Tag Archives: Doris Kearns Goodwin

Henry Louis Gates as Filmmaker

99-gatesToday I showed a segment of Henry L. Gates’s “Looking for Lincoln” to my Civil War Memory class.  They enjoyed it and it provides an excellent overview of some of the themes that will be explored in this last full week of classes before the trimester ends.  We looked specifically at the segments on emancipation and race.  Gates spends time interviewing both David Blight and Doris Kearns Goodwin.  Throughout Gates proceeds as if he is on a personal journey to better understand the history of Lincoln as well as the evolution of Lincoln mythology.  In a conversation with Goodwin, Gates suggests that his search has left him disillusioned and disappointed to learn that Lincoln harbored racist views or that the impetus for the Emancipation Proclamation was not borne of pure motives, but political expediency and military necessity.  In a charming little give and take Goodwin encourages “Skip” not to blame Lincoln for the conflict between history and mythology, but to try to reconcile the two. Goodwin hopes that out of conflict will come empathy for Lincoln and a more sophisticated understanding of his life within the context of the war and the mid-nineteenth century generally.

At one point one of my students wondered out loud whether Gates was really confused about Lincoln.  I soon realized that he was inquiring how a professional historian whose area of expertise is race relations and the nineteeth century could be confused about Lincoln.  It’s an excellent question.  After all, Gates is currently the director of the W.E.B. Dubois Center of African and African American Research at Harvard University.  Of course, Gates is not confused about his subject.  I tend to think that Gates is modeling the kind of journey that he likely took when studying this subject seriously for the first time and one that he hopes others will take as well.   His interviews with professional historians pit him as the outsider who is trying to better understand Lincoln; this comes out clearly in the dinner table scenes with Harold Holzer, James Horton, and David Blight.  There was nothing said over dinner that Gates didn’t already know, but the viewer is left with the impression that this is just another step in his journey to better understand Lincoln.  In proceeding in this way Gates entices his viewer to join him on this journey.  It also works to collapse the distinction between the academic and the neophyte.

All in all I think this is an entertaining approach to the history documentary without having to sacrifice content and scholarship.

 

Obama and Civil War Memory

A few months ago I speculated on how an Obama victory might affect how we remember our Civil War.  I suggested that the election of our first black president (regardless of political affiliation) would present us with an opportunity to remember and commemorate aspects of the war that have traditionally been downplayed, if not ignored entirely.  Obama himself has encouraged this by voicing his admiration for Doris K. Goodwin’s book, along with a recent visit to the Lincoln Memorial, and plans to follow part of the route that Lincoln took in March 1861.  Now we hear that reenactors with the 54th Massachusetts will march in the inaugural parade.  Millions of Americans will learn about the history and significance of these soldiers without any of the distraction associated with so-called black Confederates (Confederate slaves).  I couldn’t be happier for the members of the units who will take part because I know first hand what it means to them.

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The Use and Abuse of Popular History – Goodwin Style

Thanks to James Oakes, Matthew Pinsker, and Brian Dirck for attempting to apply the breaks to the overused and abused Goodwinian meme, “Team of Rivals.”

Oakes: For one thing, there was nothing new in what Lincoln did. By tradition, presidents-elect reserved a cabinet position, often secretary of state, for the leading rival in their party. John Quincy Adams inaugurated the practice by appointing one of his presidential rivals, Henry Clay, to that post….Nor is it quite correct to say that Lincoln installed his “enemies” in the cabinet. Rivals for his own party’s nomination are not the same thing as political “enemies.” It would have been inconceivable, for example, for Lincoln to offer a cabinet appointment to his Democratic opponent, Stephen Douglas.

Pinsker: Over the years, it has become easy to forget that hard edge and the once bad times that nearly destroyed a president. Lincoln’s Cabinet was no team. His rivals proved to be uneven as subordinates. Some were capable despite their personal disloyalty, yet others were simply disastrous.

Dirck: Obama simply faces an entirely different situation in making his cabinet appointments–or really, in filling any government post. The reason Lincoln could get away with appointing his rivals–indeed, the reason he had little choice in the matter–lay in his party’s newness. The Republican Party did not as yet host big, powerful, countervailing ideological and political organizations, analagous to the Clinton wing of the modern Democratic Party. It was, in 1860 at least, largely a collection of individuals (like Seward) who certainly had their followers and their factions, but no real political base, rooted in the patronage…

We are being barraged by various commentators and so-called authorities who are either reflecting on or pushing Barack Obama to follow in the footsteps of Abraham Lincoln in choosing a cabinet. Well, not quite. They are actually utilizing an interpretive theme that dominates Doris Kearns Goodwin’s best-selling book, Team of Rivals, which argues that Lincoln intentionally chose cabinet members who would both reflect very different political positions and challenge his policies. Almost no one is questioning whether this accurately reflects Lincoln’s approach, whether it was unusual, or whether it makes any sense at all in comparing our own political climate and party organization with the 1860s. No doubt, the pervasiveness of this line of thought is in part the result of Obama’s own continual references to the sixteenth president as well as his best-known speeches.

I read Goodwin’s book when it was first published. Admittedly, I found it difficult to read without reflecting on the Bush Administration’s approach to internal cabinet dissent. Indeed, at times I had the impression that Goodwin was writing with Bush clearly in mind and yet I hesitate from impugning her work as a product of unrestrained presentism. It’s no surprise that a book about Lincoln written throughout the two terms of one of our most controversial presidents, and offering a model for a very different approach to presidential leadership, would be embraced. All history is written through the lens of contemporary politics and culture, but that does not necessarily imply that historical studies are relegated to the realm of relativism. Goodwin’s book deserves to be treated as a study of Lincoln and the politics of the 1860s. The pervasiveness of recent commentary surrounding this theme of cabinet rivals, however, is more about what we want to see in the past and much of the country’s frustrations and anger over the past few years.