A brief mention of two books that I’ve been reading over the month of April. The first is Team of Rivals which is a biography of Abraham Lincoln. The second is Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. These are two American lives that have fascinated me. Two lives destined to belong to the ages.
Lincoln is arresting the moment you enter the Lincoln Memorial. Inscribed there, on the wall in giant letters, you can read the Gettysburg Address. In Lincoln’s brief words you can feel a great deal. You have a sense of the majesty of his character and the vision of his quest in reuniting a fractured American union into a sustained whole during the midst of the civil war.
That sense is immeasurably magnified when you read Team of Rivals. Lincoln seems an impossibility. He came from nowhere, had nothing, failed repeatedly in seeking election and yet found his way to the presidential nomination as everyone’s second choice.
And yet even that is an understatement of the highest order. Lincoln had enormous vision. His hard won gifts of charm, public speaking, man management, and a talent for harnessing the energy of others to pull them in the right direction – which Lincoln always managed to make align with the direction that he wanted affairs to go. All united to deliver an America that seemed only sustained by Lincoln’s vision.
Lincoln had a remarkable capacity to lead. To stand far ahead of everyone else and bring them slowly and surely to where Lincoln wanted them to be. This shines out in how he managed his cabinet: which included four of his rivals for the presidential nomination who was each in the end a true convert to the preeminence of Lincoln.
For Franklin, there is the imperceptible gleam that shines through of him when you read his autobiography. A mix of deliberate autobiography, myth making, values program and draft outline of the American dream, his auto biography remakes Franklin into a human demi-god. And of course you have to remember that this was the story that Franklin wanted to tell about himself.
Isaacson’s biography, although it feels in part a character sketch or a short portrait, does help to realize Franklin in three dimensions. His life seems part moral code, part belief in the salvation offered by good works, part supreme scientific endeavor and part extreme political gamesmanship. You do get the impression that Franklin was an incredible chameleon able to find a way to work with people within the context of the society that he found himself. A Frenchman in France. An American in Philadelphia. An Englishman in England. And at the same time able to understand his role in each society and dress and act as needed to carry out his business as needed.
You also get a resounding sense of his immense scientific success. Hearing others describe Franklin as akin in his achievements in electricity as Newton’s were in gravity makes his famous experiment with the kite have a far greater resonance. That Franklin was the greatest scientist of his age – without perhaps the systematic codifying drive that distinguished Galileo or Newton in their specialties – was thought provoking.
At the same time, you can’t feel a degree of delight in his thoroughly middle class values and his commitment to them in the face of offers of privilege and preference. Franklin is an outstanding exponent of the formation of middle class America.
There is a great deal to take away from Lincoln and Franklin. Some of it is hard to capture. They had a unique ability to bind people together. Lincoln through his stories. Franklin through his ability to be charismatic and congenial. Both had a tremendous talent in leading through service. Lincoln managed to tie his rivals together into his ardent supporters. Franklin mastered the gap between achieving and taking credit for it early in his life and never let the second get in the way of the first.
These are two American lives that I won’t easily leave behind.