Tuesday, January 21, 2014

And you think politics are dirty now?

I just finished reading Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, the book by Doris Kearns Goodwin that was supposedly the basis of the movie Lincoln. I haven't seen the movie, but I'm now tempted to add it to my Netflix queue. If it's at all faithful to the historic record the backstabbing and double dealing will make any gangster flick pale in comparison. People think political bickering is bad now. They should take a close look at the Civil War era. Lincoln didn't just have to deal with the rebellious secessionists in the South and their sympathizers in the North; he also had to try to keep his cabinet members from constantly trying to undercut each other, handing confidential documents over to the press, and plotting how to shove Abe out of the way in the next presidential election.

Today our Democratic president has to deal with Republicans who are borderline rude or racist; back in the 1860s Lincoln had the fun of dealing with members of his own party, indeed, his own cabinet officials, who openly referred to him as "that Ape" and told anyone who would listen that the North could not win the war because Lincoln was incompetent. The bizarre part is that these guys, like Salmon Chase, Lincoln's Secretary of the Treasury for almost four full years, worked hard at doing their respective jobs and they did them really well. However, they would still spend their free time doing everything they could to undermine the administration they were a part of. Chase was the worst -- he spent the entire time he was Treasury Secretary busily figuring out ways to undercut the President and improve his own chances to be the Republican nominee in 1864 -- but other members of the Cabinet were almost as bad. It took William Seward almost a full year to realize that his initial impressions of Lincoln were totally wrong and for Seward to swing around to being an ardent supporter and one of Lincoln's closest friends.

The other cabinet members, with the exception of Chase (a man whose ego apparently knew no bounds), also came to appreciate Lincoln's intelligence and political savvy, but even then they were unable to resist fighting among themselves. The Cabinet split between the radicals who wanted slavery utterly obliterated and every Southern rebel ground into dust and conservatives who wanted (even after some of the bloodiest battles of the war) to do the bare minimum necessary to bring hostilities to a close. Even after the Thirteenth Amendment had been introduced in Congress, there were still conservatives who hoped to placate the South by allowing slavery to remain legal in the secessionist states. This was despite the Emancipation Proclamation; conservatives actually argued that it would be possible to re-enslave blacks who had been freed by the proclamation.

It wasn't just the Cabinet either, of course. There were members of Congress who openly snubbed Lincoln, and members of the military who mocked him. One of the things I found it hardest to understand (and, to be honest, I still don't) is why Lincoln kept George McClellan in command of the Army of the Potomac for as long as he did. I knew before reading Team of Rivals that McClellan was pretty useless militarily -- he sat on his ass and let Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia retreat after the Battle of Antietam. Both sides suffered massive troop losses, but McClellan had fresh troops in reserve; Lee did not. By all accounts, if McClellan could have avoided fighting at Antietam at all, he would have. He was notorious in the 1860s for loving parades and drills and looking good in a uniform while being incredibly reluctant to ever risk his self or his troops in an actual battle. Whenever he was pressed to engage the enemy, he would insist that military intelligence showed that the Union forces were vastly outnumbered. He couldn't risk an engagement until the Army had more men trained. Other sources would indicate that the Confederates had already withdrawn or had only a handful of troops; McClellan would insist the rebels were dug in with massive artillery emplacements and thousands of infantry men.

But that's not the main reason I wondered why Lincoln didn't get rid of McClellan. What had me baffled was Lincoln tolerating McClellan's open rudeness towards Lincoln himself. Lincoln would walk to McClellan's headquarters to be briefed by him on the war's progress, and McClellan would keep Lincoln waiting for hours or refuse to meet with him at all. Even after the second battle of Manassas, which was lost because McClellan disobeyed a direct order to move his troops into position to reinforce General Pope's Union forces, it took several weeks for Lincoln to finally remove McClellan from command.
General George McClellan

Nonetheless, because he looked good in a uniform and the troops admired him, the American people saw McClellan as a hero. Even after being booted from command for something that would merit a court martial today (and did then, too), McClellan was able to roam around the northern states, badmouthing Lincoln and the Republican party at every opportunity while preparing to run for President as a Democrat in 1864. Obviously, McClellan was as incompetent as a politician as he was as a general, although he did succeed in getting elected governor of New Jersey in the 1870s. (Total digression: why was the hand inside the uniform jacket such a popular pose in the 19th century? Were military suspenders inadequate?)

