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44 of 46 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Great narrative, but wholly uncritical, 1 April 2011
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This review is from: Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Paperback)
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.
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Showing 1-5 of 5 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 4 Apr 2011 12:07:44 BDT
Stagger Lee says:
I completely agree! I'm nearly six hundred pages in and, despite my admiration for the man, I have found the unqualified appraisal of Lincoln's performance difficult to swallow. Why do the Yanks feel the need to mythologise their leaders in so obvious a fashion?? Lincoln was one of the greats but there does indeed need to be more critical analysis here (although I think the whole Anglo-French recognition thesis was always a little over-blown - I suspect internal issues and public opinion were far more significant in explaining the timing of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation).

Great Review!

Posted on 3 Feb 2013 05:46:46 GMT
I feel this reviewer has given a fair appraisal of this biography of Lincoln. I agree that leaving out or obscuring the shadow side of a man, particularly one so lauded and admired as Lincoln undoubtedly was in his time, leaves much to be desired. Spielberg's film, based on the book, addresses this, if obliquely, by revealing the lengths to which Lincoln was willing to go to ensure the adoption of the 13th amendment, including corruption, bribery, and bullying his cabinet.

Posted on 20 Feb 2013 15:46:44 GMT
Last edited by the author on 20 Feb 2013 15:48:55 GMT
Grr says:
Unlike studying the lives and characters of most politicians in history, the difficulty of assessing Lincoln is that he was indeed almost "... too perfect to be true." Particularly when it is remembered that he really only had one issue to deal with in his Presidency - the Civil War. How his reputation might have fared in the aftermath is another matter. However, I disagree with nearly everything in this review, but would just concentrate on the three areas where the author is considered to be a "little too sympathetic."

Firstly the allegation that Kearns fails to discuss the delay (vacillation is unnecessarily pejorative) in firing McClellan (not Maclellan) is a grossly misleading simplification. There are many references to the relationship between the two men. Perhaps the reviewer means that Kearns should have been more critical of Lincoln, but one of the virtues of her book is that Kearns generally leaves her own opinions out of it, preferring to report what people said and how they reacted at the time.

With hindsight there is little doubt that Lincoln should have sacked McClellan earlier. And that is certainly apparent from what Kearns wrote. But at the time McClellan was considered to be the best general in the North and it was widely agreed he was a supreme organiser. Only subsequent events showed him to be a hopeless commander in the field. Also McClellan was very influential in the North, and, his precipitate sacking might very well have been damaging to its cause. Lastly, consider how many generals were appointed after McClellan and before Grant's appointment. And Lincoln gets no credit from the reviewer for appointing a successful alcoholic.

The reviewer's second concern is expressed as "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." Again, it is difficult to work out whether the animus here is directed at Kearns or Lincoln, but it would be interesting to know which other histories have suggested that the Proclamation of Emancipation (late as it was) was in any way designed to prevent British and French recognition of the pro-slavery Confederacy. This just doesn't make sense and doesn't warrant any mention by Kearns.

The third concern is Lincoln's "willingness to tolerate dissent." I read nothing in the book to suggest that Lincoln was "above such personal trivia and focused purely on maximising the human talent deployed against the issues of the day." When a canoeist is shooting rapids, his only concern is to keep the boat upright. And, for goodness sake that is what the book is about - just look at the title.

And finally the reviewer's main focus appears to be that Kearns does not portray Lincoln as a weak and vacillating President. But the point is that he wasn't. How many men could have kept the Union together in the face of the problems and opposition from all sides, as Lincoln did? He achieved the objective of preserving the union, didn't he? Because he didn't puff himself up like a Tony Blair or David Cameron, doesn't mean he wasn't effective. And for good or ill he defined the United States as few other Presidents' have done.

Posted on 30 Nov 2013 13:11:56 GMT
This review makes sense because the book depicts a quite perfect being, but from my reading one thing the author does succeed in is in showing the cost of indecision, compromise and general qualities of political instinct as well as its benefits without exaggerating Lincoln's success. The author takes a lot of time to show how indecision on McClellan was related with avoiding a political fight, there is a clear description of how Lincoln was not a fan of equality, how he changed his public view and how we cannot really grasp his personal view on slavery at any account in history as the definitive and actually yes the ability to tolerate dissension or out-right betrayal is portrayed as a quality because it is!

The key point of the book is that here is a man that does not operate in a straight line, has to live with a lot of irrealism, incompetence and limited information, but seems to be able to come out almost of most of his previous mistakes or vacillations reinvigorated and with "malice towards none"... the least one can see is a "political animal", the Christ-like figure comes out because contrary to other winners like FDR or Churchill one can hardly see that this man ever acted out of fury or impatience even though so much agitation was happening around him.

The fact that he was loved and respected by almost all of his "Team of Rivals" just proves his abilities!

Posted on 4 Feb 2014 14:02:31 GMT
Last edited by the author on 4 Feb 2014 14:02:59 GMT
GUY'S BOOKS says:
I agree that nobody is perfect, and that Lincoln certainly made his share of mistakes.
But with hindsight, everyone is wise. Lincoln was the weaker candidate to the Presidency, when he was elected, and he had no experience of government. he learnt to be president "by doing". It would have been easy for him, to lose the war: for instance, at the start, many unionists and several states were against the emancipation of slaves, or sending soldiers to fight the South. The genius of Lincoln, was in keeping together the North, in spite of his own lack of experience, his humble background, his limited education, the rivalry inside the cabinet, the ineptitude of the generals, and the strong resistance from the South. At the end of the day, victory covers many mistakes, as W. Churchill would agree.
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