Friday, June 29, 2007

pseudo-intellectual musings

I'm reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's book, Team of Rivals, about Abraham Lincoln.  I'm about 200 pages into it and am finding it incredibly interesting.  Two things jump out at me that I can't stop thinking about.  First is how uncertain life was back then, and how much we take for granted our health (and the high quality health care we get) these days.  Women routinely died in childbirth, people died suddenly of fevers, cholera, tuberculosis, the flu, etc.  Of the four central characters in the book, every one lost at least one child and many lost parents and spouses at an early age.  By the time Salmon Chase was 44, he had buried three young wives and a daughter.  Chase had another daughter, and in a letter he wrote to her when she was 11, he chastised her for not making more of her time on earth and warned her that she might not live another 11 years.  Edward Bates and his wife had 17 children, only 8 of whom survived to adulthood.  Lincoln lost his mother at the age of 9 and a 3-year-old son to TB. 

The other thing that strikes me is how intellectual pursuits consumed the lives of Lincoln and his contemporaries, and how they viewed themselves as having a duty to matter in the world and in society.  They were utterly dedicated to the principles of democracy and self government that the American "experiment" embodied, and they spent much of their time discussing the issues of the day in broad, philosophical terms, writing speeches and pamphlets, stating their positions through correspondence with friends and loved ones.  They lived deliberately, perhaps not in the way Thoreau meant it, but with purpose so that when they died, they could say that they had lived and that their lives mattered. 

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