Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. A comparative biography of Abraham Lincoln and his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination of 1860 – Edward Bates, Salmon P. Chase and William H. Seward.
Spoiler: He dies in the end.
This book contextualized and humanized Lincoln. Over the years I have heard that he was manic depressive, that he was gay, that he was just plain old depressed. He has been mythologized and deconstructed. While I learned in school that Lincoln freed the slaves and I memorized the Gettysburg Address for extra credit in junior high, I never really knew anything about the man.
Goodwin’s objective in this book is to use Lincoln’s appointment of his chief rivals to his cabinet and his subsequent wrangling of their interactions as a case study for his political genius. Each of the men was a rival to Lincoln at first. He cultivated close relationships with each of them and balanced their internal squabbling to create his dream team cabinet. Bates, Blair, Welles, Stanton, Chase and Seward may not have all liked each other – Blair and Chase had a particularly rancorous relationship – but they all loved and were loyal to Lincoln.
In comparing Lincoln’s upbringing and political career with the lives and careers of his contemporaries, Goodwin provides a very clear picture of how Lincoln was extraordinary. It was not in spite of his impoverished beginnings or lack of experience that he succeeded but because of them. It’s trite but true. Lincoln was never privileged or entitled and did not begrudge hard work. He was also well versed in dealing with the common man of the time. He was incredibly savvy at timing political announcements to coincide with public opinion because he was familiar with how everyday voters would view the course of events, not just political insiders or the educated upper classes.
The most striking comparison was that of Lincoln to Salmon P Chase. Seward and Bates, after getting to know him, acknowledged that Lincoln was the only man to lead the country through the War and gave up all presidential aspirations. Chase was convinced that he deserved to be president. He was intensely critical of Lincoln and worked actively to unseat him in 1864. Chase wanted to be acknowledged as a great man. Lincoln wanted to be remembered for his accomplishments. One wanted to be great while the other wanted to do great things. Goodwin cites multiple incidents to illustrate how Lincoln’s self effacement and lack of pridefulness enabled him to remain at a crucial critical distance from profound difficulties. Chase’s pride and sense of entitlement doomed him to disappointment and failure.
This book is not a military history of the war or of Lincoln’s presidency, it is a history of Lincoln’s cabinet. The battles are described in terms of their reception by and effect on the cabinet. Extensive details about particular engagements would be out of place. Specific details are included where they illuminate the struggles of the cabinet to manage the war effort and keep the government running during the crisis. As a Civil War buff, I already know the details of the battles and appreciate seeing a different side of the era illuminated. A reader doesn’t need to be conversant with the order of battle at the battle of Fredericksburg to appreciate the impact of 16,000 casualties in a day for the Administration.
I heartily recommend this book. It is a long haul, without notes or bibliography it is 757 pages. I took several breaks from reading it to consume lighter fare. It was worth the effort to get to know Lincoln in a more substantive fashion. Even though I knew it was coming, I cried at the description of his death. I didn’t cry for the mythologized Lincoln but for the very real and sympathetic person who I had only just been introduced to.