As readers of my Amazon reviews know, I have read extensively about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War (War Between the States to our Rebel friends). "Team of Rivals" has to be one of the finest books ever written on either topic. The purpose of the book is to explain how Abraham Lincoln took a collection of his rivals, all of whom thought that they, not Lincoln, should have been president, and molded them into a team that held the country together and came to respect and love their chief. Beginning with Lincoln's background, author Doris Kearns Goodwin describes the backgrounds of each of the four other main characters, Secretary of State William H. Seward, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and Attorney General Edward Bates.
Seward, Senator from and former Governor of New York, entered the Republican Convention of 1860 as the presumed nominee until the Lincoln operatives upset those aspirations. Although overcome by disappointment, Seward accepted the post of Secretary of State, expecting to become a defacto Prime Minister to a president who, despite his extraordinary height, was in over his head. Becoming Lincoln's most trusted advisor, Seward came to realize that he was just that, an advisor to a superior politician.
Gov. Chase of Ohio was the champion of the abolitionists who also saw himself as the logical standard bearer whose day in the sun was delayed, not eclipsed, by the Lincoln ascendency. Although Chase continued to use his position to undermine Lincoln politically with the intention of replacing him in 1865, Lincoln was able to use Chase's considerable talents to keep the war effort financed.
Stanton, a Washington insider, who had served as President Buchanan's Attorney General, came into the cabinet with heavy personal baggage. During their legal careers, Lincoln had been hired as local counsel for a case pending in Illinois. After venue was transferred to Ohio, Lincoln appeared to participate in the trial. Stanton, upon seeing the Western ruffian, disparagingly refused to allow Lincoln to play any role. At the end Lincoln returned to Illinois with bruised ego, a large legal fee, but no apparent grudge. It was Stanton who would collaborate with Lincoln in the prosecution of the war and who would cry at his death.
Bates, the conservative Missourian would largely confine himself to legal matters while providing Lincoln with a political balance to the more abolitionist Chase and Seward.
On the pages of this book the reader is brought through the victories and defeats of war, the personal agonies and political challenges through which Lincoln and the country passed. Here we read of mortal threats along the train trip to Washington, Lincoln's skill in playing each appointee off against the others and the taming of the disparate cabinet members.
Goodwin has crafted, not just a multiple biography, but a seamlessly weaved history of the War as seen from the Administration's perspective. It follows the trail of the four years that these rivals worked together through the threats of Bull Run, the frustrations with McClellan, the euphoria of Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the Gettysburg Address, the electoral struggles during the war, the discovery of Grant and Sherman, the military team that would bring victory, and the difficult, but ultimately successful, reelection campaign. At the end the administration would complete the victory and prepare for the peace until it was terminated in perhaps the most elaborate assassination plot in American history.
Booth's plot itself deserves mention. It was not limited to the assassination of Lincoln, but was to include Seward, who was seriously wounded as he lay in his sickbed where he was recovering from a carriage accident, and Vice-President Johnson, who was saved only because his planned assailant lost his courage.
This book is a good read that never loses the reader's interest. It is one of those books that really enables the reader to understand how the whole story fits together. It helps us to appreciate the political genius of Abraham Lincoln, who was able to hold things together during our nation's greatest crisis. It is must reading for everyone who wants to understand Abraham Lincoln and how America survived the Civil War.
Having recently devoured the whole of the West Wing box sets in a few weeks, I was yearning for some more American political intrigue and insights into the inner workings of the White House. Doris Kearns Goodwin's fascinating biography of Abraham Lincoln certainly delivers on that score, but is so much more than that besides. It was the book that, besides the Bible, Barack Obama chose to take into the White House with him for inspiration, and is also heartily recommended by no less than the new Labour spin doctor Alistair Campbell, as a treatise on leadership. So it certainly has a lot to live up to.
Being embarrassingly ignorant about Lincoln, save that he was an American President; had something to do with the Civil War; was assassinated; and has a memorial named after him, this book has been a total revelation to me. Lincoln, who had come from an impoverished family, was a small town lawyer from Springfield, Illinois, and certainly not a name anyone would have mentioned as a favourite for the Republican presidential nomination much before his surprise triumph in 1860. He seemed to come out of nowhere to beat his rivals and established favourites for the nomination, who all came from considerably better stock than Lincoln, namely William Seward, Salmon Chase and Edward Bates. And when he won the Presidential race too, he pulled off a masterstroke, and rather than surrounding himself with his allies who had helped with his victorious campaign, he made these same three former rivals for the Republican leadership, who were still smarting from their defeat to this upstart outsider, his close cabinet members. He had obviously heard of the phrase `keep your friends close, and your enemies closer'.
