- Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln
The Civil War is America's great national epic, and Abraham Lincoln, like Aeneas in ancient times, has forever been at its epicenter. In her massive retelling of this story, Doris Kearns Goodwin focuses on Lincoln, but with the new twist of coupling his story with those of his competitors for the Republican nomination in 1860: the frontrunner senator William H. Seward of New York, the self-centered but authentic antislavery radical Ohio governor Salmon P. Chase, and the lesser-known, home-loving former congressman and officeholder Edward Bates of Missouri. All four men had reason to believe that they might become the nominee of the new Republican party for the presidency. All three ended up in Washington as a "team of rivals" in Lincoln's cabinet, and it is this cabinet—with its rivalries, disagreements, and even petty insults coupled with Lincoln's management of his counselors—that is the conceptual centerpiece of this book. "Just as a hologram is created through the interference of light from separate sources," writes Goodwin, "so the lives and impressions of those who companioned Lincoln give us a clearer and more dimensional picture of the president himself" (xv).
Team of Rivals is a hefty half-million-word, 880-page, 26-chapter narrative that covers all the iconic events of prewar and wartime Civil War America and then some. Goodwin lavishes 256 pages on the period before the war begins, and she ends with Lincoln's assassination and brief codas about the postwar lives of her central characters. This is a straightforward narrative history with the chronological story kept alive by Goodwin's energetic prose as well as her use of quotations from the participants. Thus the actors tell their own story, and Goodwin is at her best when she lets contemporaries talk about their personal relationships with Lincoln. In the beginning, especially Seward and Chase thought themselves superior to their president in talent and experience. But in [End Page 54] time, along with a host of other Washington insiders, both—sooner for Seward and later for Chase—came to appreciate their self-assured leader, who, from the start, was willing to surround himself with his ambitious competitors.
Anyone who has worked in Civil War–era manuscripts will appreciate the exhaustive research that makes this book engrossing. Indeed the power of the book lies in Goodwin's details, not in any novel interpretation. While most of the material in Team of Rivals is well-known to scholars and specialists, few writers have put it together in such a comprehensive panorama. There is only occasional analysis, such as a short digression on American theater and on the president's hopeful temperament as a factor in his emotional intelligence. In Bernard Bailyn's useful distinction, Goodwin relies mostly on manifest history—that is what the participants knew at the time. Hence she uses contemporary sources throughout—the same sort of approach that marked her earlier book on Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Of course such an approach does not entirely preclude the necessity of taking positions on various biographical matters relating to Lincoln. Goodwin makes the distinction between depression and melancholy and argues that Lincoln was prone to the latter. She accepts the controversial theory of Lincoln's love for Anne Rutledge, she removes Lincoln from the decision to choose Andrew Johnson as his second vice president, and she denies implicitly interpretations of Lincoln as a manipulative partisan. Military events, while not avoided, are presented offstage as they relate to Lincoln's reaction.
Lincoln emerges as an authentic American hero—magnanimous, tolerant, and forgiving—and his "gifted" leadership enables him to recruit similarly talented men to administer the government. To be sure, he is also a decisive leader who controls the policies of his administration. In presenting a rich tapestry of the Civil War era, Goodwin is able to keep in focus a large cast of characters. Let us hope that the proposed Steven Spielberg production with Liam Neeson as...