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the Sovereign People

Doris Kearns Goodwin

     ... narrative historian. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in history for No Ordinary Time focused on Franklin Delano Roosevelt during Word War II, Ms. Goodwin adds the remarkable Team of Rivals:  The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln to her bestseller Wait Till Next Year, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys and Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. She has for many years brought her historical perspective and analyses to television audiences and now serves as an NBC-TV news analyst. In addition, she lectures around the world.


“... Government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth” was the reason Abraham Lincoln fought the Civil War, Doris Kearns Goodwin concluded after 10 years studying Lincoln and those he gathered around him. Lincoln's determination to preserve the idea that ordinary people can govern themselves was larger then either his acknowledged eagerness to preserve the Union and to emancipate the slaves, she discovered.

Believe America's master story-teller and his ultimate story -- the story of America -- which he told us in the Gettysburg Address, she urges. If the South had successfully seceded from the Union, Lincoln was convinced it would destroy America as a beacon of hope to those everywhere else, living under the yoke of monarchy.

Like so many of us, Ms. Goodwin started with ideas about the Great Emancipator or the Great Statesman. But that was before she absorbed more fully what lay beneath both -- Lincoln's character and his political genius, she recalls.

In Lincoln's hands, qualities that most of us associate with decency -- sensitivity and kindness, compassion and empathy -- became great political resources. Doing the right thing also helped him be a great politician. After all, politics is about human relationships, she says, pointing out that we seem to have lost sight of this central truth in today's world.

Lincoln's ambition was as huge as his abilities, Ms. Goodwin says. He wanted to believe he had accomplished something in his life that would last. His burning desire? To leave the world a better place for having been in it.

Ms. Goodwin ambition is to have us remember that politics in the hands of a great person is a truly honorable profession, she says. Unlike today's politicians who shape policies to fit opinion polls, Lincoln had genuine respect for the nation's real sovereigns -- the People -- and the democracy of which we are a part. An authentic leader, he respected the People, figured out ways to educate them to go with him when he could see something they could not. And Lincoln intense curiosity kept him open to learning. Not confident there is an afterlife made his eagerness to be remembered for something worthwhile even more pressing, she says.

And if Lincoln were alive today? He would be out fighting for everyone to have HIS story -- America's promise -- because he believed government's responsibility is to lift the artificial weights of poverty and lack of opportunity from the shoulders of ordinary people. Then they can rise as far as their discipline and talent could take them, whether a poor orphaned kid with nothing from the nowhere, or a Cabinet Secretary now remembered because Lincoln gave him, too, a chance to make history.

And after 10 years living with Lincoln and those closest to him politically and personally, what did Ms. Goodwin conclude? She concurs with the great Leo Tolstoy. Lincoln's greatness was in his character. Yes, Lincoln was great. He was also good.  A Sovereign People also require both to be a beacon in a dark world.

[This Program was recorded November 9, 2005, in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.]


Conversation 1

What was Abraham Lincoln fighting for in the American Civil War? The concept that ordinary people can govern themselves, his biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell. Ms. Goodwin shows how the fundamental decency glaringly absent in today’s politics was Lincoln’s great political resource.

Conversation 1 RealAudio6:33 

Conversation 2

The driving ambition of Lincoln’s life was to do something lasting, leaving the world a better place for having been in it, Ms. Goodwin reports.  She compares Lincoln with those who surrounded him, including the flawed but popular General McClellan. Being a good person also helps you prudentially to be a great politician, Ms. Goodwin says, and show how. She contrasts today’s somber impressions of Lincoln to his very different reality -- a huge life-force with sparkling eyes quite different from those on America’s $1 bills. She shows his genius for storytelling in the incomparable “Gettysburg Address.”

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:36 

Conversation 3

Since the Founding Fathers had already created the great experiment, Ms. Goodwin describes Lincoln as a young man, worried that his generation would be left with modest ambitions. She expands, compares Lincoln’s use of history to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s, then shows Lincoln sharing his soldiers’ terrible hardships, first hand and repeatedly. She tells how much it helped her to understand Lincoln when she expanded her field of vision to include those who surrounded him -- Seward, Stanton, Chase, Bates and a surprisingly engaging Mary Todd Lincoln.

Conversation 4

Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln had a great deal in common, Ms. Goodwin shows, enumerating a number of ways their mutual respect and friendship were important. Lincoln understood how essential it was to keep the White House open to ordinary people, she says, in complete contrast to the isolation of the White House now. She recreates how Lincoln drew from books to learn military strategy: repeated trips to battlefields and conversations with everyone there, sleeping among the soldiers, ignoring rank and status.

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:36 

Conversation 5

Ms. Goodwin says if Lincoln were alive today, he would be fighting for everybody to have a story like his own. He believed it government’s responsibility to lift from ordinary people’s shoulders the artificial weights of poverty and lack of access to opportunity, so they can go as far as their discipline and talent will take them, she says. Especially taken by Seward, she shows how Lincoln applied this same idea about opportunity to his cabinet members: giving them the opportunity to be remembered by history if they did their work well.

Conversation 1 RealAudio9:20

Conversation 6

Ms. Goodwin suggests how very different she believes America would have been today had Abraham Lincoln not been murdered. She quotes Leo Tolstoy affirming the greatness of Abraham Lincoln’s character and his all-consuming commitment to government of, by and for the people.

Conversation 1 RealAudio5:25  


Abraham Lincoln and his story of America, “...government of the people, by the people and for the people...,” in precisely what is needed in the face of America’s current reality: the privileged few ravaging much and many, corporations wrongly usurping the power of individuals. Because of Lincoln’s goodness and his greatness, when America is ready to look, she will find ordinary people across the globe who share this ideal. It’s still a very, very good idea. Thanks for the reminder, Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Related Links:

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln is published by Simon and Schuster and is available both in hardcover and paperback.

Our initial conversation with Dr. Goodwin focused on her prize winning memoir about the Brooklyn Dodgers Wait Till Next Year, along with the importance of stories and history.

In John Brown, Abolitionist, biographer David Reynolds argues that Lincoln would not have become president if John Brown had not attacked the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry. Brown, Dr. Reynolds says, believed in the Bible and the Constitution.

In Abe, his fictionalized account of the young Abraham Lincoln, Richard Slotkin connects him to Mark Twain’s story of Huck Finn and in the process makes sense of how a man who grew up amid slavery and deep prejudice could become the “great emancipator.”

Another republican, Gerry Adams, has spent two decades trying to reunite a country split by colonialism.

In Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, Susan Jacoby takes another look at the question of Lincoln’s religious beliefs.

Ms. Goodwin's insights on Lincoln and democracy proved relevant to this 2011 essay for the Huffington Post.

Though the Confederacy lost the Civil War, Kevin Phillips, in American Theocracy, says that Southern values have come to dominate politics in America during the presidency of George W. Bush.

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