The dirty politics weren't just aimed at Lincoln himself. Just like today, except maybe worse, Lincoln's detractors felt free to go after the First Lady, too. She was castigated in the press for spending too much money when she redecorated the White House, she was slammed as the 19th century equivalent of a shopaholic for her personal spending sprees, and she was almost universally disliked because of her volatile personality. Given that Lincoln's own secretaries privately referred to Mary Lincoln as the Hellcat it's not particularly surprising the press picked up on her flaws pretty quickly. Still, in more recent times, the polite convention is that the First Lady should be treated civilly: minimal name calling and only muted criticism. Not everyone abides by that unspoken rule, but in general the mainstream media are nice.

There are exceptions -- Nancy Reagan was criticized for spending too much on the White House china, Hillary Clinton got slammed for meddling in policy instead of picking a nice innocuous good cause, and Michelle Obama has come under fire for suggesting children be fed healthy food instead of garbage -- but even those criticisms are muted compared to the language used in the 1860s. Today scholars argue about whether or not Mary Todd Lincoln might have suffered from bipolar disorder; Kearns Goodwin speculates that it a combination of severe migraines aggravated by a carriage accident and the deaths of two of her children that led to Mary's mental instability. Her son Willie's death from typhoid hit her particularly hard. Back in the 1860s, however, her critics just assumed the woman was a bitch, although they would have used more elaborate terms in print. (Another digression: going by the trailers I saw for the movie and the photos in the book, casting Sally Field as Mary Lincoln in the movie Lincoln was dead on in terms of physical resemblance. Before she got worn down by age, stress, and grief, Mary Lincoln was cute, one of those perky looking women who would have made a good Gidget.)

One thing this book does well is paint a clear picture of how different politics were 150 years ago compared with today's practices. Presidential campaigns, for example, were run through proxies. The would-be candidate never came right out and said "Vote for me." Instead, he would do speaking tours where the speeches would focus on the important issues of the time, but there would never be a direct suggestion that the speaker himself was the solution to the problems. The people introducing him might allude to future elections and they would talk him up when he wasn't around, but the presidential candidate himself supposedly remained above the fray. It was considered unseemly to appear too interested in public in one's own success. Candidates didn't even attend political conventions. Both times Lincoln was nominated, he was many miles away from the convention hall. It didn't matter how fervently a candidate wanted to be elected, they all practiced a polite kabuki in which they disavowed publicly their interest in elective office.

Candidates for lower office might engage more publicly -- the famous Lincoln-Douglass debates were part of the 1858 Senate campaign in Illinois -- but the President was supposed to be a disinterested statesman. It was a strange polite fiction, given that at the same time the candidates' minions would be working the back channels like crazy, making promises of future political patronage and opportunities for graft, and pulling every string they could. Lincoln's political genius lay in being able to tell his minions what promises to make and which to obfuscate. He knew going into the 1860 Republican convention that he was no one's first choice, but with the proper groundwork, he could become everyone's second -- and if none of the better known candidates prevailed, he'd be the fallback. It worked, although once the war broke out, he probably regretted it.

Overall verdict on the book? It's well worth reading, although it's not a fast or easy read. The book is dense, over 800 pages when you include the bibliography and notes. Even in paperback, it was heavy enough that I felt like I was doing arm curls every time I hefted the thing. Definitely not a beach read, but great for the middle of the winter when curling up in a warm corner for a prolonged period of time is looking good.


  1. Benefit of the e-readers is that watch books weighs the same!

    Glad to hear you like the book - I hope someday to have time to curl up with long books...

  2. The downside of e-readers is you have to pay for the books. Most of what I read comes from the local public library.

  3. I wonder when it will all topple.


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