Nate: Today we’re talking about the book, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Although this book is listed in our catalog as a biography of Lincoln, one of the unique things about it is that it’s actually much more than that. It focuses on Abraham Lincoln, but also provides a fairly detailed biography of several of his cabinet members and shows the complex relationship between each of them, and Lincoln.
Dave: And although it talks a bit about Lincoln and the members of his cabinet in their younger years, the book really starts to pick up in the 1850s, when their political careers begin to take off. What’s so interesting about Lincoln and his cabinet is that the most prominent positions such as Secretary of State, Secretary of War, Secretary of Treasury, and Attorney General were all occupied by men who, up to that point, had been his rivals, either politically or occupationally. In fact, William Seward, Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates all ran against him for the Republican nomination for President.
Nate: Right. But considering the mess the country was in at that point, on the eve of the Civil War, he knew he had to have the best people, and the best minds available to him. Interestingly, several members of the cabinet, including Seward who ended up becoming one of this best friends and confidants, accepted their posts because they thought they would be able to control Lincoln and dictate policy. Little was known about Lincoln, and many thought he was just a backwards Midwesterner who wasn’t very intelligent.
Dave: In fact, he was very intelligent. And probably one of the most politically savvy individuals who has ever occupied the White House.The way he held court with his cabinet, listened to their viewpoints, and then made decisions was absolutely fascinating.
Nate: And he had an incredible ability to understand what needed to be done, and in what order it needed to be done, to achieve a political goal. For example, Lincoln hated slavery and wanted to abolish it. He could have become President and tried to abolish it immediately. However, he knew that the abolition of slavery was going to have to be a process if he wanted to keep the Union intact. This infuriated many of his abolitionist friends and cabinet members; but he wasn’t trying to make friends. He was doing what he felt needed to be done, in the order it needed to be done. And in the end, he felt he would be vindicated.
Dave: That political savvy also came through when he was dealing directly with some of the personalities within his cabinet. I’m thinking specifically of Salmon Chase.
Nate: Absolutely. Salmon Chase was a thorn in Lincoln’s side almost from the day he took his post. He did his job fairly well, but he rarely seemed to agree with Lincoln.
Dave: In fact, he submitted his resignation several times, which Lincoln consistently rejected. Lincoln’s friends couldn’t understand why he didn’t just accept his resignation and be done with him. But once again, Lincoln knew what he was doing even if others didn’t realize it.
Nate: That’s right. Lincoln finally accepted his resignation several years into his presidency when he knew it was the right time politically to do so. And then he appointed Chase to the Supreme Court, which was where he belonged, and where Chase wanted to be. So in the end it worked out perfectly.
Dave: There was also the situation with Lincoln’s Postmaster General, Montgomery Blair, whose family had close ties to Lincoln. Blair was a good friend, but Lincoln accepted his resignation in response to heat put on him by a faction of the Republican Party. Again, although he might have risked hurting a lifelong friendship, Lincoln knew it was the right thing to do at that time, so he did it.
Nate: One of the most interesting parts of this book, to me, was the political maneuvering that went on surrounding the Republican Convention in 1860, as well as the 1860 Presidential election.
Dave: Yeah, Lincoln was an obscure candidate who was virtually unknown, when compared to the other candidates, Seward, Chase, and Bates. Seward was considered the front runner, and even had an acceptance speech prepared. He had been involved in the political scene in New York for years, and had established himself as one of the most prominent Republicans in the country. Most people thought it was his time. But if he was to not get it, everyone thought it would then go to either Chase or Bates.
Nate: What they didn’t seem to realize was that Seward, Chase, and Bates all had flaws that one or more factions of the Republican Party couldn’t stand. In the end, because no one knew anything about Lincoln, he became the only candidate everyone could agree upon. It was more by default than anything else. Lincoln knew this strategy was his chance of securing the nomination, and had his representatives at the convention work that strategy into a victory.
Dave: I found the overall political tenor of the 1850s to be absolutely crazy. There was completely ineffective leadership in the Presidency, there were a multitude of political parties, including the Freemasons and the Whigs who were trying to find an identity and attract a following, and then you have the situation in Kansas, as well as a Supreme Court led by Justice Taney that was making controversial decisions such as Dred Scott. It was a wild political climate.
Nate: Yeah, the tension between north and south had been heating up for decades, but as you said, several things came together to push it over the edge. Number one, at least in my opinion, being the most ineffective leadership the country had ever seen up to that point. In the past, compromises had been made to mollify tensions, but the 1850s were like a snowball going down a hill. Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse, they did. And Civil War became inevitable.
Dave: I looked in our catalog here at the library, and we have hundreds of items that talk about Lincoln.
Nate: When I was in college, one of my history professors told us that the only person who has been written about more than Lincoln in world history is Jesus. That tells you how much of an interesting figure he is, that people all over the world revere, study, and read about him. And the reasons for this reverence are apparent in “Team of Rivals”.
Dave: This isn’t the first biography of Lincoln I’ve read, but it is certainly the most unique. Goodwin brings some different perspectives and insights that I hadn’t seen in some of the other books I’ve looked at about Lincoln.
Nate: As we said before, it isn’t just a biography of Lincoln, but also a mini biography of his cabinet. Also, it doesn’t dwell too much on his childhood, and focuses mostly on his life as an adult, and his political career. Being someone who finds political history fascinating, I really enjoyed Goodwin’s book.
Dave: Agreed. There might be better books out there that give a comprehensive telling of Lincoln’s entire life. However, if you’re interested in Lincoln the politician it doesn’t get any better.