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Lincoln - Gore Vidal The 13th Amendment to the Constitution declared that "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." Formally abolishing slavery in the United States, the 13th Amendment was passed by the Congress on January 31, 1865, and ratified by the states on December 6, 1865.

In the immortal words of Joe Biden this was a “big f**king deal”.


If you have not seen the movie Lincoln please go see it. I cannot remember the last time that I have enjoyed a movie so thoroughly. Daniel Day-Lewis is spectacular. For two and a half hours he was LINCOLN, more so than the original. The supporting cast is absolutely superb. David Strathairn plays William Seward and Sally Fields plays Mary Todd. James Spader shows up as one of the men who has the job to strong arm lame duck senators into voting for the 13th Amendment. He was hilarious. The movie made me laugh and moved me to tears of joy and pain. Even though I knew, obviously, that the 13th Amendment had passed I was on the edge of my seat with stomach clenched and my heart in my throat watching the vote. If it had been a sporting event and not a movie theater I would have rung the rafters with my shouts of exultation when the final votes are tallied.

Rachel Maddow said recently something that still resonates with me. “But here is the thing about rights-they’re not actually supposed to be voted on. That’s why they are called rights.” Amazing that we are still discussing rights in this country. Every time we bring up an initiative in this country regarding the rights of some of our citizens I just have to shake my head. It is or at least it should be self-evident.

I’m rarely going to say this, but watching the movie first actually enhanced my reading experience. The movie is based on the Doris Kearns Goodwin book [b:Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln|2199|Team of Rivals The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln|Doris Kearns Goodwin|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1347278868s/2199.jpg|2861004], but I found whole dialogue scenes lifted from Gore Vidal's book. Let’s just say that Steven Spielberg probably read this book before filming the movie.

William Seward who gave wise counsel to his rival during the war.

Abraham Lincoln to maintain peace in his own party and to keep an eye on his enemies appointed his rivals to the cabinet. The two most ambitious were William Seward who served as Secretary of State and Salmon P. Chase who served as Secretary of the Treasury. Their plotting and scheming were sometimes a source of amusement to Lincoln, when discovered resignations were offered, but Lincoln refused to accept. When greenback money was introduced Chase’s ambitions got the better of him.

”You know ,” said Lincoln, “I asked Mr. Chase why he had put himself instead of me on the one-dollar bill, clearly the most in use of the two denominations, and he said, ‘As you are the President, you must be on the most expensive bill; and I on the less.’”

Salmon P. Chase providing the image for the $1 greenback.

There is something FISHY about Chase.

Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury.

Lincoln was much more politically savvy than his rivals expected. He outwitted them at every turn and planted devious traps for them. He did the same to his Democratic challengers. He used his knowledge of the law to bend the law and in one of the more controversial moments of his term in office he suspended habeas corpus and threw thousands of agitators in jail. His homespun mannerisms and his penchant for storytelling certainly hid his steely determination. I had always thought of Lincoln as a reluctant politician, but that was part of his brilliance concealing the ambition that made him a man who burned with desire to be reelected. Seward’s respect for Lincoln continued to grow as the war continued. Chase never seemed to learn that he was over-matched by Lincoln, although I did have a soft spot for Chase’s hobby of collecting signatures. Every time he would find a new one he was as excited as I am when I find a book I thought I’d never find. Vidal planted me squarely at the table during cabinet meetings. I came away from these meetings with the smell of cigar smoke in my hair and the pungent taste of bourbon on my tongue.

As much as I want to have sympathy for Mary Todd Lincoln I found it more and more difficult as Vidal revealed more of her character. She was a shopaholic before they knew what to call it. As it became harder for her to get money out of congress and her husband, she started exchanging political favors for money. She was easily slighted and exacted vicious revenge. Lincoln’s clerks who had to deal with her money concerns and her frequent embarrassing outbursts referred to her as the Hellcat. She did suffer from debilitating migraines usually brought on by stress. She would throw childish fits ratcheting Lincoln’s own stress levels higher when the union most needed him concerned about the national interest. Both of them suffered from frequent bouts of melancholy and rarely seemed able to help each other to be happy.

Lincoln had problems with his generals. He even fired some of them more than once. His first choice for command of the Union army was Robert E. Lee, probably the first man in history who was offered the command of two armies fighting against each other. When Lee chose his state over his country Lincoln went with Irwin McDowell who proved very ineffective. Then:

George McClellan referred to as “The Great American Tortoise” because of his inability to engage the enemy. A problem that would plague a series of union generals. The one positive contribution McClellan made to the war effort was he proved to be an excellent trainer. He turned a ragtag army into a drilled and efficient machine. He was fired, rehired and fired again.

General George B. McClellan, a disappointing fighter, but a dangerous Democratic opponent.

John Pope fired
Ambrose Burnside fired

General Joe Hooker the man who lent his name to prostitution.

Lincoln had great hope for “Fighting Joe" Hooker and for a while it looked like he finally had a general that wanted to fight. Hooker was knocked unconscious when a Confederate shell hit a pillar of the porch on which he was standing, and the pillar had fallen on him, and he had been unconscious for hours. Once recovered, he had given up drink and without drink there was, everyone said, no longer a “Fighting Joe” Hooker but simply another incompetent Union general named Hooker. He had another issue that may have sapped some of his fighting strength. His headquarters looked like a brothel-casino. In fact, so addicted was Hooker and his immediate staff to the flesh that Washington’s army of prostitutes was now known as Hooker’s girls or, for short HOOKERS.


George Meade fired

The victories, like a breath of fresh air were coming from the generals out west, Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan. Finally Lincoln appoints Ulysses S. Grant to command the Union army and the rest is history.

It was a bad bet for the South to make, with 2/3rds of the population in the North it didn’t take much slide rule work to figure out that a prolonged war would simply result in the South running out of men to fight with. Some say the South might have won if they had fought a defensive war, just holding a line and letting the Yankees come to them. I have been a proponent of that theory as well in the past especially since the Union generals showed such a reluctance to fight their fellow countrymen. The blockade would have continued to squeeze down supply lines and with most of the manufacturing in the North, the sanctions would have continued to erode the ability of the South to fight effectively. Despite having the best generals, and they were truly providing inspirational leadership, and with a population that was determined to hang on to a way of life that was unsustainable; it is still really hard to concoct a scenario that would have resulted in the South winning the war.

The Ancient, as his clerks referred to him, was intent on bringing the Union back together. ”Of course, Pennsylvania is our soil. But so is Virginia. So are the Carolinas. So is Texas. They are forever our soil. That is what this war is about and these damned fools cannot grasp it; or will not grasp it. The whole country is our soil. I cannot fathom such men.”

And here we are living in a Union that Lincoln through guile and ruthlessness managed to hold together. Unfortunately the South did not get to benefit from the benevolence that Lincoln had planned for them during reconstruction. Highly recommended to read in conjunction with a wonderful movie.

I have also reviewed another Gore Vidal book from the Empire series. Washington D. C. review