Book Review: Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

I started Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2005) by Doris Kearns Goodwin as my official Abraham Lincoln Day book back in February, put it down until May and have been reading it off and on until now. It’s a weighty tome, but wonderful in every page and every ounce. I was particularly delighted that I ended up reading the section on the Gettysburg Address on Independence Day.

The basic gist is that Abraham Lincoln was a political genius who could govern the country while it was at war with itself with the guidance of a cabinet that was also often at odds with one another and with the President! The story begins with the dramatic Republican National Convention in 1860 where New York Senator William H. Seward, Ohio Senator Salmon P. Chase, and Missouri State House Representative Edward Bates were all strong candidates for the Presidential nomination. Since none of them could gain clear majorities in the convention, the lesser known Lincoln ended up becoming the surprise compromise candidate.

After Lincoln was elected President, he defied logic and convention and appointed these rivals, some of whom could be openly hostile to him, to cabinet positions: Seward as Secretary of State, Chase as Secretary of Treasury and Bates as Attorney General. These four men and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton form the core of this lively and well-researched history and biography. Lincoln drew on these men for advice and opposing opinions while assuaging their conflicts, adroitly reading and responding to the public opinion, and somehow managing to be optimistic and complimentary among it all. Chase was particularly a handful, among other things actively campaigning for the 1864 nomination while still working with the President.

I don’t intend to summarize the whole book – as if I could – but I highly recommend reading it. It succeeds on all levels – great writing style, thoroughly researched history, and a wonderful story of human interest.

Abe and Company – Douglas Brinkley, Boston Globe, October 23, 2005

Team of Rivals’: Friends of Abe – James McPherson, New York Times, November 6, 2005

Favorite Passages


Such intimate male attachments, as Seward’s with Berdan, or, as we shall see, Lincoln’s with Joshua Speed and Chase’s with Edwin Stanton, were “a common feature of the social landscape” in nineteenth-century America, the historian E. Anthony Rotundo points out.  The family-focused and community-centered life led by most men in the colonial era was transformed at the dawn of the new century into an individual and career oriented existence.  As the young men of Seward and Lincoln’s generation left the familiarity of their small communities and traveled to seek employment in fast-growing, anonymous cities or in distant territories, they often felt unbearably lonely.  In the absence of parents and siblings, they turned to one another for support, sharing thoughts and emotions so completely that their intimate friendships developed the qualities of passionate romances.  – p. 33


Compelling as Lincoln’s criticisms [of the Mexican War] might have been, they fell flat a time when he majority of Americans were delighted in the outcome of the war.  The Democratic Illinois State Register charged that Lincoln had disgraced his district with his “treasonable assault on President Polk,” claimed that “henceforth” he would be known as “Benedict Arnold,” and predicted that he would enjoy only a single term.  Lincoln sought to clarify his position, arguing that although he challenged the instigation of the war, he had never voted against supplies for the soldiers.  To accept Polk’s position without question, he claimed, was “to allow the President to invade a neighboring nation…whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary.”



To Bates, the war was part of a conspiracy to extend the reach of slavery — a belief he shared with many other Whigs, though not with Lincoln, who argued it was simply “a war of conquest brought into existence to catch votes.”  – p. 122-23


There is no way to penetrate Lincoln’s personal feelings about race.  There is, however, the fact that armies of scholars, meticulously investigating every aspect of his life, have failed to find a single act of racial bigotry on his part.  Even more telling is the observation of Frederick Douglass, who would become a frequent public critic of Lincoln’s during his presidency, that of all men he had met, Lincoln was “the first great man that I talked with in the United State freely, who in no single instance reminded me of the difference between himself and myself, of the difference of color.”  This remark takes on additional meaning when on realizes that Douglass had met dozens of celebrated abolitionists, including Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, and Salmon Chase.  Apparently, Douglass never felt with any of them, as he did with Lincoln, an “entire freedom from popular prejudice against the colored race.” – p. 207-08


To Lincoln’s mind, the battle to save the Union contained an even larger purpose than ending slavery, which was after all sanctioned by he very Constitution he was sworn to uphold.  “I consider the central idea pervading this struggle,” he told Hay in early May, “is he necessity that is upon us, of proving that popular government is not an absurdity.  We must settle this question now, whether in a free government he minority have the right to break up government whenever they choose.  If we fail it will go far to prove the incapability of the people to govern themselves.”  – p. 356


So Lincoln had brought the cabinet to rally around one of their own.  Like family members who would fault one another within the confines of their own household while fiercely rejecting external criticism, the cabinet put aside its quarrel with Seward, based largely on jealously over his intimacy with Lincoln, to resist the interference of oustiders.  – p. 493


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