63 of 65 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A majestic work of narrative history
I bought "Team of Rivals" because I was curious to see what sort of book got a recommendation from the new US President, and because I'm interested in American history. I didn't expect it to be as good as it is. I very rarely give five stars to things on Amazon - only to items that I think are perfect or exemplary in some way. "Team of Rivals" is popular history, but...
Published on 25 Mar 2009 by lexo1941
38 of 40 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Great narrative, but wholly uncritical
The massive scholarship of this work is clearly evident in the 754 pages of highly readable narrative history. I was reminded of Robert K. Massie's histories of the European powers around the Great war; lots of characters, finely drawn, which give a real sense of the human side of great events. The key unique piece of this book is the interplay of the principal...
Published on 1 April 2011 by Mr
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63 of 65 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A majestic work of narrative history,
I bought "Team of Rivals" because I was curious to see what sort of book got a recommendation from the new US President, and because I'm interested in American history. I didn't expect it to be as good as it is. I very rarely give five stars to things on Amazon - only to items that I think are perfect or exemplary in some way. "Team of Rivals" is popular history, but of the best kind: scrupulously researched, packed with anecdote and detail, and intelligently structured. It's up there with James McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom" as one of the essential works about the American Civil War for the general reader.
Goodwin's argument is that Lincoln was not just a humanitarian, a great statesman and the man who saved the Union, but also a political genius. She makes a good case. This is essentially a group biography of Lincoln's cabinet, and what Goodwin shows very well is Lincoln's remarkable capacity to take a bunch of powerful men with big egos, almost all of whom came from socially superior backgrounds to his own, and have them all jockeying for his approval within months of his election. Lincoln's political genius seems to have been fuelled by both his hard-won self-confidence and his extraordinary absence of personal malice. When, as a tyro politician, he would be defeated, he would go out of his way to be friendly to the victor. As a President, he was continually harried by the political ambitions of his vain and self-righteous Treasury Secretary, the implausibly named Salmon P. Chase. Lincoln's friends marvelled that the President tolerated Chase's all-too-obvious desire to be president himself, but Lincoln put up with Chase on the grounds that Chase was a fine Treasury Secretary and didn't have a cat in hell's chance of ever being elected to the White House. In this, as in so many things, Lincoln was right.
He had timing; he knew when to reply to letters that were designed to put him on the spot in such a way that the tables were turned on the sender. He managed the incredible feat of steering America through a hideous civil war. He liked a good joke (he had an apparently inexhaustible fund of stories, including some remarkably salty ones that I won't repeat here) and even his enemies were forced to admit that he knew how to hire good people. In retrospect, it's not difficult to see what Barack Obama sees in this book. Now you too can impress your friends with the intimate knowledge of the marital difficulties of Salmon Chase's daughter.
A fine, epic book. It has whetted my appetite for Lincolniana. Now I want to save up enough money for Michael Burlingame's monumental two-volume Lincoln biography. In the meantime, I unreservedly recommend this moving and stirring book. If Goodwin hero-worships Lincoln, it's only because most people who knew him did the same thing. And if Lincoln - with all his faults - wasn't some sort of hero, then the term surely has little meaning.
38 of 40 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Great narrative, but wholly uncritical,
The massive scholarship of this work is clearly evident in the 754 pages of highly readable narrative history. I was reminded of Robert K. Massie's histories of the European powers around the Great war; lots of characters, finely drawn, which give a real sense of the human side of great events. The key unique piece of this book is the interplay of the principal characters; the team of rivals, who form Lincoln's cabinet. Along with them, Doris Kearns gives fair due to the women in their lives, who are clearly all women of substance and ability; with perhaps the exception of Lincoln's wife, Mary, who often appears spiteful and small-minded.
As a political narrative, it has real merit; but I have a couple of reservations which perhaps challenge the scholarship. Firstly, there is very little analysis of the military side of the Civil War. At one level this is fine, as this is a political history, and there are enough great military histories of the Civil War. At another, it is a weakness. The war was Lincoln's foremost challenge; he was elected just before the it started and was killed as it ended. Beyond descriptions of his very human actions with individual troops; visits to the front and decisions around commuting sentences, the war plays an oddly distant, unconnected, almost exogenous role.
It leads to my second and wider discomfort. Every action in Lincoln's career is interpreted as a masterly and courageous move; even if it involves inaction. In three areas this seems to be a little too sympathetic.
