Monday, March 2, 2009

#51 - "Lincoln" by Richard Carwardine

I'm apparently still on that history kick inspired by Assassination Vacation. And even though these books are kind of dense and sometimes a bit of a slog, I'm learning a ton and finally getting a grasp of some of those important details of our history that I should have learned back in high school. So, Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power (2003) by the Brit, Richard Carwardine, is my latest foray into American History and, although it skips six or seven decades, I felt like it picked up right where Founding Brothers left off: the issue of slavery.

Carwardine follows Abraham Lincoln through his early political career, the Civil War, and his death. The overwhelming issue of the times was slavery: first the bitter fight over the expansion of slavery into new western territories and then the secession of the southern states after the "anti-slavery" Lincoln was elected President. Founding Brothers had discussed a Congress in the 1790's that couldn't even bring up the issue of slavery without the South Carolinians and Georgians defensively shrieking about secession. Now in the 1840's through the 1860's Carwardine paints a portrait of the South getting more defensive and more desperate to keep their way of life in the face of growing antagonism. Although Abraham Lincoln disliked the idea of slavery, when he was elected president, he was perfectly content and conservative enough to respect the Southerners' "property rights." Where he stood firm, however, was in not allowing any expansion of slavery; eventually he expected it to simply die off on its own as an outmoded and negative aspect of the country's history. Lincoln's thinking changed as the war progressesd. His main focus was always first and foremost to save the Union. The Emancipation Proclamation was a pragmatic tool to help him win the war, but when freed slaves started fighting for the Union, they gained more importance in his mind as an essential part of the country.

I couldn't help but wonder what side I would be on in this war. Obviously, I would be against slavery. But I'm also a bit of a pacifist, and at the beginning of the war it was far from clear that the result would be the end of slavery. My first instinct when the South started seceding (with plenty of hindsight and modern morals) was to say, "Fine, go. The less we have to do with you the better. Sure, you're ignoring the will of the majority and breaking up the Union, but it's not worth the bloodshed." And at the beginning of the war it was far from clear that the result would be the end of slavery. But then, would that have really avoided bloodshed? I imagine that the North and South would still have fought over the expansion of their respective countries into the western territories. And even though I first assumed that if the South were left to itself, slavery would still die out relatively quickly because it goes against so many basic norms of human decency, but Apartheid lasted much longer than you would think possible in this day and age. Perhaps slavery was such a violent and entrenched way of life in the South that it required violence to be rid of it. I don't know.

Carwardine delves into an impressive amount of detail when describing Lincoln's political life, and I was impressed by the full picture I received of Lincoln's attitudes and strategies throughout his life. There is not much information about the Civil War or specific battles, however, beyond how a recent loss or win was affecting public opinion and thus Lincoln. There is also almost no information about Lincoln's personal life, which is something I missed but might be better in a different book. Beyond a short description of his poor, early life that later gave him the name of "rail-splitter," there is almost nothing about his early life, his marriage, or his kids. In once sentence, Carwardine mentions an ill-advised duel that embarassed Lincoln and may have hurt his early political career. What!?!? Another duel!?!?! I thought politicians had stopped dueling after Burr and Hamilton?!? But Carwardine never satisfied my impatient curiosity and I had to resort to google to get what is--I assume to be--the real story. I appreciate Carwardine's focus and understanding of the political past, but a little gossip thrown in now and again might have been fun.

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