”  The wild scene continued for some time before Saulsbury was removed from the Senate floor.

Just remember what’s out there in the American bloodstream, right below the surface.  Happy New Year!

Five Reasons Lincoln Was a Great Man

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I am slowly making my way through Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, as I have a bunch of books going.  I also just watched the movie Lincoln for the third time last night.  Before that I watched Ken Burn’s The Civil War series.  The more I learn about Lincoln, the more I like him.  Normally I hate questions like if you could go to dinner with anyone living or dead, who would you choose?  I usually feel put on the spot and there are a million ways you could answer that anyway, depending on the conditions.  It’s like someone asking you what your favorite color is.  Well, I like blue, but depending on the context I might also like…

But I have to admit if I were forced to answer a question like that right now I think I would have to say Lincoln.  Unlike many people, the more he is taking off of a pedestal, the more he is humanized, the more unbelievably likable he is.  Here are five reasons, out of many that I could have picked, to explain why I find Lincoln so compelling:

1.  He was extremely interested in the world.  This is someone that had almost no formal education.  However, he would consistently try to push himself to learn more.  Books were his companions.  He loved books and could recite passages from literature and poetry by memory.  He wanted to learn complex geometry at one point.  He simply got a book out, read it, practiced it, and learned it on his own.  Usually the myth of the self-made man is bullshit, as most people have someone that helps them along the way, were born in favorable circumstances, etc.  However, Lincoln was about as close to this archetype as possible.  He was also interested in people and loved to sit around late into the night talking with people about an incredibly wide range of topics.  He was simply someone that loved to learn, push himself, and acquire new skills.

2.  He was humble in victory and gracious in defeat.  While Lincoln was confident in himself, he was never egotistical.  When he would win a case as a lawyer or a political victory, he was quick to give credit to others around him, and he never lorded his victories over his opponents.  When he lost, even when he was smeared by political opponents, Lincoln was quick to forgive.  He was also quick to empathize with others, he tried to understand them, so that he never took it personally when he was attacked.  This was crucial to why he was successful, as he never let petty political rivalries get in the way of his career.

3.  He was good natured.  I cannot think of one story where Lincoln was ever cruel to anyone.  And even though he suffered at times from melancholia, he always told funny stories and tried to put others at ease.  He would make himself the butt of a joke if it could make people smile and make them comfortable.

4.  He was not afraid to change his position if new facts emerged.  If a problem were to arise, Lincoln tried to learn as much about it as he could, often reading late into the night, and would try to reach a conclusion based on the facts.  When he was wrong, which wasn’t much, he would admit it and try to learn from it.  He rarely let preconceived notions of how he viewed the world get in the way of dealing with whatever facts were in front of him.

5.  He was always able to overcome personal setbacks and grief.  He lost the first election that he was in.  When he got his first big case he was snubbed and let go by the two more educated attorneys that were on it.  Instead of going home mad, he stayed in the audience to try and learn as much about the law as possible.  The first person he was ever in love with died.  Two of his children died during his lifetime, one while he was in the White House.  Yet time after time, while being highly skeptical of an afterlife, and full of tremendous grief, he pushed on, able to overcome his own grief to do things for the good of others.  Part of the reason he was a great man wasn’t because he always succeeded.  In fast he faced several serious failures and personal setbacks.  He was a great man because he pushed on in the face of these.

Although I am only about halfway through Goodwin’s book, I can’t recommend it enough.  Spending time with Lincoln is a true pleasure.  The book will teach one an incredible amount about American History.  Also, by examining Lincoln, one can learn a lot about how one should try to live.

Politics and Empathy

Reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals.  It is about Lincoln and his cabinet.  The book is endlessly fascinating.  I am only about a tenth of the way through and already I have learned an incredible amount about this country.  I read the following passage today, about Lincoln’s first major anti-slavery speech:

Rather than upbraid slaveowners, Lincoln sought to comprehend their position through empathy.  More than a decade earlier, he had employed a similar approach when he advised temperance advocates to refrain from denouncing drinkers in “thundering tones of anathema and denunciation,” for denunciation would inevitably be me with denunciation, “crimination with crimination, and anathema with anathema.”  In a passage directed at abolitionists as well as temperance reformers, he had observed that it was the nature of man, when told that he should be “shunned and despised,” and condemned as a the author “of all the vice and misery and crime in the land,” to retreat within himself, close all the avenues to his head and his heart.”