First would be Lincoln's vacillation in not firing General Maclellan. There is no discussion of whether this should have been done earlier, and yet Maclellan wasted a vast army which could have challenged Robert E. Lee's Army of Virginia much more and earlier than it did.
Second would be the Abolition of Slavery. In other histories I have read, it is suggested that the slavery decision was at least partly driven by the need to head off British and French recognition of the Confederacy. There is no mention of this here. Instead, it is part of Lincoln's flawless political pacing towards his ends, in this case in the teeth of opposition from lesser beings.
Third would be his willingness to tolerate dissent and on occasion outright betrayal from those around him. The key case is Salmon Chase, who actively plots against the President in search of the 1864 nomination. The rationale is that Lincoln is above such personal trivia and focused purely on maximising the human talent deployed against the issues of the day.
I ma not sure there is a single instance where Doris Kearns cites a material mistake being made by Abe Lincoln. I am afraid somewhere early on, I stopped buying this utter faith in Lincoln's courage and prescience and started interpreting his actions in my own way as I read the rest of the book. The narrative can be interpreted differently, with Lincoln as a man who sometimes did feel doubt and did feel challenged in facing up to others. I found it more believable to see Lincoln as the 'rail-splitter' from Illinois seeking to face up to men with more social standing and education, as well as the most turbulent and violent period in America's history. I fail to see why the memory of a truly great President is marred by the idea that he was not flawless, that the almost Christ-like omniscience he displays in Doris Kearns' vision is just too perfect to be true.
Surely how much more satisfying that he is a man with weaknesses and imperfections, like the rest of humanity? Surely there is only courage when there is fear? I realise Lincoln is an almost mythical figure in US history, but the point of books like this is that they show the real human being, not the myth.
So all in all, a fine read, but keep your critical faculties close by.
51 of 55 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Lincoln as a political animal,
Of all the American Presidents, I admire Abraham Lincoln the most because he stalwartly endured so much: rebellious states, incompetent Federal generals, a fractious Republican Party, near-treasonous Democrats, a financially irresponsible and mentally unstable wife, and the death of a son. Finishing this thick work, my esteem for him is in no way diminished.
TEAM OF RIVALS by Doris Kearns Goodwin is, above all, a political biography of Lincoln as he rose through the ranks from country lawyer to Illinois state legislator to U.S. Congressman to presidential candidate to Chief Executive. As the Republican nominee for President in 1860, he beat out several formidable rivals for the nomination, including Salmon Chase, William Seward, and Edward Bates. Once elected, Lincoln was wily enough to keep his former (and potentially future) adversaries within immediate sight by cajoling them into his Cabinet - Chase at Treasury, Seward at State, and Bates as Attorney General. Thus, TEAM OF RIVALS is necessarily a political biography of each of these three men and, to a lesser degree, also one for each of the other prominent members of the Cabinet - Montgomery Blair as Postmaster General, Edwin Stanton as War Secretary (succeeding Simon Cameron), and Gideon Wells as Navy Secretary. The remarkable teamwork the Cabinet displayed to steer the Union through the darkest days of the Civil War is its, and Lincoln's, great achievement.
In her memoir of growing up, WAIT TILL NEXT YEAR, Goodwin is charmingly engaging. At 754 pages with two extensive photographic sections, TEAM OF RIVALS is hardly that but erudite, detailed, and lucid. The author's treatment of her subject is obviously admiring. At no point does Goodwin's narrative slime Abe's reputation with any perception which one normally ascribes to the currently incumbent band of dubious, self-serving, vacillating, and morally compromised public parasites whatever their party affiliation. Perhaps Lincoln was truly a wise and steadfastly principled man, or Goodwin just chose not to notice any blemishes. Or perhaps time itself serves as an airbrush.
It took me almost four months to gnaw my way through this lengthy volume; it's not a book I couldn't put down. For that reason, I'm knocking off a star, though I freely admit that this is more a deficiency related to my attention span than anything else. Others, not wearied by too much of a good thing, will justifiably award 5 stars.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Team of Rivals,
This is a fascinating and detailed study of Lincoln's early political life and rise to the presidency. His story is set against those of his political rivals, which gives it a greater depth than a pure biography. It is well written and easy to read, rather than being a dense and weighty tome. The text is full of colour and personal or domestic detail. I found it easy to become absorbed in the unfolding narrative, as good a story as many fiction books.
