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Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln Paperback – 12 Feb 2009
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A wonderful book ... a remarkable study in leadership (Barack Obama)
The most uplifting book that I have read in the last two decades. Sensational (Jon Snow)
I have not enjoyed a history book as much for years (Robert Harris The Observer (Books of the Year))
A fabulously engrossing, exciting narrative in the grand old style ... overflowing with colour and character (Dominic Sandbrook)
A brilliant book ... I couldn't get enough of it (Alex Ferguson)
Goodwin's narrative abilities are on full display here. A portrait of Lincoln as a virtuosic politician and managerial genius (Michiko Kakutani New York Times)
"I have not enjoyed a history book as much for years. A pure delight"See all Product description
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Her book’s concept is simple enough. Four men (excluding also-rans) contested the Republican nomination in 1860: William Seward, Salmon Chase, Abraham Lincoln and Edward Bates. Unusually, after Lincoln won his party’s endorsement and, subsequently, the presidential election, he invited his former competitors to take seats in the cabinet – hence the book’s title. Goodwin’s is the story of how the four came to be the principle Republican candidates and how they interacted once on the same team after the election.
That’s a lot of weight for a book to carry and one of its remarkable features is how lightly it does so. Despite measuring in at a little over 750 pages (or well over 900 if notes and index are included), it never plods. Partly, that’s because Goodwin doesn’t stick rigidly to her mission. The first part, leading up to 1860, is essentially four parallel biographies. The temptation, which she rightly resists, is to over-write their early lives. Instead, she focusses on the key experiences that made them who they became, on what they shared in common and where they differed: the essential building blocks of the post-1860 story. What she does write though is comprehensively researched and packed with relevant anecdote and reference. She not only brings the people to life but also the times they lived in.
She also lightens the load by ensuring that it is not a Civil War book, as such. The conflict does, of course, dominate Lincoln’s presidency but she’s interested in how it was managed from DC, not the details of the campaigns themselves, unless they link into the main narrative.
The four men also do not get equal billing. Lincoln, of course, is pre-eminent but the index is revealing: against Lincoln’s near-six columns of entries, Seward has three, Chase, a little over two and Bates, just one and a quarter. This, again, is as it should be. Bates’ life, for example, was not as dramatic as the other men’s, nor was he as central to the administration as Seward or Chase. Similarly, the cast extends far beyond these central characters, particularly once Lincoln becomes president and the Civil War breaks out.
There is, however, a second narrative theme, revealed in the book’s sub-title. I knew (as surely does virtually everyone) that Lincoln was a great man. I hadn’t realised until I read this just how profoundly good a man he was, nor how great a politician either: two surprisingly interrelated attributes. His skill at man-management was extraordinary, helped in no small part by his exceptional patience and magnanimity.
That said, it’s in Goodwin’s description of Lincoln’s political ability that I have my one reservation about her book. She doesn’t criticise him for any decision or action he took and his is implicitly described as a career virtually without error. No-one is that perfect and while I’m not a Lincoln expert, the evidence from her own book suggests to me that he was too indulgent at times towards underperforming or disloyal colleagues and commanders – Chase and McClellan being two obvious examples.
I’m not particularly religious but it’s hard not to see something providential about Lincoln’s presidency. No one could have led the Union more effectively given the options available (though that was far from clear beforehand); Lincoln was a remarkable choice for candidate given his almost complete lack of experience in office; and considering his upbringing, he’d overcome tremendous obstacles simply to be in the running. How he did it is fascinating and inspiring.
I was unfamiliar with this author and her work and, like others, came to this book via Spielberg’s “Lincoln”. The underlying premise that to understand the principal – Lincoln – you need also to study his rivals is an interesting one - think Caesar Cicero ,Pompey and Crassus.
But there is sometimes a somewhat reverential tone to American writing and some ex post hoc musing by contemporaries on Lincoln (see also Ken Burns monumental Civil War series and of course Spielberg) which a more objective non-American take now and then might serve to mitigate. In Roman times no doubt he would have been given divine status after his death! This author does not entirely give herself over to that halo effect and does describe attitudes actions and behaviour that are less creditable especially in his early life.
But this not an easy read or page turner. The prose while often delightfully precise and succinct can also be complex requiring long sentences to be re-read. And I found the timelines going back and forth, within the accounts of each of the rival’s early life, a little confusing as were the numbers of B’s Bates Benton etc with one of the B’s at least re-appearing in the narrative after I thought he was dead! A second read may help.
It does provide ,however, insight, through the lives of four leading men into how America was evolving, culturally politically and socially in the second quarter of the 19th century up to 1860. To a European like myself it is illuminating and an antidote to the somewhat stereotypical and uninformed view one had otherwise. This is one of the things good historical biography does. This book also makes the way that nation has evolved subsequently more comprehensible, if, nonetheless and probably, all the more disappointing especially to these four men were they able to witness it today.
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