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Thursday, Feb. 9, 2006 08:24 am

Melancholy genius

Recent Lincoln books look inside his Cabinet and his head

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Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln By Doris Kearns Goodwin, Simon & Schuster, 2005, 944 pp., $35
With Abraham Lincoln’s 197th birthday just around the corner, it’s worth taking a look at two noteworthy recent books about our 16th president. The authors of both will be in Springfield this weekend to take part in the Abraham Lincoln Association’s programs for the day. Doris Kearns Goodwin delves into the Lincoln field with Team of Rivals. She presents the Lincoln presidency as a stupendous juggling act, with cabinet members all a-tumble and with Lincoln as the Great Juggler of men and events. Does it work? Sure. Here we get a good look at the lives of William H. Seward and Salmon P. Chase — two very different but ambitious men who get yoked on the Lincoln team. Goodwin adds further insight into Edwin M. Stanton, bespectacled secretary of war, and Attorney General Edward Bates. Other cabinet members get only modest mention throughout the book’s corpus. (And corpus it is. This is a big doorstop of a book. A good editor would’ve mercilessly cut out 200 or so pages and saved us wear and tear.) We see Lincoln as a political genius. He is able to strategize and secure the Republican nomination through hard work just before the party’s national convention in Chicago. The book is especially noteworthy for its examination of Seward, the man who was “supposed” to be president in 1860. After his victory and before he leaves Springfield to be inaugurated, Lincoln quietly assembles a cabinet comprising dissonant parts, political rivals who, for the most part, underestimate him. His administration will be composed of individuals of varying political beliefs, reflecting the broad spectrum of views within the nascent Republican Party of that era, as well a few Democrats. That helps give Lincoln a claim to broader support than his 40 percent of the popular vote would have naturally granted him. Much has been made about Abraham Lincoln’s melancholy. His contemporaries also recognized this trait. In Lincoln’s Melancholy, Joshua Wolf Shenk raises several thoughtful questions: Given Lincoln’s tendency toward sadness, how was he so successful? How did he handle it? How did it affect his political career? Shenk provides a close analysis of Lincoln’s two major breakdowns: his agony over Ann Rutledge and his agony over Mary Todd. He shows how often Lincoln got bust in the dust, how often he lost, and how he could climb back out of the dirt to fight again. First, folks back then had a different take on melancholy and depression. It was sometimes seen as a mark of genius, of great reflectiveness. Next, oddly enough, this drew people, feeling that they should help him in some way, to Lincoln. Finally, Lincoln himself consciously understood the problem and relied on humor to get himself through. Of course, his humor also attracted people to him and became his most valued political asset. Moreover, Shenk asserts that Lincoln created a kind of realistic worldview because of his melancholy. This realism became invaluable to Lincoln in prosecuting the war and in dealing with its emotional burden. Shenk’s Lincoln is a self-made creature who deals with mental weakness by recognizing it, then finding ways to deal with it. His cures? Hard work and humor. With these “anti-depressants” he manages his political losses, his angst over marriage, the deaths of his children, and the brutal realities of the Civil War.
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