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

Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
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's review
Apr 26, 16

really liked it
bookshelves: history, american-civil-war, lincoln
Read in July, 2009

As a history lover, I'm a bit of a snob. While everyone is rushing to purchase the newest warm-milk entry from David McCullough, I make a show of purchasing turgid, poorly edited treatises put out by university presses about some guy who did something long ago that doesn't really matter anymore. Of course, as every snob eventually learns, being snobbish is like slamming a hammer down on your thumb: you only hurt yourself; and everyone thinks you're an idiot.

When it was published, Team of Rivals became the "it" book of popular fiction, achieving something of the mass audience of McCullough's John Adams. That meant, of course, that I put on my beret, grew a pencil mustache, and turned up my nose at the very notion of reading it.

While I was ignoring Team of Rivals, however, it did something more than sell millions of copies: it added something to the cultural lexicon.

The phrase "team of rivals" is this year's "perfect storm." Used by Doris Kearns Goodwin to describe Abraham Lincoln and his Presidential sounding-board, it has been hijacked by cable newscasters as a quick way to add false insight into President Obama's selection of the Cabinet. To demonstrate my belief that the phrase was overused, I decided to play the "team of rivals" drinking game while watching Wolf Blitzer one afteroon. At some point, I blacked out. Before I did, however, my pillow came to life and told me that Stephen A. Douglas cheated during his debates with Lincoln by using a teleprompter. Then I threw up in the fireplace.

Anyway, my point is, I've forgotten what I was talking about, due to the short-term memory loss I have from playing the "team of rivals" drinking game.

Now I remember. I eventually got over myself and read Team of Rivals. And it appears that everyone reading it on the subway was right: it's super.

Team of Rivals is a Lincoln book that manages to find a fresh angle on a man written about as much as Jesus. Rather than placing Lincoln directly front-and-center, Goodwin focuses on Lincoln's cabinet, providing us with mini-biographies. of Salmon Chase (Secretary of the Treasury), Edward Bates (Attorney General), and William H. Seward (Secretary of State).

The book starts with the Republican National Convention of 1860, where Lincoln faced off with Chase, Bates, and Seward (the favorite). This is the best part of the book - learning about the lives of these three exceptional men. Goodwin does an amazing job making these characters come to thrilling life in just a few pages. She weaves them together while highlighting both their similarities and their differences. For instance, she introduces Lincoln's Treasury Secretary:

Salmon Portland Chase, in contrast to the ever buoyant Seward, possessed a restless soul incapable of finding satisfaction in his considerable achievements. He was forever brooding on a station in life not yet reached, recording at each turning point in his life regret at not capitalizing on the opportunities given to him.

Then there's my favorite character, Edwin Stanton, the beautifully-bearded Secretary of War:

Six years younger than Chase, Stanton was a brilliant young lawyer from Steubenville, Ohio. He had been active in Democratic politics from his earliest days. A short, stout man, with thick brows and intense black eyes hidden behind steel-rimmed glasses, Stanton had grown up in a Quaker family dedicated to abolition. He later told the story that 'when he was a boy his father had - like the father of Hannibal against Rome - made him swear eternal hostility to slavery.'

Stanton originally thought Lincoln an incompetent boob. Lincoln didn't take this personally, and replaced the actually-incompetent Simon Cameron with Stanton after the first year of the war. The two developed an incredible working relationship, and upon Lincoln's death, it was the distraught Stanton told the world he uttered the immortal phrase: "Now he belongs to the Ages." (Strikingly, no one around Lincoln's death bed remembers Stanton saying this. Maybe he just thought it, and wished he'd said it).

After giving us a quadruple bio of Lincoln, Seward, Chase and Bates, the rivals for the nomination, Goodwin takes us through the Civil War. Her focus is not on the ins-and-outs of the various battles, which have been well covered in several million books; rather, she views everything through the prism of Lincoln's cabinet. This is a well-told, lucid, propulsive story. Even someone who's never read a book on Lincoln or the Civil War will follow along just nicely (this is why Goodwin is such a marvelous popular historian, in the vein of McCullough).

I do have one major complaint, however, and it is fairly substantive. The book's title and its focus is its thesis: that Lincoln's "team of rivals," his disparate cabinet, was a good thing.

This just isn't borne out in the story she tells. Bates, after a big rollout, nearly disappears. Salmon Chase is a wrong fit from the start, and Lincoln eventually has to appoint him to the Supreme Court to get rid of him. Lincoln had to sack Cameron and install Stanton, who eventually turned out to be a good choice. In the end, Lincoln took on a great deal of responsibility himself. Long before Truman, the buck stopped with him. Some of his big moments, such as the Emancipation Proclamation, came as a surprise to his Cabinet. Indeed, the Emancipation Proclamation shows how bad the "team of rivals" idea can be. It sharply divided the cabinet, with Lincoln receiving advice of varying degrees. (Bates and Stanton for it immediately; Chase and Caleb Smith against it). Then there was Seward, a smart man who wasn't as smart as Lincoln:

William Henry Seward's mode of intricate analysis produced a characteristically complex reaction to the proclamation. After the others had spoken, he expressed his worry that the proclamation might provoke a racial war in the South so disruptive to cotton that the ruling classes in England and France would intervene to protect their economic interests. As secretary of state, Seward was particularly sensitive to the threat of European intervention. Curiously, despite his greater access to intelligence from abroad, Seward failed to grasp what Lincoln intuitively understood: that once the Union truly committed itself to emancipation, the masses in Europe, who regarded slavery as an evil demanding eradication, would not be easily maneuvered into supporting the South.