25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Reaffirming Abraham Lincoln as the greatest president,
In "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," Doris Kearns Goodwin confirms my belief that Abraham Lincoln was literally the only man in America who could have preserved the Union in the face of the Civil War. The book offers parallel biographies of Lincoln and the three men who were his chief rivals for the Republican nomination for president in 1860--Willam Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates--as well as the man who would serve as Secretary of War for most of Lincoln's administration, the (War) Democrat Edwin Stanton. The emphasis is on how their personal and political lives shaped their personalities and their destinies, as well as how circumstances compelled them to accept posts in the Lincoln cabinet and (with one notable exception) come to recognize that the president they served was the greatest man of his generation.
Goodwin presents Lincoln as the first consummate politician, as indicated by the subtitle, which is to say that in being nominated for president he proved his rivals to be amateurs, making his surprising nomination seem totally inevitable. The parallel biographies lead to a series of incidents in which Lincoln must manage not only these people but issues and events as well. More importantly, she makes it clear that from at least his first defeat for a U.S. Senate seat from Illinois in 1855 that Lincoln had been living by the words of his Second Inaugural address: "With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right." Goodwin also emphasizes Lincoln's driving ambition of "being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem."
Otherwise, "Team of Rivals" reinforces the judgments history has made of these historical figures. I continue to see both Chase and McClelland to be detestable figures, and the book gives me a much better appreciation of Seward (and also of Gideon Welles). Lincoln is such a towering figure that a book like this does serve to remind you that these other men actually did things besides try to act as defacto president. Goodwin also makes an effort to put Mary Lincoln in a better light, and highlights Lincoln's visits to the troops. One of the key recurring elements is the way diverse parties as Frederick Douglass and the "Charleston Mercury" reversed their opinions about Lincoln as president, explaining why it was the most vilified American of the 19th century when he was first inaugurated would become a secular saint whose death was met with almost universal bereavement.
The book ends with all of Washington present for the two-day "farewell march" of the nearly two hundred thousand Union soldiers past the reviewing stand on Pennsylvania Avenue. All of the members of the cabinet were there, but not Abraham Lincoln. Goodwin privileges a story told by Leo Tolstoy of how the name of Lincoln was known even to a tribal chief in the wild and remote area of the North Caucasus. The epilogue covers the deaths of the principle members of Lincoln's cabinet and of Tad and Mary Lincoln (but not Robert). However, Goodwin's thesis is well and truly proven when Lincoln accepts Chase's resignation, which would make the nomination of Chase as Chief Justice the pertinent epilogue. But Goodwin can hardly be faulted for continuing to play out the rest of the war and Lincoln's life. For me the most poignant moment in the volume comes when Seward, recovering from his own assassination attempt and spared the news of what happened at Ford's Theater, knows the president is dead because he sees a flag at half-mast and knows his friend would have been the first to visit at his bedside.
As to being an implicit indictment of the current Cabinet, I suppose there is an attendant irony given that those who served Lincoln were under the mistaken belief they were smarter than the President. But historically only the first cabinet selected by George Washington can measure up to the team Lincoln assembled (having both Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson settles that matter, although Henry Knox and Edmund Randolph are not slouches). The Kennedy administration came make claim to having assembled "The Best and the Brightest," but that is hardly comparable to bringing together the biggest names in the party. Still, obvious parallels between Stanton and Rumsfeld aside, the thought of John McCain serving in the Bush cabinet would certainly represent the sort of inherent tensions Lincoln faced repeatedly in his day. However, today Cabinet officers clearly function more as administrators and as advisors specific to their responsibilities, than as the general council on all matters political and military that Lincoln enjoyed.
"Team of Rivals" does not break new ground in terms of Lincoln scholarship, but it does try to put Lincoln in a slightly different light, and if there is one figure in American history who deserves to be revisited from time to time, it would be Abraham Lincoln. The crises, both major and minor, come so fast and furious during the Civil War that Goodwin cannot really justify using break them into discrete subjects worthy of individual chapters. Consequently, once the book gets past introducing the primary figures, it sticks to a straightforward chronology. There are close to a hundred contemporary photographs and illustrations throughout the book, but with an eye always turned towards irony, I note that the endpapers consist of a view from Pennsylvania Avenue of the unfinished U.S. Capitol in the 1850s, and a stereoscopic view of the finished building after Lincoln's death when the nation that was torn in two had been reunited.