And it is the way that Lincoln conducted himself when President which still serves today as a master class in leadership skills. He was generous and even tempered at all times, dealing with colleagues with kindness and trust. He encouraged colleagues to criticise his speeches, so that he could make them as good as they could possibly be. And he always waited before sending out a letter which he had written in anger, to see if his views changed when his emotions had settled down. In fact some of the letters written in this spirit were never sent by him, but stayed in their sealed envelopes for posterity, and future biographers, to discover. And in this age of instant communication, how many of us wish we had never pressed `Send' on an angry e mail or two? We could certainly all learn a lot from Lincoln on that score.
And he had the small matter of the American Civil war to contend with, a conflict which nearly brought the young country to its knees, and caused heartbreaking splits between communities and even within individual families, as the Unionists and Confederates battled it out for four years between 1861 and 1865. Fierce battles raged all over America, and even came perilously close to the White House itself on occasion. Kearns Goodwin relates how Lincoln, who was not originally a champion of equality between the races at all, even giving speeches regarding the superiority of the white race over black people, led the Unionists to victory, and engineered the deployment of blacks into their armies, which was a major the turning point in the war. He was the author of the Thirteenth Amendment, to the US Constitution, which abolished the slavery which the Southern Confederates were so keen to preserve.
The long and detailed, but still page turning book, also gives fascinating details on the personal lives of Lincoln and his colleagues, so it is not just a book about leadership and war stratagems. Lincoln was beset by tragedy, apart from his own obvious one, as his young and beloved son Willie died of typhoid fever, a loss than he never seemed to really get over. And his wife Mary was something of a shopaholic, running up huge bills to lavishly kit out both the White House and her own wardrobe, as she thought befitted her husband's status.
Whether you are looking for some inspiration on leadership skills, or an account of the politics behind the American Civil War, or simply a cracking good history book, I can't recommend this Pulitzer prize winning great book highly enough. Leo Tolstoy felt that Lincoln was `a humanitarian as broad as the world. He was bigger than his country - bigger than all the Presidents together.' It feels like we could certainly use someone like him at the moment.
on 20 April 2009
I bought this book to read on a recent trip to Washington DC, the location of much of the narrative. I started to read it on the plane and couldn't put it down. From the start the author sets the scene by outlining the backgrounds of the team of rivals and presents the case for President Lincoln as a political genius. I found the story utterly absorbing, full of human interest as well as weighty historical detail. It is not hagiography and the character of Lincoln is revealed in all its complexity, as are the other key actors in this drama. And it reads like a drama, a real page-turner. If only all history was as entertaining and informative!
on 20 December 2011
Abraham Lincoln was undoubtedly one of the great US Presidents, but he was helped in what he achieved by those around him. He puposely surrounded himself with many of his rivals for the Republican nomination, having decided that the crisis facing the USA needed the strongest minds facing it - and also, that it was better to have his rivals inside his cabinet rather than outside it. Doris Kearns Goodwin has written a distinctive history of Abraham Lincoln with particular emphasis on Seward, Chase, Welles, Stanton, Blair and the other members of Lincoln's cabinet. It is a different, interesting approach to a well-covered, saturated area of study. Don't expect stunning insights - this is quite a simplistic thesis. It doesn't break new ground, and Goodwin's view of Lincoln is unafilingly positive to the point of hero-worship. Seward is equally well treated once the 1860 Election is over. On the other hand, her opinion of Chase and Mary Lincoln is almost damning, and in her opinion, they rarely do anything right. However, as a readable popular history it is first class - interesting and accessible with plenty of anecdotes and comment.
on 31 March 2013
Engrossing account of a remarkable period in America's history,dominated by the tragedy of civil war, yet brought to a final conclusion by a team of statesmen - some of whom who initially saw themselves as better qualified for leadership, yet were later to acknowledge the skill and genius of Lincoln's adroit and compassionate leadership. Rivalry, tragedy and set backs on the battlefield were finally overcome by the need to keep a balance of the political forces in both country and party when Lincoln knew the ultimate goal of the struggle was to maintain the Union and then the moral and legal argument to end slavery. Once accomplished his own death through assassination quickly followed.
