Friday, January 04, 2013

civil lives

It started with John Adams -- David McCullough's Pulitzer-winning biography of the second president.

That was 2001.  He set off an avalanche of biographies of the Founding Fathers.  Some were superb.  Some good.  Quite a few were indifferent.

But America had re-discovered its past -- what it took to create a new nation.  In theory, it also gave us a better idea of who we are and how we came to have our political and social institutions.

For me, it was a golden age of reading material.  One of my academic interests in college was the revolution and federal era.  I had grown up with these men.  And it was good to make their reacquaitance -- and to see some of them in a new light.

That flood has ebbed.  Partly due to the calendar.

It is now time to celebrate the American Civil War.  If "celebrate" is the correct word.  My side having won, I will forgo moral equivocations and hand-wringing.

Doris Kearns Goodwin played majorette for the new parade with her Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.  A small portion is currently seen on screen in Spielberg's Lincoln.  (Reviewed in driving my lincoln.)

Goodwin's very good book has been followed by a slew of Civil War biographies -- one I have read, another I am reading.  Both I can recommend.

The book I have read is Seward: Lincoln's Indispensable Man by Walter Stahr.  Goodwin introduced us to Seward in her discussion of Lincoln's cabinet. 

Stahr gives us a far more detailed (and interesting) look at the man who thought he would be the 1860 Republican nominee for president, but who then loyally served Lincoln as secretary of state.  And tried to keep Lincoln's policies alive during the Johnson administration -- while staying loyal to the new president.

Seward's role in the Civil War -- maneuvering France and Britain to keep them from recognizing the south -- is the major part of the book.  As it was of his life.  But his purchase of Alaska is probably one of his greatest accomplishments.

I am currently about a quarter of the way into The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace by H. W. Brands.

Despite the breathless title, the biography seems to be rather even-handed on the uneven career of Grant. 

I say uneven because I am in the early stages of his life.  As a young man, he failed at many civilian enterprises.  And he considered his early military career a failure -- if only because it centered around a war (the Mexican-American) that he strenuously opposed.

We all know the outline of the rest of the story -- and the reason for the title.  The Civil War pulled him back into military service.  Where he turned out to be just the general Lincoln needed to defeat the southern rebellion.

But that is a story I have yet to read. And I am certain I will learn new things about Grant -- just as I learned new things about Adams, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Burr, Jay, and Morris in their respective biographies.

For a reader of lives, it is a good time to be alive.


norm said...

I have July 4th circled in red for next summer. Gettysburg has the 150 year battle reenactment. People go all out in a regular year for Gettysburg-next summer should be something special.

Felipe Zapata said...

Oregon was a Yankee state?

Steve Cotton said...

Indeed, Oregon was. In addition, I have plenty of New England Yankee abolitionists on my mother's side of the family. My father brought a bit of the southern blood into the family -- Virginia in the 1700s, and Kentucky and Missouri in the early 1800s.

Steve Cotton said...

Maybe I should plan on spending part of my summer away from Melaque in Pennsylvania.

Dana Jennings said...

a local Houston museum presented an exhibition
with the working title of:
"America's Civil War: What were we thinking?"


almost as good as my favorite slogan for a Child Protective Services Agency : " Kids, You Just Can't Beat 'Em! "

norm said...

The weather will be the same in both places. Hot and sticky is Gettysburg in July.

Steve Cotton said...

Looking backward, it is hard to avoid the feeling that certain historical actions were inevitable. After reading the Seward biography, I am convinced that the civil war was inevitable -- in one form or other.

Steve Cotton said...

For some reason, Disqus ate Rick's comment. He said:

Seems we are due for another soon.

My response: I have some friends who have been saying the same thing. I just don't see it that way. On the other hand, either did Seward 150 years ago.