Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Today I'm looking at another book by Doris Kearns Goodwin, some of you might remember my review of one of her other books, The Bully Pulpit. Team of Rivals deals with the life of not only Abraham Lincoln, but also the lives of the initial members of his cabinet such as Secretary of State William Seward, Attorney General Edward Bates, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Several of these men were actually competitors for the Republican nomination for president in 1860, but simply did not have enough support to clinch the nomination on the first ballot. As Goodwin illustrates in her book, Lincoln had the political expertise to build a coalition that saw him as the best second choice and allowed him to secure the nomination on the third ballot. Lincoln went on to include many of these men within his Cabinet, ensuring that he would be exposed to a broad range of political opinions representing the spectrum of the Republican party. From the conservative leaning Bates and Montgomery Blair, to the radical Chase, Lincoln was able to synthesize a middle-ground policy that was palatable to the majority of the Republican party and kept the fractious coalition together through the struggle of the Civil War.

As Goodwin explains in considerable detail, Lincoln was at a relative disadvantage compared to his competitors for the nomination of president in 1860. Lincoln alone did not have the benefit of a university education or a privileged background. Although definitely doing very well for himself in 1860 with a comfortable income, Lincoln had struggled up from a dirt-poor background and was largely self-taught. Lincoln's greatest strength, however, was his ability to connect with people and form loyal and lasting friendships, despite setbacks. Goodwin makes an excellent contrast between Lincoln and Chase. During his ascent through political offices, Chase, made numerous deals and often abandoned his allies when that relationship was no longer convenient for him, earning him the enmity of relationships he could have leveraged to his benefit later on. Lincoln, by contrast, was incredibly magnanimous in defeat and remained loyal to his political allies, even when it meant surrendering opportunities for advancement such as one of Illinois's Senate seats. Because Lincoln sought to maintain his relationships with his friends and allies, he had the long-term advantage of a broad base of support when he finally ran for president.

Because of Lincoln's relative lack of higher education, many people assumed other members of the Cabinet, Seward especially, would be the guiding force behind government policy. To the contrary reams upon reams of documents, both official and unofficial, clearly show that Lincoln was always in control of his Cabinet. While there were fractious disputes, especially in the rivalry between Chase and Blair, Lincoln ultimately was in control of the Cabinet. While willing and able to listen to advice and dissent from his advisors, Lincoln always made his own decision based on what he thought best for the country.

What emerges is the image of Lincoln as the consummate statesman. And perhaps this book is a little on the hagiographic side; it is after all difficult to look upon the Great Emancipator without some degree of awe. But Goodwin makes a compelling argument that Lincoln's personality, including his sense of humor, his oratorical abilities, his literary talent, and his ability to make friends with anyone and never hold grudges, make him appear a solid individual. There are countless examples where Lincoln behaved in a manner we would seldom expect someone in a position of authority to do. Whether it was take responsibility for a bad decision rather than dumping the blame on a subordinate, or never holding angry or unkind words against a person, Lincoln always maintained an attitude of kindness, generosity, and magnanimity. He really comes across in this book as probably the kindest and best person we ever had as president.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in nineteenth century American history and learning more not only about Abraham Lincoln, but also the men in his cabinet who helped steer America through one of its greatest crises. My opinion of Salmon P. Chase, who helped shape how much of our modern banking system works, has definitely gone down because of his bad attitude and willingness to abandon friends. And my frustration with George McClellan, who occasionally fancied himself a good candidate for dictator of the United States and had a very low opinion of Lincoln, has gone up as well. It does get kind of dense going into the lives of several people, but I think it's well worth the effort.

- Kalpar

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