Perhaps like many viewers, you exited Steven Spielbergs hit movie Lincoln wanting to know more more about the Civil War, more about the 16th president, more about Secretary of State William Henry Seward. Played by American actor David Strathairn, he was Lincolns confidant, the one in the fabulous embroidered dressing gown.
More can be found in two terrific new biographies. Often considered our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis in the movie) is definitely written about the most. More than 16,000 books have been published since Lincolns 1865 assassination. Yet the man remains eternally fascinating, as David Von Drehles Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and Americas Most Perilous Year proves.
Von Drehle opens his book on Jan. 1, 1862, and closes it exactly one year later. Month by month, we watch the inexperienced Lincoln cope, change and grow as he faces extraordinary political, military and personal crises. There is seething intrigue within the Cabinet as the Treasurys Salmon Chase becomes inflamed with jealousy at Lincolns growing reliance on Seward. Lincoln also has to navigate between hard-line abolitionists and those advocating a more gradual approach to ending slavery.
As for the military, Von Drehle brings alive Union Gen. George McClellan in all his insolent, fascinating complexity. A brilliant organizer beloved by his troops, the West Point grad becomes almost mentally unhinged, paralyzed with a fear of failing in battle. Yet the more Lincoln reaches out to support McClellan, the more he treats the president with contempt.
This was also the year that Lincolns cherished son Willie died and the already-volatile Mary Lincoln fell apart. Von Drehle traces Lincolns deepening religious faith, as he reaches out to various ministers and to his youngest son Tads nurse, whose spiritual fortitude impresses Lincoln.
But what sets Von Drehles outstanding book apart is the craft of his writing. The text is all of 379 pages, but it is lean, insightful and often lyrical. Too many history books today are unedited research dumps. An editor-at-large for Time , Von Drehle displays the concision that writing for a newsweekly requires.
While countless tomes have been published about Lincoln, his secretary of State is almost forgotten by the public, save for Alaska being once nicknamed Sewards Folly.
Fortunately, Walter Stahr sets the record straight in his compelling Seward: Lincolns Indispensable Man, arguing convincingly that other than presidents, Seward was the foremost American statesman of the nineteenth century.
The author of an admired biography of John Jay, Stahr presents a detailed but crisp narrative that takes the reader from Sewards birth in 1801 in a little town 60 miles from New York City to his death in 1872. He was an outstanding governor of New York, an effective U.S. senator and, in 1860, the leading Republican presidential candidate before losing the nomination to the little-known Lincoln. (According to Stahr, the more prominent Seward would have lost the election because of his support for Catholic immigrants and his well-known opposition to slavery.)
Stahr presents Seward as a remarkably likable person, despite his flaws. Wildly ambitious, Seward lied and schemed on occasion. But he possessed charm, brains and curiosity. A born politician, Seward adored talking to strangers and seeing new places. During the crucial 1860 election, he campaigned for his victorious rival with zest.
A wealthy lawyer, he was famed for hosting fabulous dinner parties. An opponent of slavery who sold a house to Harriet Tubman (who sent flowers to his funeral), Seward also visited his colleague Jefferson Davis every day for seven weeks in 1858 when the Mississippi senator was housebound with an eye infection.
Charles Dana observed that Seward possessed a quality rare among lawyers, politicians or statesmen: Imagination. Which is why Seward realized the USA should buy Alaska from Russia in 1867.
You grasp why Lincoln grew to cherish Sewards sturdy optimism and clear-eyed political pragmatism. Whether in life or now in the pages of a book, the man was good company.
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