62 of 69 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Master politician and “very near being a perfect man”,
Frankly, until reading this book, I did not fully understand the nature and extent of the circumstances in which Lincoln included in his cabinet those who, prior to his election, were his major political opponents and who, in addition, viewed him with contempt. Specifically, Salmon P. Chase, Edward Bates, William H. Seward, and Edwin M. Stanton. He then worked effectively with each throughout the Civil War. Even more remarkable is the fact that, by the time of Lincoln’s assassination, each of these four had grown to love as well as respect someone whom Stanton had once described as a "long armed Ape."
Senior-level executives can learn a number of important lessons in leadership by reading this book. They include:
1. Surround yourself with whatever talent the given enterprise requires.
2. Welcome, indeed strongly encourage principled dissent.
3. Timing is not everything but often the difference between success and failure.
4. Exercise selective hearing during a contentious group discussion.
5. Unless absolutely certain, be willing to grant benefit of the doubt.
6. Exhaust opponents by listening to them.
7. Appreciate effort but only reward performance.
8. Serve “with malice toward none, with charity for all”
9. And lead “with firmness in the right.”
10. When dealing with forceful personalities, focus on common interests.
As Kearns quite correctly asserts, only a “political genius” could have assembled and then worked effectively with cabinet members such as Chase, Bates, Seward, and Stanton, all of whom were independent thinkers, had personal agendas, and (at least initially) considered themselves super to Lincoln in all respects. With all due respect to Lincoln’s leadership and management skills, however, it should also be noted that Bates eventually described Lincoln as "very near being a perfect man." His inherent decency and impeccable integrity informed and guided his leadership and management as president.
As I read Kearns’s book, I realized that only by preserving the unity of his diverse cabinet could Lincoln have preserved the Union. Had he been able to complete his second term, his “political genius” would have enabled him to fulfill hopes he expressed in his second Inaugural Address: “to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An Insight to Abraham Lincoln's Unique Strengths as a Statesman,
A timely book given the election of President Obama and his selection of a cabinet
Provides a very good insight to the strengths of Abraham Lincoln as had been derived from his austere upbringing and his thirst for knowledge despite having had only one year of full time education. His ability to explain issues in every day terms gave him strengthens of communicating with the people which his political rivals did not have because of over convoluting their cases. For example Seward, one of the rivals, on occasions drew analogies in his speeches to Greek history for an audience who often had just the rudiments of education!. Lincoln realized that the biggest challenge for a leader in a democratic society is in educating public opinion:
" Another beehive was kicked over","Best not to swap horses when crossing streams" "Removing one man from office is easy, replacing him with as one of 20 candidates I can make 19 enemies"
Above all, his magnanimous nature softened blame which he was prepared to share/shoulder was key to his balancing the team of rivals which as he declared from the outset he needed to assemble, since America needed the best people in government.See parallel strategy with President Obama who considers this books an important model for him.
The description of how Lincoln saw the challenge of eliminating slavery in the Southern States -snake in the bed of children, was profound. Also was the way he waited until he saw an legitimate case for abolishing slavery in the existing slave states. Slaves were fundamental to supporting the South's war effort and hence as a war president he could introduce and have past, an amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery in all states.
The book provides a good precis of the American Civil war with good blow by blow accounts but only seen from the Unionist point of view. In a book of this length 757 pages, what is understandingly missing is the perspective of the South during this time. This motivated me to seek out a biography of Jefferson Davis the confederate president:Jefferson Davis The Man and his Hour by W.C. Davis 706 pages of finer print which I am 2/3rds through at the moment.
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Rich but quite digestibe,
A doorstep of a book that kept me engaged for over a week (O K, I'm a slow reader now). It was a lot more approachable than some of the reviews here suggest. I recommend it highly, particularly to those readers who prefer actual history and biography to historical fiction.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Probably the greatest book I have read,
Very pacy and intimate portrait of leadership.The book provides numerous examples of leadership that is very much based upon having strong personal traits and adapting your approach from learned experiences. Lincoln observed, listened and mimicked and in so doing created a leader that was all quality.
One of the most interesting aspects of the boook was his relationship with Mary. I had hitherto been unaware of her flaws and how the Lincolns relationship was shaped by them.
A most read for anyone interested in leadership.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very enjoyable,
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.
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Team of Rivals: Lincoln Film Tie-in Edition by Doris Kearns Goodwin (Paperback - 29 Nov 2012)