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Lincoln’s team and his brilliance at leading them
on 5 October 2017
Doris Kearns Goodwin deserves thanks from her readers twice over. Firstly, in the crowded field of writings on the US Civil War and on Abraham Lincoln, she has found a new and fascinating way of illuminating the man, his life and times. And secondly, having identified that opportunity, she had then written an outstanding book.
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.