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Reaffirming Abraham Lincoln as the greatest president,
This review is from: Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Hardcover)
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.