Though the cause be “naked truth itself, transformed to the heaviest lance, harder than steel,” the sanctimonious reformer could no more pierce the heart of the drinker  or the slaveowner than “penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw.  Such is man, and so must he be understood by those who would lead him.”  In order to “win a man to your cause,” Lincoln explained, you must first reach his heart, “the great high road to his reason.”  This, he concluded, was the only road to victory – to that glorious day “when there shall be neither a slave nor a drunkard on the earth.”

It is a hard thing to do, to change people’s minds.  Lincoln was such a great leader and was able to get so much done, precisely because he had empathy, the ability to put himself in other people’s shoes, even those he vehemently disagreed with.

Politics is a tricky thing, because you need people that are going to tell the truth no matter who it offends, to get the ball rolling a lot of the times.  Yet you also need people that can reach out and change people’s minds.  It’s a hard thing to know when to do what.

In George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, the second half of the book is his argument for socialism.  However, it is also a diatribe against socialists, because he feels that they are going about their cause completely wrong.  Even though he agrees with them politically, he feels that most of the socialists of that time are wrong in the way they approach people.  Orwell spent a lot of time with the working class in England, especially in the mining towns.  Orwell felt that if you wanted to bring the common man over to the cause of socialism you couldn’t do things like attack their religion, something that many people need to make sense of the world.  He felt that in order to influence people one needed to reach them where they were at.

I think different forms of communication require different kinds of tools.  If someone is a songwriter, for instance, you only have so many lines to get across an idea.  Music is also based on emotion.  I think because of this it is a form that is better suited to going all in and conveying something with passion.

However, politicians need to do the hard work of actually leading people.  I think they have to have more empathy in their approach.  Having empathy and trying to understand others is not to be confused with being wishy-washy, as so many politicians are.  I think one can take the moral high ground and at the same time extend an olive branch out to those that disagree.  Unfortunately we have very few leaders these days that are able to do both at the same time.

P.S. Although we all know prohibition was a nightmare and a mistake, one needs to understand how much people used to drink to understand, in part, the temperance movement.  Read up on it as it is a pretty good laugh.  I was just reading a passage in the above book where Senators in our government were described as being, “beastly drunk.”

Inequality, Slavery, and Declining Quality of Life

I have never found it hard to believe that as inequality in wealth grows, the general quality of life for everyone, rich and poor inversely declines.  Today I was reading Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin and read a comparison between North and South, during slavery.  This part of the book was about William Henry Seward,  who was in Lincoln’s cabinet.  I should mention that Seward had no ill feelings for the South before his trip, and was actually looking forward to traveling, only to cut his trip short:

At the time of their journey,  three decades of immigration,  commercial enterprise, and industrial production had invigorated Northern society,  creating thriving cities and towns.  The historian Kenneth Stampp well describes how the North of this period “teemed with bustling, restless men and women who believed passionately in ‘progress’ and equated it with growth and change;  the air was filled with excitement of intellectual ferment and with the schemes of entrepreneurs;  and the land was honeycombed with societies aiming at nothing less than the total reform of mankind. “

Yet, crossing into Virginia, the Sewards entered a world virtually unchanged since 1800.  “We no longer passed frequent farm-houses,  taverns, and shops,” Henry wrote as the family carriage wound its way through Virginia’s Allegheny Mountains, “but our rough road conducted us…[past] low log-huts, the habitations of slaves.”  They rarely encountered other travelers, finding instead “a waste, broken tract of land, with here and there and old decaying habitation.”  Seward lamented:  “How deeply the curse of slavery is set upon this venerated and storied region of the old dominion.  Of all the countries I have seen France only whose energies have for forty years been expended in war and whose population has been more decimated by the sword is as much decayed as Virginia.”

I wanted to use this as an example as slavery is as unequal an economic system as one can have.  However, at this point in our history the inequality between rich and poor is growing.  Despite this, rich people,  as well as poor obviously, are very uneasy.  Our country is becoming less of a harmonious community. 

Meanwhile, being in Australia, which certainly has its own problems, one notices how at least in the city, where more people make a living wage and are taken care of by a larger social safety net than in the US, that the quality of life is quite high.  Despite walking for about five hours through various parts of the city yesterday, I saw not one homeless person. 

This is obviously a personal observation, but history and data seem to back it up.  The country does best overall economically when there is a thriving middle class that can purchase goods.  Why so many can’t seem to grasp this I don’t understand.