Thursday, March 5, 2020

Team of Rivals

I have been meaning to learn more about the revered Abraham Lincoln, and I found a great book to do it with. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln takes you through the lives of Honest Abe and his allies/rivals as they grew up, took power and eventually presided over a civil war.

Lincoln was a remarkable person. Personal slights appeared to have no effect on him; he was able to avoid grudges and act only in a manner that would produce positive results for him in the future. Rivals would seek (often successfully) to screw him over, but he would find ways to make them allies in the end.

Usually I get bored during biographies when the reader learns about the subject as a child growing up. But things in the mid-1800's were so different from today that I found Lincoln's early life very interesting. For example, while I might quibble with parts of today's education system, I'm certainly glad that primary school is no longer about learning Latin and memorizing The Bible!

What was also remarkable about those days was how partisan the press was. Many media companies are partisan today too, but it seemed to be at another level back then. (For example, when a senator on the senate floor was bludgeoned by an opposing politician, many partisan newspapers applauded the move!) Unfortunately, this is one of the routes by which money played (and continues to play, in my opinion) an out-sized role in American politics.

I also learned a lot more about the US Civil War. I originally came from the view that it was simply about slavery, but it was more complicated than that. Though slavery was the key issue that led to the secession of some southern US states, it was the legality of secession that was the real issue. Can a state decide to leave a country? It's an interesting question that comes up from time to time in Canada, where Quebec takes a run at separation every few years. Should an attempt at separation be met by a civil war? These are questions that sadly the book did not cover, instead appearing to take for granted that a unified country is/was worth killing/dying for. Before the war, Lincoln was actually fine with slavery continuing as it was in the southern states; it was part of the US Constitution, and Lincoln was a believer in following that document.

It is fascinating how much of this time period can be reconstructed by the primitive records of the time. Letters between family/friends of the period appear to be invaluable in figuring out the thoughts of the various players; it's amazing how those personal letters survived.

It was also interesting how politicians communicated with the masses. Without tv, let alone tweets, politicians communicated mostly through speeches that were transcribed and distributed in newspapers. It's a wonder to think about how the technology of the time likely strongly affects which politicians get chosen to lead and which end up forgotten.

The biggest downside to the book is its length. It clocked in north of one thousand pages and took me almost a month to read, whereas I usually prefer to start and finish a book in the same week. But the historical significance of the events of the time made it a worthwhile experience for me nonetheless, and I highly recommend the book to anyone who may feel the same way.

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