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Having spent the last ten years digging through old diaries, letters, and memoirs, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin feels like she knows Abraham Lincoln pretty well. He was certainly serious, scholarly and sometimes troubled, she told a John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum audience Tuesday night, but also engaged, personable and empathetic.
As author of the exhaustive new biography, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” Kearns Goodwin poured through reams of diaries and letters seeking insights into the 16th president’s relatively brief, but nonetheless remarkable stint on the American political stage.
“The Lincoln that I uncovered was a man full of life, with a wonderful array of understandings of his own moods,” she said. “He was full of warmth and he possessed an extraordinary gift for oral stories that sustained the spirits of his colleagues during the darkest days of the (Civil) war.”
It was often during those days, she said, when Lincoln turned to and often debated with his top cabinet members – Secretary of State William Seward, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, and Secretary of War Edwin A. Stanton.
“In many ways he was married to them more than to Mary,” Kearns Goodwin said. Seward in particular become his trusted confidant and in many ways, his greatest friend.
Lincoln’s strengths were many, Kearns Goodwin recounted – including sharing credit for his success, sharing responsibility for failure, and acknowledging his own errors and correcting his mistakes.
“But his most remarkable quality was an empathy that was probably part of his temperament from the time he was young,” she told the audience. “He seemed to have an ability to understand the way other people were feeling and thinking in a true way.”
Lincoln’s greatest political triumph, Kearns Goodwin said, was his speech at Gettysburg, which rallied the nation at a time of grave uncertainty about the war, reframing the noble cause in terms that resonated with all Americans.
When he died, she said, Lincoln was just beginning to realize that the war was won, that the North had prevailed, and the nation was saved. His tragic assassination was mitigated only by the fact, Kearns Goodwin said, that Lincoln achieved his ultimate goal of accomplishing a great feat that improved the lives of others, something he believed was necessary to keep his spirit alive once he had departed the earth.
Kearns Goodwin’s Forum appearance was co-sponsored by the Institute of Politics.