It's hard not to be jealous of mid-19th-century Americans while reading this excellent, demanding work on Abraham Lincoln. Their self-educated...
“Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln”
by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Simon & Schuster, 916 pp., $35
It’s hard not to be jealous of mid-19th-century Americans while reading this excellent, demanding work on Abraham Lincoln. Their self-educated president was a sophisticated thinker and brilliant speaker. He defended a bold, controversial set of policies for a nation facing permanent division. A commitment to public service seemed to be embedded in his very DNA. His ability to turn political enemies into loyal allies, or at least respectful combatants, remains unparalleled.
He is brought to life beautifully in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals.” The book’s strength is its ambitious, multi-strand structure, which also contributes to its admittedly intimidating heft. Goodwin weaves together several biographies of the men who served in Lincoln’s administration to prove her central argument:
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Doris Kearns Goodwin will discuss “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” at 5:30 p.m. today at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com).
She will appear at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Seattle’s Town Hall. Tickets are $5, co-sponsored by Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
“This, then, is a story of Lincoln’s political genius revealed through his extraordinary array of personal qualities that enabled him to form friendships with men who had previously opposed him; to repair injured feelings that, left untended, might have escalated into permanent hostility; to assume responsibility for the failures of subordinates; to share credit with ease; and to learn from mistakes.”
Chronicling Lincoln’s life in this way was a huge undertaking, one for which Goodwin is ideally suited. Her unique acquaintance with Lyndon Johnson, the subject of her first biography, gave Goodwin a rare understanding and sympathy for the demands of the presidency. Her 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II,” honed Goodwin’s ability to use very detailed historical timelines to track a subject’s life on a near-daily basis.
Creation of a timeline for “Team of Rivals” was a much tougher undertaking, due to the massive trove of Lincoln scholarship. This historical canon is both a blessing and a curse; any Lincoln biographer today starts out hip-deep in sources, both sublime and otherwise.
Perhaps even the public shaming over Goodwin’s uncredited use of another writer’s material in her book, “The Fitzgeralds and The Kennedys,” benefited this work. Goodwin may better understand the burden of shouldering blame out of proportion to one’s offense, a useful perspective when studying a lonely presidency played out in the hysterical headlines of a polarized America.
In “Team of Rivals,” Goodwin’s parallel biographical narratives trace several key players in the Lincoln years, including Salmon P. Chase, the Ohio governor who was Lincoln’s secretary of the treasury; Missouri statesman Edward Bates, named attorney general; William Seward, senator from New York who became secretary of state; and Edwin Stanton, who later in the administration was named secretary of war.
These men were unlikely bedfellows from the first, with wide-ranging ambitions and party allegiances all over the map. To a man, Goodwin says, they were better educated and more experienced politicians than the Illinois lawyer who became their leader. But in the end, they all came to respect, and in most cases, care deeply for the “undisputed captain” who pushed them to move beyond their own earlier, selfish ambitions.
These high-powered political careers provide a fine vehicle for viewing the bitter fights over American slaveholding, with its tangle of racism, cultural and economic issues. Goodwin’s refusal to simplify this discussion is welcome; too often Lincoln is cast as savior or hypocrite. Here he is rightly shown as an evolving, complex thinker who abhorred human cruelty, yet existed as a fully political animal in a time when even the most liberal thinkers did not yet espouse a truly integrated and equal society.
Goodwin also draws heavily on the fascinating correspondence and journals of the Cabinet members’ wives and daughters to flesh out stories of Lincoln’s circle. She offers a refreshingly balanced portrait of the often demonized Mary Todd Lincoln.
“Team of Rivals” does not ease the reader along with the more conversational narrative found in Goodwin’s earlier works on 20th-century presidents; it is a weightier book in all senses of that word, and it demands more concentrated time from the reader along the way. This monumental effort is a gift; Goodwin’s work clarifies and preserves Lincoln’s legacy with rare skill.
Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett is a writer living in Portland.