Team of Rivals

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln is an excellent biography. As someone without a deep knowledge of American history, it was a very readable account that followed the main characters – and showed them as individuals – while tracking some of the broader social movements and context.

Team of Rivals is of course the piece that served as an inspiration for Obama. Whether he’s lived up to his own stated inspiration is for others to judge. But it’s clearly a piece that was buoyed by his recommendation, and that deals with historical questions that are still pertinent and challenging today. Team of Rivals also seems to have inspired the Spielberg movie to some extent; but it goes a lot farther.

Personally, I found it fascinating. I’d never read anything about his ascendency to the presidency. So the story of the nail-biting finish at the Republican convention, with Lincoln scraping through the middle, is a remarkable read.

Kearns also does an excellent job outlining the competing motivations in Lincoln’s rivals’ characters. Seward is the consummate politician, but also one who’s taken a principled stand. Bates fades from the scene, and lives what seems to be a graceful retirement. Chase, despite Lincoln’s magnanimity, continues to scramble after an ever less likely presidential tenure.

Kearns also paints the broader scene. She talks about the economic interests to some extent, and how there was a deep conflict between particular Northern and Southern interests. She shows how Chase and Seward deployed different rhetorical devices, reframing the debate; while Lincoln used much simpler statements, and was less prone to reshaping the debate, preferring to state simply what he thought public opinion had come to reflect.

Drawing on primary sources lets Kearns show us the debates that were rending the nation, splitting sometimes even families down the middle. She expresses disagreement within the Seward family:

“But suppose, for one moment,” he later explained, “the Republic destroyed. With it is bound up not alone the destiny of a race, but the best hopes of all mankind. With its overthrow the sun of liberty, like the Hebrew dial, would be set back indefinitely. The magnitude of such a calamity is beyond our calculation. The salvation of the nation is, then, of vastly more consequence than the destruction of slavery.” 

Frances profoundly disagreed with this balancing equation, asserting there could be no “truly republican” institutions with slavery intact – “they are incompatible.” 

Kearns shows us Lincoln as the tactical politician. Organising, judging public opinion, leaking material to the press to lay the groundwork for an announcement, and implying (but carefully not writing down) instructions that votes for a Constitutional amendment will be well reward; here is Lincoln not as master statesman but as political street fighter, willing to do what is needed to get things done.

But more importantly, Kearns’ key hypothesis is of Lincoln as the great statesman. In part, that means reflecting on his wisdom, humility and patience. This is the President who writes an angry letter but leaves it unsent and unsigned, holding himself back from sending rash words in anger.

At times, this is a moving and profound portrait, of a great man, who ably steered his country through some of the greatest challenges it has ever faced. At others, it can feel a little easy. Simply describing how events played out well, and then saying that it was Lincoln’s statesmanly ability that lead him to make perfect moves, is not a descriptive hypothesis. Telling instead a story of Lincoln’s personality, and how he grew in the role, would have been more persuasive. In fact, identifying mistakes he’d made, would have shown how a trait that applied well in one situation, was less positive in another.

But overall, this is still a masterful piece. It’s an excellent piece of history, and an excellent biography. Well worth the read.

Notes and quotes

  • His experience taught him what every party boss has understood through the ages: the practical machinery of the party organization – the distribution of ballots, the checklists, the rounding of up of voters – was as crucial as the ideology laid out in the platform. 
  • When first running for election (before his presidential nomination), Lincoln: likened his politics to an “old womans dance” – “Short & Sweet”. He stood for three simple ideas: a national bank, a protective tariff, and a system for internal improvements. 
  • Kearns quotes another (presumably a biographer) for Lincoln’s view of history: Like the ancient Greeks, Lincoln seemed to believe that “ideas of a person’s worth are tied to the way others, both contemporaries and future generations, perceive him.” 
  • Lincoln’s ability to win the respect of others, to earn their trust and even devotion, would prove essential in his rise to power. There was something mysterious in his persona that led countless men, even old adversaries, to feel bound to him in admiration. 
  • Even a full decade later, during his debates with Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln would maintain that he had never been in favor “of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry.” 
  • For many more Northeners, the expansion of slavery into the territories threatened the triumph of the free labor movement. Events of the 1850s would put these “antagonistical elements” on a collision course. 
  • A brilliant woman, Frances [Seward] once speculated whether the “various nervous afflictions & morbid habits of thought” that plagued so many women she knew had their origin in the frustrations of an educated woman’s life in the mid-nineteenth century. 
  • In order to make his argument, Lincoln decided to begin with nothing less than an account of our common history, the powerful narrative of how slavery grew with our country, how its growth and expansion had been carefully contained by the founding fathers, and how on this fall night in 1854 the great story they were being told – the story of the Union – had come to such an impasse that the exemplary meaning, indeed the continued existence of the story, hung in the balance. 
  • A Southern member of Congress physically attacked an abolitionist –
  • Kearns acknowledges the racism of her subjects, but isn’t willing to condemn them: These statements of Seward and Chase, coming from the leaders of the antislavery cause, reveal that racism, the belief in white supremacy, was deeply embedded in the entire country. It is only in this context that the statements of Lincoln and his contemporaries can be judged. 
  • Kearns notes the tactical elements of the politics – in securing a nomination in Chicago, Lincoln was a step ahead of his rivals.
  • Lincoln had long believed, as we have seen, that “with public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed”. 

Ip Man

At one level, the Ip Man series is a beautifully choreographed and filmed set of martial arts movies. It takes as its story the life of Ip Man / Yip Man, a legendary teacher who trained Bruce Lee.

