I enjoyed reading it and now have a better understanding of Civil War history, the controversy over slavery, and the founding of the Republican Party. However, I had the feeling Goodwin was sugar-coating Lincoln's "political genius" and placing too much importance on his speaches and good humor and intentions, and missing the real story of how the Civil War was run (badly) and won (finally - with horrendous death and destruction on both sides). I recommend the book and would like to see comments by others who have read it and other books about this period in US history.
Like all of you, I learned about the Civil War in school and from other reading, but I was unaware of some details until I read this book:
The Civil War was Inevitable
The North and South had different economic interests. The South primarily exported cotton and imported manufactured goods. They needed low labor costs and low tariffs so they could buy the best quality and lowest cost manufactured goods from foreign sources and sell their cotton more readily. The North was a developing manufacturing center and needed tariff protection against foreign competition. They also needed federally-subsidized transportation infrastructure for waterways and railroads.
The issue of slavery added emotional fuel to the fire. Prior to the War, most northerners, including Lincoln, were content for slavery to continue in the South. After all, it was embedded in the Constitution (slaves counted as 3/5ths of a person for Congressional allocation). Even the Fugitive Slave Law, which required escaped slaves in free states to be forcibly returned to their masters, was supported as a necessary evil. Most of all, northerners wanted to settle the vast western territories with free labor. They expected slavery to die out naturally, over time.
Had the South agreed to limit slavery to where it existed, there would have been no War. But, to this they could not acquiesce. They needed to expand their labor-intensive agriculture industry into Missouri and beyond to Kansas and other western territories. They wanted the white settlers to democratically decide if newly-formed states would be slave or free. If all new states were free, they realized their political position would deteriorate, northern radicals would stir up slave revolts, the Fugitive Slave Law would not be enforced, and the entire structure of their economy and culture would collapse.
A series of compromises, from 1830 to 1850, allowed some increase in the number of slave states. This was too much for northerners and too little for southerners. The two major national parties, the Democrats and Whigs, struggled to maintain unity. Finally, the Whigs (Lincoln's original party), joined with remnants of the Know-Nothings and some War Democrats to form what became the Republican Party. Their platform was preservation of the Union, protective tariffs, and federal support for infrastructure.
War was inevitable when southern states began to seceed and claim possession of federal forts in their territory. Most northern Democrats, such as Steven Douglas (who ran against Lincoln for President in 1860) favored further concessions. After Lincoln won the election, the Democratic Party split into northern and southern wings and, with the firing on Ft. Sumter, the Civil War, percollating for decades, formally began.
The Emancipation Proclamation was Issued Late in the War
The Emancipation Proclamation was issued in January 1863. That was nearly two years after Lincoln was elected, southern states seceded, Ft. Sumter was fired upon, and the Civil War began. It applied only to territories held by Confederates where the President had no power to enforce it. Slavery continued in the border states under Union control where it had existed before the War.
Lincoln Was Incredibly Generous and Held No Grudges
If Goodwin is to be believed (and I accept her version with only a bit of hesitation) Lincoln was the most generous, kindly, and unselfish politician who ever lived. He retained members of his Cabinet who were openly disloyal and continued to support generals who were timid and incompetent and who defied his orders way beyond the time they should have been replaced. His Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase was a major competitor for the Republican Presidential nomination and, while in Lincoln's Cabinet, he disloyally plotted to replace Lincoln at the next election. He remained in office way too long. After Chase's fourth combative resignation, lincoln finally took him up on it. He later nominated Chase to the US Supreme Court!
Lincoln finally found General U. S. Grant who is depicted by Goodwin as the most perfect general you can imagine, despite his excessive drinking. Grant won the war with aggressiveness and determination, and way too many deaths.
Loss of Life Was Horrendous
Goodwin recites the numbers of deaths of northern and southern soldiers in a matter-of-fact way. In my mind, I contrasted the loss of 3000 on 9/11 and the subsequent loss of several thousand American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan since then, with the much larger losses during the Civil War. For example, it was common to lose five, ten, or twenty-thousand in a single battle. Considering the smaller base population, the total losses during the Civil War would be equivalent to losing over a million soldiers now.
Parallels with Obama Administration
Lincoln's main rival for the Republican nomination was Willian Seward from New York State. He became Lincoln's Secretary of State, and, eventually, his most loyal supporter. President Obama, like Lincoln from Illinois, appointed Hillary Clinton, his main Democratic primary rival and also from New York, as his Secretary of State!