This historical narrative is brilliantly told, it is so well written that length is no deterrent to one's enjoyment, indeed it is with a sense of sadness that the end is finally reached. Highly recommended for both the general reader and specialist.
on 23 October 2010
A well written and interesting book. At times it seemed a bit too in awe of Lincoln and I would have liked to have seen a more critical analysis of him.
It gave a fascinating insight into how little formality there was in the white House as compared to now, and as to how constrained he was in his actions because of the need to keep so many rival politicians onside.
The whole world knows a little bit about Abraham Lincoln. Emancipator and US president during the American Civil War, he is a revered figure. When I visited Washington D.C. last December, the most impressive memory I have is of the Lincoln Memorial. Standing, looking up at the huge seated statue of Lincoln, I felt a sense of benevolence and watchfulness.
Doris Kearns Goodwin is a famous historical writer who has taken a fresh look at the life and politics of Lincoln. She has chosen to view his achievements by studying his cabinet, a range of diverse men who Lincoln deliberately appointed to positions of power despite their opposing views. Three of his cabinet had been opposing rivals for the Republican candidacy and all had considered Lincoln to be a backwards country lawyer. Firstly, there was William Seward, the expected nominee, who Lincoln later appointed as Secretary of State. Seward initially expected to act as "the power behind the throne" but later came to consider Lincoln as one of his closest friends. Secondly, Salmon Chase, an ambitious man who desperately wanted to be president. Appointed Secretary of the Treasury, he raised much needed funds for the Union during the Civil War yet still strove for the presidency. The third candidate was Edward Bates, a kind genial family man who Lincoln appointed as Attorney General.
When it came to appointing his Secretary of War, Lincoln turned to Edwin Stanton. Stanton was a famous lawyer who had once dismissed Lincoln in a famous patent case. Yet when it came time to appointing his generals, Lincoln held no grudge and called on Stanton as the best man for the job.
Lincoln corralled a diverse range of men, and unified them into a strong and cohesive leadership during one of the toughest times faced by the United States. It is testament to his leadership and empathy, and lack of grudges, that by the time he died, all men considered him a true friend and a gifted leader.
This book is an amazing insight on so many levels. Initially, it reveals the immense talents of Lincoln, but on a deeper level, the talents of Lincoln provide many guidelines for modern business and politics. It is a truly great work and will continue to ensure that the legacy of Lincoln will "belong to the ages".
on 16 December 2015
Honestly, I would give this book ten stars. It is now by far my favorite book. After reading this you realize why Abraham Lincoln is considered the greatest of American presidents. Our knee-jerk reaction would be that it is because he freed the slaves, but as Goodwin points out, many of his rivals would have done the same, faster, and with greater freedoms for blacks. Abraham Lincoln was great because of his unbelievable political instincts. He knew how to use and get the best out of key political players, even when they were his enemies. If he saw greatness in his enemies he attracted them, and they, more often than not, became his friends. He put together one of the greatest cabinets in US history because of this talent. Presidents fill their posts with supporters. Not Lincoln. But they became his supporters. He did not allow ego to get in the way. He turned a blind eye and became the most loved President in American history. And he understood, above everything else, that timing is everything. His policies worked because he waited for the right moment. The emancipation proclamation, the thirteenth amendment, etc..these were successful because they weren't rushed. They came just at the moment they would be received. His political instincts were beyond compare.
What I found very interesting is that although as an American my impression has always been that Lincoln was the greatest of all abolitionists, he was not an abolitionist at all. And his policy regarding slavery gradually evolved into what it eventually became, freedom from slavery in the whole United States. Had Lincoln not been assassinated, it is interesting to think whether reconstruction may have been far more successful and the whole history of race relations in America changed.
This book is beautifully written. It made me laugh (Lincoln had quite a sense of humor) and it made me cry. I was really moved at the end. This book focuses on the political history of the civil war, and it is moving, inspiring, and reaffirms why I love to read history so much. If you are going to read one book this year, read this one. You will not be disappointed.
