Goodreads: Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln
Doris Kearns Goodwin analyzes the presidential campaign of 1860 and its aftermath to explain how Lincoln formed a cabinet with his previous political rivals and ultimately held the Union together through their combined efforts.
Team of Rivals is one of those books so good it feels life-changing. So good that every Civil War book you read afterward will inevitably be compared to it. Is it biased in favor of proclaiming Abraham Lincoln an unadulterated genius? Absolutely. Is Doris Kearns Goodwin known for plagiarizing a few of her other books? Sadly, yes. And yet Team of Rivals is still one of the best books on the Civil War I have ever read.
So many books have been published on the Civil War–and so many on Abraham Lincoln–that adding any new insights to the conflict may seem impossible. Here, however, Goodwin does just that. And not only because she tells the stories of Lincoln’s rivals for the 18060 Republican nomination. She actually gives a new interpretation of many of Lincoln’s action. Typically I have seen two views of Lincoln. The first is older and presents Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator.” Americans are encouraged to admire him for his honesty, his humanity, and his ability to look beyond racial prejudices. The other view tries to temper the “Great Emancipator” image by essentially giving us the extreme opposite image. In this view, Abraham Lincoln is not so great after all and probably racist like everyone else at the time. He argued that he believed he had no Constitutional right to end slavery where it existed, but sought merely to stop its extension. He wrote that his paramount object was to save the Union and he would do this either by saving or keeping slavery. And his Emancipation Proclamation was clearly a joke because it only freed slaves in rebelling states he had no power over. Goodwin gives us an alternative to both these views.
Goodwin’s Lincoln is a nuanced one who longs to see slavery end, but keeps himself confined by the powers of the Constitution. That is, he does believe he has no legal authority to end slavery in the South, but also believes he can end it in D.C. where he has that authority–and that if slavery is stopped from spreading West, it will ultimately go extinct even in the South. Furthermore, her Lincoln is one who plays a long political game to get what he wants. In an attempt to keep the border states from seceding (which might have ended the war before it started), he writes his letter proclaiming his paramount interest is to save the Union–however that may be accomplished. That is, he knows radical abolitionists are really a minority at this time (whatever history says) and that they make few political friends. He is willing to act conciliatory when necessary to keep himself in the game. This also accounts for the Emancipation Proclamation, which Lincoln issued after trying (unsuccessfully) to get the border states to end slavery by accepting payments for their “property.” He has to position emancipation as necessary to end the war–or else the North will not accept it. (Again, sorry, the North really wasn’t full of squeaky-clean, ardent abolitionists. Most only cared about the Union while a good deal worried about freed black people taking their jobs.)
In telling this version of Lincoln, Goodwin certainly works hard to make him look admirable–even when he seems to make arguably poor decisions such as acting too slowly to remove the incompetent McClellan, or allowing Secretary of the Treasury Samuel Chase to remain in his position long after he was using it to undermine Lincoln’s administration. Even so, it is fascinating to get an inside look at what may have been passing through Lincoln’s mind when he made executive decisions. It reminds readers that history is not always black and white.
Also importantly, Goodwin does us all a service by bringing our attention to some of the fascinating women who played a role in politics at the time. She highlights Frances Seward, who constantly pushed her husband to take an ever more radical abolitionist stance. Frances, unlike many of her peers, saw the war as about ending the slavery from the start. Goodwin also highlights Kate Chase, the beautiful socialite daughter of the Secretary of the Treasury. She constantly pushed her father to succeed in politics, hosting salons that make her Mary Todd Lincoln’s rival. These tantalizing glimpses of women behind the scenes are far more interesting than those little side blocks textbooks give women in the Civil War. It illustrates how marvelously diverse the women were, how they may have knitted socks, but also provided vision, moral support, and sometimes a well-earned rebuke.
Goodwin’s prose is lively and readable, making history come alive even for those who may not fancy themselves history or even nonfiction people. It portrays Lincoln as a thoughtful man, always ready to believe the best of people, able to sacrifice his own ambitions for the greater good, and able to ignore personal slights in order to achieve his goals. Ultimately, Goodwin’s portrait of Lincoln is of the type of person–honest, generous, and kind–whom readers will wish to emulate.
6 thoughts on “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin”
Even during the Civil Rights Movement, northern whites weren’t good people. I think Americans miss that part of history in their education because it’s embarrassing, so it’s easier to create two sides. Malcolm X wrote that he preferred the snarling southern wolf over the foxy northern liberal because at least the southern white man didn’t hide his feelings.
Yeah, we have this narrative of the North=good and the South=bad, but reality tends to be more complex than that!
Great review! I really loved this book too, and I found it so fascinating how Lincoln was able to bring his cabinet together. There were so many little tidbits in this book – it’s one that I’d like to re-read at some point.
Yes, it’s really a great read! I haven’t read a Civil War book since that I’ve enjoyed quite as much!
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