Terry Bonner's Reviews > Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
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Aug 13, 2012

it was amazing
Read from August 13 to September 02, 2012

This is a remarkable book. Through the years I have read literally dozens of books about Lincoln, yet this is the first book that left me feeling as if I actually knew the man. At first I was skeptical. Surely a book which focuses on the "political family" Lincoln created during his Presidency would offer few insights into the soul of the man himself. Was I ever wrong! Kearns Goodwin's masterful use of inferential analysis proved to be the most effective biographical tool I have ever encountered in a work of popular nonfiction.

Context is everything in TEAM OF RIVALS. By offering in-depth portraits of Seward, Chase, Bates, Blair, Welles and Stanton, the author is able to demonstrate how deftly Lincoln was able to manipulate people and events to his purpose. These driven, talented and ambitious men, all creatures of their times and masters of the system, came together reluctantly at Lincoln's insistence and to a man succumbed to Lincoln's benevolent but iron-clad will. Even Chase, who can only be described as a narcissistic megalomaniac, found himself acting to Lincoln's direction and following Lincoln's script.

Lincoln's genius, as Kearns Goodwin so ably demonstrates, lies in the realm of "emotional intelligence". There were better generals, better administrators, better financiers and better speakers. But no one in American public life in 1860 was a better politician. Lincoln's intuitive knowledge of human nature and his studied appreciation of human behaviour enabled him to forge the coalition of radicals, conservatives, War Democrats and former Whigs which was essential for the prosecution of the war. It was literally Unionism's secret weapon, without which the course of our nation's history would be unrecognisable.

As popular biography, this is a masterpiece. There are far too many self-styled "Lincoln experts" abroad in today's American culture, some of whom have made indisputable contributions to our understanding of the facts of Lincoln's life. But the Norton Smiths, Holzers and Oakes have all failed to produce anything approaching TEAM OF RIVALS. A woman's touch was needed to produce such a book, for the genius evinced by Abraham Lincoln is a quality which women in our society have cultivated by necessity and condition ever since the first feminine footprint was impressed on the sands of Plymouth. Lincoln sense of timing, coupled with his absence of vengefulness and a self-deprecating humour, allowed him to first tame and then channel the most able men of his time to execute his will. Somewhere in the process, he became great.

In the epilogue to this book, a bereft and inconsolable Seward, the man whose personal ambitions were dashed by the adroitness of the man who became his master and then his best friend, weeps when he realizes the flag flying at half staff atop the War Department means that Lincoln is dead. I wept alongside him. He came to recognize and appreciate the greatness of Abraham Lincoln, and so did I.

Few biographies have such power. It is not an easy read and it requires considerable effort, but it's worth every minute. You will walk away from the experience understanding in an intimate and visceral way why Abraham Lincoln deserves the title of "America's greatest President." In the words of the dyspeptic Stanton, "Now he belongs to the ages".
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