I want to see the movie Lincoln so I read the book first. The movie is based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 Team of Rivals—a biography not only of Lincoln but also his brilliant, contentious cabinet.
I know most of my favorite scenes won’t make it into the movie because the film is about a very small slice of Lincoln’s story, his efforts to get the 13th Amendment passed, abolishing slavery. I can’t wait to see two of my favorite actors—Daniel Day Lewis and David Strathairn—bring Lincoln and his secretary of state, William H. Seward, to life. But the movie should make you want to read Goodwin’s book. It is a great read and a revelation of the dynamics at play in that fateful time in our nation’s history.
There are many resonances with today. We could really use a Lincoln just now—a wise, canny, principled reconciler; a master at maneuvering the rift between factions and stitching them together; a genius of political timing; a big-hearted changer of minds. I know President Obama loves Goodwin’s book and reading it gave me a better idea of what Obama is trying to do. But, alas, there will never be another Lincoln. For one thing, I don’t think Obama has a great sense of humor. He takes himself very seriously. A good dose of Lyndon Johnson’s arm-twisting, storytelling skills would help.
In fact, Lincoln seems like an amalgam of the best qualities of some 20th Century presidents: FDR’s ability to rise to the occasion, LBJ’s political skills, Jimmy Carter’s generous spirit, Bill Clinton’s charm, Barack Obama’s intellect. Notice I’ve matched the first Republican president up with more recent Democrats. Goodwin agrees that if Lincoln were alive today he would be a Democrat. The parties have totally flipped. But Republicans have every reason to be proud of Lincoln.
One thing that has always bothered me about Lincoln is how such a great humanitarian could have presided over the slaughter of more Americans than have died in all wars before or since, combined. Okay, I’m a pacifist and I don’t believe in war at all, but even by the measure of “just” war, the Civil War was a disaster of disproportionate brutality.
Clearly, Lincoln believed he had no choice. I am not in a position to judge that. It seemed like all parties were marching in their own, long-since-laid tracks to confrontation. But I was struck in this reading by the sense that Lincoln made of it all as the war was drawing to a close.
In his Second Inaugural address, Goodwin points out, “The president suggested that God had given ‘to both North and South, this terrible war’ as a punishment for their shared sin of slavery.”
Saying God punishes people through natural disasters is one thing. But saying that God uses war, which is totally engineered by humans, as an instrument of punishment seems like stretching a point, laying responsibility in the wrong quarter.
Here is how Lincoln makes the case:
“Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue [I still cringe at this] until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”
Thus, he does not absolve humanity—himself included—of responsibility for setting the machinery of war in motion. It is, in fact, a reaping of what we have sown, and, at the same time, a terrible divine justice from which no one is exempt. It is us and it is God.
And if this is true, there is a lesson for us in these times as the hurricanes wreak havoc on our coasts, the droughts and floods devastate, the winters warm and the springs freeze. We are reaping what we have sown. We must do what we can to turn it around. But no one is exempt. It is us and it is God.