I’m reading Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin right now, which is sort of a group biography about Lincoln, and his competitors for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination – Chase, Bates, and Seward – who later became part of his cabinet. I’m still in the first 100 pages, which covers their early years, and I have been struck by how much death they all faced. And I don’t mean the Civil War, which was incredibly brutal. Life in the 19th century meant the death of your nearest and dearest on a regular basis.
All of the four men – Seward, Bates, Chase, and Lincoln – had at least one child die. Bates lost 8 of his 17 children (yes, 17 – let’s give three cheers for birth control!) A staggering number of women died in childbirth – including all three of Chase’s wives, and Lincoln’s sister. Bates, Chase, and Lincoln each lost a parent as a child. Seward’s daughter died, as well as Lincoln’s first love, both from diseases that would be preventable today. Bates and Chase both had their fathers die when they were young, and their widowed mothers (who would never have the right to vote) were left with no way of supporting their children and farmed them out to relatives. Seward had it the easiest of the four, and even he studied his ass off for 15 hours a day, entered college at 15, and was a lawyer by 22.
Seward, Bates, and Chase were from relatively privileged backgrounds, so if life was difficult for them, just think how much harder it was for poor people and women. And if white women had it rough, think about how much exponentially harder it was for slaves or Native Americans.
We tend to get a little gauzy about larger than life figures like Lincoln, making something romantic out of studying books by candlelight, but there was nothing romantic about it. Lincoln grew up shit poor, was devastated by the loss of his mother and sister, and he kind of hated his father, most likely for excellent reasons.
Lincoln himself did not romanticize his upbringing. For most people in America in the 19th century, life was hard and then you died. Large swaths of the country were illiterate, and books were only for the rich. In many areas outside the east, there was essentially no public education. I always knew Lincoln didn’t have much formal education, but I was surprised to realize that he had only one year of school. I have a new appreciation for the herculean effort it took for him to educate himself, and just how extraordinary he was.
And then there was slavery, a grotesquely brutal institution on which the South’s economy depended. While there was a strong abolitionist movement at this time, the South was fiercely devoted to keeping slavery in place, and many, if not most, Northerners were more concerned with the unity of the country than they were with getting rid of slavery. Radical abolitionists were heavily criticized, and even those white Americans who were opposed to slavery couldn’t imagine black people being equal. (While Lincoln was always opposed to slavery, he was far from being a radical abolitionist.)
I am finding this book strangely hopeful. The notion that we live in a post-racial society is utter nonsense, but damn, we’ve come a long way. In the roughly 150 years since Lincoln’s election, this country has gone from slavery to a black President elected and then re-elected, not to mention near universal literacy, the advances of feminism, and the fact that I could be reasonably sure I wouldn’t die giving birth to my daughter. Jason Collins got a phone call from the President and a congratulatory tweet from Kobe – Abraham Lincoln wouldn’t have even had a category for that (or maybe he would, depending on which historian you talk to.)
There are many things that alternately enrage and depress me – rising income inequality, rape culture, my HMO, bombs in Boston and the dead children in Newtown who make the news and the dead children in South Los Angeles who don’t, next to a craven and dysfunctional Congress seemingly paralyzed to do anything about anything that matters. If it’s not wars, it’s drones, and if it’s not that, it’s Guantanamo. All of that is true and worrisome.
But this is why we need history. Congress was corrupt and cowardly then as well, and some of them were stupid – really, really stupid. Hell, they still had duels and shot each other. Still, in the middle of all that, there were some people of bravery and courage, and some of a middling disposition who got roped into doing the right thing in spite of themselves, and we got the 13th Amendment.
It’s a long way to travel from slavery’s profound evil, and the path to change is hard, sometime unimaginably so. The U.S. had to travel through a long, bloody, and devastating Civil War, Lincoln’s assassination, Jim Crow, lynchings, waterhoses, more assassinations (Emmett Till and Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and JFK and Bobby), the legions of nameless dead and the equally nameless activists who worked tirelessly in obscurity for a better world that they would never live in.
History is a reminder that we can make the world less brutal than it used to be. And if that is possible here, in a country built on blood and bones and conquest, then it is possible elsewhere. There are still large swaths of the globe where a staggering number of children still die, where women have no rights to speak of, and millions of slaves wait for an emancipation proclamation of their own.
Change is always spotty and seemingly improbable, but with lots of hard work from lots of people, it does happen. Sometimes I need to remind myself of that.