Team of Rivals

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln is an excellent biography. As someone without a deep knowledge of American history, it was a very readable account that followed the main characters – and showed them as individuals – while tracking some of the broader social movements and context.

Team of Rivals is of course the piece that served as an inspiration for Obama. Whether he’s lived up to his own stated inspiration is for others to judge. But it’s clearly a piece that was buoyed by his recommendation, and that deals with historical questions that are still pertinent and challenging today. Team of Rivals also seems to have inspired the Spielberg movie to some extent; but it goes a lot farther.

Personally, I found it fascinating. I’d never read anything about his ascendency to the presidency. So the story of the nail-biting finish at the Republican convention, with Lincoln scraping through the middle, is a remarkable read.

Kearns also does an excellent job outlining the competing motivations in Lincoln’s rivals’ characters. Seward is the consummate politician, but also one who’s taken a principled stand. Bates fades from the scene, and lives what seems to be a graceful retirement. Chase, despite Lincoln’s magnanimity, continues to scramble after an ever less likely presidential tenure.

Kearns also paints the broader scene. She talks about the economic interests to some extent, and how there was a deep conflict between particular Northern and Southern interests. She shows how Chase and Seward deployed different rhetorical devices, reframing the debate; while Lincoln used much simpler statements, and was less prone to reshaping the debate, preferring to state simply what he thought public opinion had come to reflect.

Drawing on primary sources lets Kearns show us the debates that were rending the nation, splitting sometimes even families down the middle. She expresses disagreement within the Seward family:

“But suppose, for one moment,” he later explained, “the Republic destroyed. With it is bound up not alone the destiny of a race, but the best hopes of all mankind. With its overthrow the sun of liberty, like the Hebrew dial, would be set back indefinitely. The magnitude of such a calamity is beyond our calculation. The salvation of the nation is, then, of vastly more consequence than the destruction of slavery.” 

Frances profoundly disagreed with this balancing equation, asserting there could be no “truly republican” institutions with slavery intact – “they are incompatible.” 

Kearns shows us Lincoln as the tactical politician. Organising, judging public opinion, leaking material to the press to lay the groundwork for an announcement, and implying (but carefully not writing down) instructions that votes for a Constitutional amendment will be well reward; here is Lincoln not as master statesman but as political street fighter, willing to do what is needed to get things done.

But more importantly, Kearns’ key hypothesis is of Lincoln as the great statesman. In part, that means reflecting on his wisdom, humility and patience. This is the President who writes an angry letter but leaves it unsent and unsigned, holding himself back from sending rash words in anger.

At times, this is a moving and profound portrait, of a great man, who ably steered his country through some of the greatest challenges it has ever faced. At others, it can feel a little easy. Simply describing how events played out well, and then saying that it was Lincoln’s statesmanly ability that lead him to make perfect moves, is not a descriptive hypothesis. Telling instead a story of Lincoln’s personality, and how he grew in the role, would have been more persuasive. In fact, identifying mistakes he’d made, would have shown how a trait that applied well in one situation, was less positive in another.

But overall, this is still a masterful piece. It’s an excellent piece of history, and an excellent biography. Well worth the read.

Notes and quotes

  • His experience taught him what every party boss has understood through the ages: the practical machinery of the party organization – the distribution of ballots, the checklists, the rounding of up of voters – was as crucial as the ideology laid out in the platform. 
  • When first running for election (before his presidential nomination), Lincoln: likened his politics to an “old womans dance” – “Short & Sweet”. He stood for three simple ideas: a national bank, a protective tariff, and a system for internal improvements. 
  • Kearns quotes another (presumably a biographer) for Lincoln’s view of history: Like the ancient Greeks, Lincoln seemed to believe that “ideas of a person’s worth are tied to the way others, both contemporaries and future generations, perceive him.” 
  • Lincoln’s ability to win the respect of others, to earn their trust and even devotion, would prove essential in his rise to power. There was something mysterious in his persona that led countless men, even old adversaries, to feel bound to him in admiration. 
  • Even a full decade later, during his debates with Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln would maintain that he had never been in favor “of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry.” 
  • For many more Northeners, the expansion of slavery into the territories threatened the triumph of the free labor movement. Events of the 1850s would put these “antagonistical elements” on a collision course. 
  • A brilliant woman, Frances [Seward] once speculated whether the “various nervous afflictions & morbid habits of thought” that plagued so many women she knew had their origin in the frustrations of an educated woman’s life in the mid-nineteenth century. 
  • In order to make his argument, Lincoln decided to begin with nothing less than an account of our common history, the powerful narrative of how slavery grew with our country, how its growth and expansion had been carefully contained by the founding fathers, and how on this fall night in 1854 the great story they were being told – the story of the Union – had come to such an impasse that the exemplary meaning, indeed the continued existence of the story, hung in the balance. 
  • A Southern member of Congress physically attacked an abolitionist –
  • Kearns acknowledges the racism of her subjects, but isn’t willing to condemn them: These statements of Seward and Chase, coming from the leaders of the antislavery cause, reveal that racism, the belief in white supremacy, was deeply embedded in the entire country. It is only in this context that the statements of Lincoln and his contemporaries can be judged. 
  • Kearns notes the tactical elements of the politics – in securing a nomination in Chicago, Lincoln was a step ahead of his rivals.
  • Lincoln had long believed, as we have seen, that “with public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed”. 

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