I first became aware of Lincoln when I was 17 and visited Washington DC (a beautiful city), where Lincoln has what is undoubtedly the grandest, as well one of the most recognisable, of the many memorials in the city. However, it was only after seeing Steven Spielberg's 'Lincoln' that I truly appreciated exactly what a significant role he played in American history (and in the fate of the world when you consider what may otherwise have happened to the USA).
I was keen to learn more and discovered that the movie was based on this book by Doris Kearns Goodwin. The book is a 700-odd page bulk but is consistently absorbing and entertaining. There isn't a dry soulless page or passage to be found. From Lincoln's early years through to his untimely death and legacy, the story (for it is told as a narrative rather than a plain historical text) is insightful and and interesting. This is the ultimate retelling of Lincoln's life, which draws from many of the biographies and historical texts which have come before it, and blends them into a cohesive whole.
The book clearly comes from an author who admires Lincoln as it is an overwhelmingly positive portrayal of his role as President of the United States. Still, that isn't to be unexpected when the man is often ranked amongst the top 3 Presidents - the top 1 in some cases - by scholars. As you read you can't help but appreciate the bigger picture drawn by the author, which shows just how much Lincoln pulled the strings and anticipated sentiments and events well in advance. You end up wondering whether it really was divine providence which led to him becoming President. Still, space is still given over to the more critical accounts of Lincoln and Doris Goodwin ably sets out events and issues on which people have differing opinions.
I do have a few gripes. First, there is very little focus on the events portrayed in the Lincoln movie. Only 3 or 4 pages is given to the passing of the amendment to abolish slavery. Second, it would have been nice to learn more about what happened to the reconstruction process as a result of Lincoln's death. I have had to rely on Wikipedia for that and come to the conclusion that, of all the men in the administration, it is a travesty that Andrew Johnson was the one in line to become President as he reversed all of Lincoln's good groundwork. Third, the chronology does become a little muddled and confused at times as the book jumps to different individuals and events. It would have been useful to have the rather long chapters divided a little more clearly by dates.
Still, those are very minor and do not detract from what is a great read about an absolutely incredible man.
on 15 January 2013
This book reads like a novel, hard to put down. The members of the cabinet are described in detail as well as their wives, children, careers, hopes, successes, failures, disappointments, happiness and suffering. You want to turn the pages continuously to find out what will happen next.
The three main characters are Abraham Lincoln, William Seaward-Secretary of State-foreign affairs and Salmon Chase, Secretary of the Treasury-finance. The author describes all the skills Lincoln had to deploy to get the benefit of the outstanding skills of these remarkable persons. To start with getting them to accept them to join the cabinet was far from easy; they refused as a first reaction. Next, they resigned several times and Lincoln needed creativity to get them to withdraw their resignations.
They never became a team as Lincoln hoped in the beginning. Lincoln concluded that aiming for consensus was not feasible. He listened very intensely to their views, thought deeply and announced his decision that was accepted. One of the methods Lincoln used to reduce tension was to tell amusing stories, always, starting with, "This reminds me of...
An example of Lincoln's way of working. Chase continued manipulating public opinion and undermining Seward with the goal to win the next election for President. For example he saw to it that his face was printed on al green one-dollar bills so people would recognize him. In public he praised Lincoln adding that progress could have been achieved more quickly, implying with him in charge. Lincoln was perfectly aware of these manipulations. Chase performance in financing the war and getting the financial system under control was truly outstanding and is described in greater detail in other books. The author describes Lincoln's capability to disregard these manipulations and not become angry or offended by this lack of loyalty. Lincoln only considered what people could accomplish and not if they were nice to him.
Lincoln had far less experience of governing than his rivals. Fortunately he was an incredibly fast learner. Already after a few months the cabinet members accepted his decisions. This did not work in the conduct of the war with general George McClellan, the head of the armed forces. Lincoln soon realized his weaknesses and studied military strategy, and became quite knowledgeable, but not to the point where he could compensate for the weaknesses of the general. Lincoln also in this case was patient for a long time and accepted McClellan's disloyal and extremely disrespectful behavior. Different from Chase McClellan produced mediocre results. The war would have shortened considerably if Lincoln at an earlier date had replaced McClellan with Ulysses Grant.