Here, Goodwin is telling a great story. This is a powerful narrative that takes something we all sorta know about - the Emancipation Proclamation - and gives us all the nitty-gritty details in a fascinating manner. This is what great history writing is all about. However, this scene also helps also demolishes her thesis. This was a bickering, troublesome, quarreling cabinet. Lincoln was left to make his own decisions (though in fairness to Seward, he did have the clever idea of waiting until a victory in battle to announce the Proclamation).

I also don't agree with the foundation of Goodwin's thesis: that Lincoln was a dark horse candidate and felt he needed to nominate Seward, Chase, Bates, et al. in order to shore up his Presidency. Lincoln was not the unknown, backwoods rustic portrayed by Goodwin. Rather, he was an extremely talented and successful lawyer; was backed by a coterie of powerful ex-Whigs and Republicans; and had become nationally famous during and after the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. Heck, the convention was held in Chicago, Illinois! Coincidence? Hardly.

Team of Rivals continues beyond the Civil War and Lincoln's assassination, following the lives of the Cabinet members beyond the Administration. Seward, of course, had the most impact post-Lincoln. His purchase of Alaska ensured our great nation decade-after-decade of iconoclastic, individualistic citizens who hate the intrusion of the Federal Government but love the hundreds of millions of dollars they get from the Federal Government. (Thanks, Seward! Ya big dumb jerk!)

The end of the book is touching, powerful, and melancholy. I admit I got chills when Goodwin related a story told by Tolstoy: Tolstoy was visiting a tribal chief in the Caucuses and he was regaling the tribe with stories of Alexander, Frederick the Great and Caesar. When Tolstoy stood to leave, the tribal chief stopped him:

"But you have not told us a syllable about the greatest general and greatest ruler of the world. We want to know something about him. He was a hero. He spoke with a voice of thunder; he laughed like the sunrise and his deeds were strong as the rock...His name was Lincoln and the country in which he lived is called America, which is so far away that if a youth should journey to reach it he would be an old man when he arrived. Tell us of that man."

If you want to learn about that man, and the great thing he achieved, or even if you think you know the story front to back, this is a readable, genuinely enjoyable addition to the Lincoln canon.
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Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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message 1: by John and Kris (new)

John and Kris Thank you for that wonderful conclusion. Just when you think you’ve heard every Michael Jackson and Abraham Lincoln story...

message 2: by Miriam (new)

Miriam treatises put out by university presses about some guy who did something long ago that doesn't really matter anymore

May I recommend The Liberal Education of Charles Eliot Norton?

Matt Miriam wrote: "treatises put out by university presses about some guy who did something long ago that doesn't really matter anymore

May I recommend The Liberal Education of Charles Eliot Norton?"

Yes! I like it! Now I just need an ostentatious place where everyone can see me reading it...

message 4: by Miriam (new)

Miriam I recommend a bookstore cafe, in order to avoid paying for the tome.

message 5: by Josh (new)

Josh Good review, of course. I appreciate your strike against the "team of rivals" premise, as it didn't work so well for Lincoln and doesn't appear to be the best of ideas for constructing a team. But, I'd challenge you to reconsider the merits of Alaska, a truly marvelous place that is probably greater than the sum of its recent political output.

Matt Josh wrote: "Good review, of course. I appreciate your strike against the "team of rivals" premise, as it didn't work so well for Lincoln and doesn't appear to be the best of ideas for constructing a team. But,..."

You're not the first person to take me to task for the Alaska comment. I wrote this so long ago, I struggle to recall what I was thinking, but I'm pretty sure it was the wake of a certain presidential election that involved a certain Alaskan.

I think I was bridling at the exceptionalism that was being displayed, and the notion that Alaska was somehow better off without the Republic. At the time, though, it was receiving the highest per-capita return on tax dollars in the Union, and everyone was still talking about the Bridge to Nowhere boondoggle.

With regards to its natural beauties, outdoor ethos, and scenic grandeur, I am already a fan (and an avid watcher of Deadliest Catch and Alaska State Troopers.

Alex Marshall A most enjoyable review--thank you. The T of R thing though -- isn't it part of her case that Abe picked his cabinet to reflect not only individual abilities but factions and tendencies in the country? Wasn't it part of great juggling act to keep Chase even though he knew Chase was undermining him with Congress? To keep Stanton even though Stanton thought he was a clown? That the nearest point the North came to breaking apart was the draft riots in New York is a tribute to his genius. I think she makes her case, and makes it very well.

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