Over the course of three movies, Ip Man survives the Japanese invasion of China, establishes himself in Hong Kong, and deals with the threats to his martial arts school in Hong Kong.

But even as someone without a deep understanding of contemporary Chinese cinema, it was interesting to see the nationalism expressed through a re-appropriation of different points in history.

There’s at least one source to suggest that Ip Man went to Hong Kong as a result of the communist take over in China. That’s gently glossed over in the movies, however. In the recreated narrative, Ip Man’s struggles are always against foreign oppressors. Japanese invaders, corrupt British cops in Hong Kong, and finally Mike Tyson all serve as stand-ins for the oppression of China by foreign powers. Ip Man’s flying fists defeat them all.

Articles worth reading

Life’s been a little busy recently. I’ve read a few things and meant to note them down, but haven’t had a chance till now. So, in no particular order:

James Fallows’ Trump Time Capsules

It’s been a bizarre, and disappointing stretch in U.S. politics. Fallows’ Time Capsules feel re-assuring because of the sanity of his writing. He writes from the explicit viewpoint that what is happening is fundamentally different from what has come before. That in itself is re-assuring, and provides a useful counterpoint to a series of headline that can often feel like a bad acid drip. Also welcome is his consistent willingness to highlight false equivalence.

Worth reading if you want to keep on top of major US political developments without feeling your sanity leeching away.

Peter Beinart: The death of ‘He said, she said’ journalism

An interesting reflection on how newspapers are responding to Trump. Credit to those who start from principles to reach a principled conclusion, rather than following a party line. Included that is credit to the Dallas Morning News

Adam Frank, What if evolution bred reality out of us? 

This is an interesting piece, based off the work of Donald Hoffman. What if accurate perception of reality isn’t optimal in evolutionary terms?

The Atlantic, Here’s how NASA think society will collapse

Short answer: Going beyond the environmental carrying capacity, and unequal distribution and consumption of resources. An intriguing topic; NASA’s conclusion seems in line with the Jared Diamond thesis in Collapseand doesn’t match the unusual but less compelling Tainter thesis that it has to do with diminishing marginal returns to social complexity.

Lee Drutman writing in Vox

Lee Drutman is an American political scientist. He’s written some excellent pieces over at Vox. They’re long, but well worth the read. Particularly, they’re great examples of taking theories from an academic literature where they’re well understood, and translating them for a broader audience, with a clear application and insightful analysis.

How race and identity became the central dividing line in American politics is a great read, about exactly what it says it is. Why race and identity will remain the dividing line in American politics for a while to come is a follow-up piece that looks at a slightly larger picture, based more on theory, to argue that unfortunately we’re likely to be in this situation for a while.

The good news, argues Drutman, is that as political coalitions realign, we’re likely to see less polarization.

David Roberts, Why the media will lift Trump up and tear Clinton down

A prescient piece from May argues that the need for a horse-race may drive unequal coverage of the campaigns.


I read the Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons some years ago. They were haunting, though, and some images – particularly of the Shrike – have stayed with me since.

So I was excited to start IliumIt delivers a lot of what Simmons does so well.

There’s a fantastic universe, rich beyond imagination, that he weaves so effortlessly that it serves as a rich background to the tragedy of his characters – and with Simmons it’s invariably a tragedy, or something close. In Ilium, it’s a world where humans have advanced to become god-like through their use of technology, and have recreated the Trojan war on a terraformed Mars, the ‘posts’ (post-humans) watching on high from their home on Mount Olympus.

There’s a rich literary background; from the Illiad references, to extended discussions of Shakespeare and Proust, and a few others thrown in.

There’s a sense of a civilisation collapsing or declining, and the haunting feeling that you’re walking through what was once a metropolis.

Simmons loves a cliff hanger, and he weaves them well, drawing chapters to an end just as the action pivots. It makes for what is for the most part a page-turner, although some of the extended descriptions drag. If you like good space opera, this is well worth it.


Courage and history

My GF and I read and enjoyed To Kill a Mockingbird a while ago (notes here, here and here – final instalment on its way). So as I was reading through Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, it was interesting to see a powerful parallel.

When no one else would, William Seward defended a man who likely had some form of mental challenge, who was accused of killing four people. Goodwin writes:

When the trial opened, no lawyer was willing to take Freeman’s case. The citizens of Auburn had threatened violence against any member of the bar who dared to defend the cold-blooded murderer. When the court asked, “Will anyone defend this man?” a “death-like stillness pervaded the crowded room,” until Seward rose, his voice strong with emotion, and said, “May it please the court, I shall remain counsel for the prisoner until his death!” …

In his summation, he pleaded with the jury not to be influenced by the color of the accused man’s skin. “He is still your brother, and mine … Hold him then to be a man.” … 

“In due time, gentlemen of the jury,”, Seward concluded, “when I shall have paid the debt of nature, my remains will rest here in your midst, with those of my kindred and neighbours. It is very possible they may be unhonored, neglected, spurned! But, perhaps years hence, when the passion and excitement which now agitate this community shall have passed away, some wandering stranger, some lone exile, some Indian, some negro, may erect over them a humble stone, and thereon this epitaph, ‘He was Faithful!'” More than a century afterwards, visitors to Seward’s grave at the Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn would find those very words engraved on his tombstone. 

I’m reminded of something TNC wrote, in Between the world and me:

Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance – no matter how improved – as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children. Our triumphs can never compensate for this. Perhaps our triumphs are not even the point.

Posthumous recognition cannot be the sole reason for Seward’s courage, and cannot validate the suffering of Freeman if he was unjustly abused in the prison system. They were real people, with lives every bit as real as ours. But we can still remember a courageous step.