LINCOLN-NARROW FOCUS-TIMELY MESSAGE

Gordon’s Good Reads does not make a practice of reviewing movies but when a film is based upon a book that I have enjoyed, written by an author in whom I have the highest regard, I broaden my license. Doris Kerns Goodwin is among the country’s most respected presidential historians. Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals, upon which the movie Lincoln is loosely based, falls into the category of an intimate study not only of Lincoln but also of those with whom he surrounded himself in his cabinet.

images

I read the Goodwin book and also the early reviews of the movie Lincoln so I had some idea of what to expect before seeing the picture. I understand that the movie was about Lincoln’s political genius but I left the theater wondering what impression anyone who had not read Team of Rivals would have come away with. They certainly saw an excellent performance by Daniel-Day Lewis and learned how the Thirteenth Amendment was passed, but was this the Lincoln they expected to see? Did the movie leave too narrow an impression for such a broad title? I think so.

Lincoln is depicted as a brilliant politician pursuing whatever tactics necessary to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery. Missing from Lincoln was the remarkable story of the end of the Whig Party and the evolution of the anti-slavery Republican Party. Goodwin’s book fills in the important detail that positioned Lincoln for the 1860 presidential nomination including the Lincoln-Douglas debates of the 1858 senatorial campaign and Lincoln’s Cooper Union address in New York  in 1860. Equal to Lincoln’s brilliant political strategy in getting the Thirteenth Amendment passed was the fact that he won the Republican nomination by defeating the heir apparent, William Seward, which laid the basis for Lincoln bringing all of his challengers for the presidential nomination into his cabinet. The Goodwin book details how the interaction of this disparate group influenced Lincoln’s conduct of the Civil War. The film’s short clips of Lincoln viewing battlefields and Lee’s surrender did little to place the enormity of the Lincoln presidency and his team of rivals in context.

images-1

There is no doubt that Daniel Day-Lewis is on track for a Best Actor nomination and that the film will be among the nominees for Best Picture but the title Lincoln was a huge reach and likely a disappointment for many. Would you title a movie The Civil War and only tell the story of Gettysburg?  On the other hand, if Spielberg had instead titled the movie The Passing of the Thirteenth Amendment, would anyone have come? I get it. It will take a five-part Ken Burns PBS Series titled Lincoln to fill this history buff’s canvas.

One thing for sure, the film has provoked a great deal of talk from the pundits about a president’s need to be very much a politician in order to attain lofty goals.  As the nation again approaches the edge of the partisan fiscal cliff the timing of the release of the film and renewed interest in Team of Rivals could not be better! Maybe the narrow focus of the movie is a good thing after all!  Required congressional viewing?

 

 

THE MAN WHO SAVED THE UNION-ULYSSES GRANT IN WAR AND PEACE

In the excitement of  the release of  the Steven Spielberg  movie Lincoln, I have coincidentally just completed H.W. Brands’ The Man Who Saved The Union , Ulysses Grant in War and Peace.  Grant, not Lincoln, the man who saved the union?  On the surface, the book’s title is a dichotomy of  enormous proportion. In reality, Grant accomplished much of Lincoln’s vision and the movie Lincoln  should encourage renewed interest in the presidency of Ulysses Grant.

Historian Brands takes nothing away from the great emancipator. To the contrary, he highlights Lincoln’s wisdom in plucking Grant from the western theater of the Civil War and rapidly promoting him to command all Union forces.  Brands forcefully makes the case for Lincoln’s stubborn confidence in General Grant amid repeated periods of doubt, chaos and defeat. Following the war, Lincoln relied on General Grant to carry out the challenge of reconstruction it’s the South including its return to civil order.

Spielberg’s  Lincoln, is based in part of Doris Kerns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals.  Brands’ biography of Grant portrays how together, two of the greatest figures in American history, Lincoln and Grant, crafted an outcome that did indeed preserve the union. Ironically, through an act of fate, it was the hand-picked military general who carried out the brilliant politicians foresight. The movie Lincoln, and the books Team of Rivals and The Man Who Saved The Union embrace the same cast of historical figures.  Following a biographical review of Grant’s early and then wartime years, Brands continues his narrative after Lincoln’s assassination and the debacle of Andrew Johnson’s ascension to the presidency, leading to Grant’s election as president.

Brands leaves no doubt that General Grant, as the overseer of reconstruction while Johnson was president, used every tool within his power as commanding general, to carry out Lincoln’s philosophy toward bringing the rebel states back into the union. Grant’s zeal was equal to Lincoln’s regarding equality and the rights of full-citizenship for the recently emancipated slaves, while at the same time finding the way to keep the Southern States in The Union.   Lincoln ‘s death and the Johnson presidency made the task nearly impossible.  It was during this period that Grant came to fully understand and embrace Lincoln’s intellect which laid the foundation  for a Grant presidency that would bring into fruition Lincoln’s dream.

General Ulysses Grant, the man who disavowed politics and  as General in Chief refused an office in Washington, casts aside his disdain for public office and accepts the nomination of the Republican Party for President of the United States. It is Grant who carries forth the Lincoln legacy by navigating  passage of the, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution through a bitterly divided congress.  In order, these amendments granted equal citizenship under the U.S. Constitution and created the voting rights act.  Brands details Grant’s deft handling of reconstruction during his two terms in the White House utilizing diplomacy and the military to neutralize the Klu Klux Clan and other White Citizens Organizations.  You see in Grant’s ability do deal with the disparate forces in congress much of the same political savvy wielded  by Lyndon Johnson over a half century later!

I caution readers not to look here for a battlefield  history of the Civil War although there is substantial detail on the capture by Grant of Fort Donelson and Fort Henry in the west and the epic battle at Spotsylvania in Virginia.  While the military overview of the war is complete, this book is mainly about Grant, the man, the general and the president.  You will find many of Lincoln’s Team of Rivals still in play while Grant begins his ascendency and assumes the presidency.

Team of Rivals by Doris Kerns Goodwin is an obvious read before seeing Lincoln.  The Man Who Saved The Union by H.W. Brands is a must sequel.  Brands is also the author of the great FDR biography Traitor to his Class.

A Surprise President’s Week Finale. GRANT!

It would have been easy to wrap up my President’s  week blog with a most deserving biography, Truman by David McCullough. Few could question that salute. However,  Jean Edward Smith author of GRANT  will get the honor of closing out President’s Week.  Smith’s work is a remarkable eye opener and a re-evaluation of  General in Chief Grant and President Grant. 

 Lovers of history understand that time often serves former presidents better than the present.  Then again, history is not a science but rather observations of mortals.  Smith’s full-scale biography of Grant sheds tremendous perspective regarding  his accomplishments on the battlefield and as the first two term president since Andrew Jackson. The detailed study of Grant’s childhood and early life provide the framework for this great piece of historical writing.

I must admit that before tackling Grant I had somewhat of a dim view of his presidency based  in great part upon popular conceptions.  What Jean Edward Smith accomplished so well in this biography was to reconcile many of these popular views with the facts. As just one example, few would remember that following the disastrous Andrew Johnson term after Lincoln’s assassination, Grant did more to help Reconstruction than anyone and the same was true for his efforts to enforce constitutional freedoms to the newly freed slaves as American  Citizens.  In retrospect, Grant’s accomplishments as president are outlined as remarkable as his on the battlefield!

If you love American History,  you will do yourself a great favor  by heading for the library or Amazon. Not only is GRANT  the story of his presidency but it is a battle by battle description of Grant’s  skilful leadership during the Civil War. Jean Edward Smith is a scholar and you will come away from his book  with a scholarly view of Grant at this important time and place in American History.