Friday, September 30, 2011

Abraham Lincoln's Political Genius: A Book Review

It's fairly obvious from a few previous posts, that I have a deep fascination for all things Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. I want to return to the topic of our 16th American president in this latest post, since I just recently had to do a book review for a history class of mine. I read Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln sometime after it came out, and it was the first massive history book that I had read, and it cemented my deep passion for history writing. Well, I always loved reading history, but this book helped in getting me excited about learning more about history, since it digs deep into Abraham Lincoln's White House.

For one of my classes, I've started research work on a massive project that'll span two history courses that's part of my history degree. That research work I'm deeply excited about, because it'll involve digging into the past by looking for original documents from Abraham Lincoln that he wrote during the course of the Civil War. What exactly I plan on looking for though, is the telegraph communications that he and his Union generals used, especially when Lincoln was far from the front lines of the battlefield and see just how important telegraph technology was in winning the war against the Confederacy.

I know that I haven't posted like I did during the summer, but I'm hoping to change that in the coming weeks. I may dig out a old review of some books that I've already done in the past.


Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, details the history of Abraham Lincoln while he was in the White House. Instead of the usual history one finds while researching Lincoln’s life, this one is truly different and digs more into Lincoln’s White House cabinet. Instead of simply focusing on Abraham Lincoln, Goodwin goes into great lengths to detail the lives of three of his White House cabinet members, since Lincoln, as well as William Seward, Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates all fought to seek the Republican Party nomination in the 1860 election. By chronicling the personal stories and political careers of Seward, Chase and Bates in different chapters, the reader gets a more detailed look behind the inner workings of Lincoln’s cabinet by knowing their background. This all takes place as Goodwin builds the story up by recounting how Lincoln gradually became the front runner for the nomination and finally won it. After this detailed account of the nomination and the background of Lincoln’s men, Goodwin then turns her attention to the actions of Lincoln’s cabinet while in office.  
Team of Rivals doesn’t necessarily have a thesis, but there are several themes that can be found while reading the book. One of those themes is the growing sectional polarization over the issues of slavery and its expansion, which is seen from the very start of the book as she introduces us to the main historical characters that are featured. The major theme that is seen throughout, is the background stories that Goodwin digs into, all of them an unconnected course, with that of Lincoln, Seward, Chase, and Bates, in which all of those stories then come together with the Republican Convention in 1860 and how Lincoln was able to win the nomination out of near national obscurity. Goodwin pulls all of this off over the course of 200 pages, until finally focusing the rest of the 700 page book on the nation’s capital and four most important men that Goodwin feels is most significant during the time of the Civil War: Lincoln, Seward, Chase and Stanton. One other theme that can be seen though is that with each main historical character, Goodwin provides several minor historical characters that were also important to either each main historical character featured, or played a role in some fashion in Lincoln’s Administration or part of the Civil War. She also addresses throughout Team of Rivals how Lincoln forged a White House Cabinet, which despite some of their differences, worked hard to preserve a nation that was deeply divided and freed an America that was holding onto its chains of slavery. The effectiveness of how Goodwin puts all of the pieces of the puzzle together, with the political lives of four truly unique men and how they all worked successfully though the Civil War, is done very craftily from the very beginning of the book, despite all of the rivalries, political and social distractions, and failures on the battlefield. With Goodwin introducing all of the main historical characters to the reader and giving them a detailed background of why those people are important to the story, it provides the reader with a more complete story of Lincoln while in the White House.
There are several important points that Goodwin suggests during the course of the book while introducing the reader to the personal lives Seward, Chase, and Stanton; it appears that each of them went through many occurrences in their lives that were essentially commonplace during the 19thBerdan. 

Another important point that Goodwin unconsciously points out, is that there were strong and intensely ambitious women who stood behind these men and helped them in their political ambitions. Despite having lost three wives, Salmon Chase’s daughter, Kate, “made herself absolutely essential to him,” by focusing all of her energy on his political career and even acting as Ohio’s first lady while he served as the state governor, (Goodwin, p. 19). Edward Bates had his wife Julia Coalter Bates to look after him, who had already been with him for 37 years prior to 1860. William Seward had Frances Miller Seward as his wife, who according to Goodwin, was greatly passionate about woman’s rights and the entire antislavery cause. Both William and Frances were intellectual equals and she served as a “calming presence” in his very intense political life, (Goodwin, p. 14). Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln’s married relationship though, was a sharp contrast to the others that Goodwin presents to the reader. Their marriage was very turbulent at times, (Goodwin, p. 105), due in part to Mary’s previous extravagant Southern lifestyle and now having the responsibility of running a household she never had to do before, as well as having to deal with a number of issues whenever her husband was away, most especially her many worries and serious bouts of depression.

One element that comes from Goodwin’s book, is that there are a few villains that were in Lincoln’s life. Salmon Chase appears to be one of those villains. Chase was constantly at odds with the president, with threatening to resign during the course of Lincoln’s administration, constantly seeking a higher office, and even scheming to run for president himself in the 1864 election by placing his own supporters in positions at all the custom houses in New York, (Goodwin, p. 631). In the end, after sending a resignation letter to Lincoln, it appears by accident, the president accepted Chase’s resignation from his position as Secretary of the Treasury, due in part to the whole fiasco of failing to find the right candidate after John Cisco, New York’s assistant treasurer had resigned.
There is one historical person during the Civil War though that Goodwin clearly shows has the most disdain for and views as a villain towards Lincoln, all through the use of historical documents, by giving him the most criticism, which is Union General George McClellan. She devotes many pages to showing his self-serving, insubordinate, Napoleon complex attitude as well as details his inaction on the battlefield. One of the best ways that Goodwin is able to show all of this, is the correspondence between Lincoln and McClellan in letters and telegrams that they sent to each other as the Civil War raged onwards, as well as how poorly and very rudely McClellan treated the president. McClellan repeatedly “shifted blame onto any other shoulder but his own” whenever a mistake was made, (Goodwin, p. 379), and he also “often kept Lincoln waiting in the downstairs room” of his headquarters, which was a “luxurious house at the corner of Lafayette Square,” (Goodwin, p. 379). Because of this disrespectful treatment, Lincoln simply “sent a summons for him to appear at the White House,” (Goodwin, p. 384). Despite all of this, Lincoln held on to the general, until finally reliving him of his duties after McClellan kept stalling to cross the Potomac, citing lack of supplies, shoes, and tired horses, even though the horses hadn’t been in battle for some time. Democrats and McClellan felt that because he was successful in being able to inspire the soldiers under his command, that McClellan would win the presidency in the 1864 election. But, in the end, the voters, especially the soldier vote, voted in favor of Lincoln, because they were unable to accept McClellan’s “defeatist Democratic platform or the fact that the Confederacy was obviously hoping the young Napoleon would win,” (Goodwin, p. 666). 

One of the most amazing things about Lincoln that comes through in Goodwin's work, as can be seen with how he interacted with McClellan and other hardheaded people, is his endless patience with his advisers, even when their ambitions, rivalries, jealousies and weaknesses revealed themselves in ways that would have driven another leader to distraction or worse. Most of the people that Lincoln brought into his cabinet had thought themselves far superior to him, but, in the end - he was able to earn their heartfelt respect, admiration, and loyalty from almost all of them, once they worked with him.
Instead of a history book that talks about Civil War battles or simply that of Lincoln, it’s refreshing and deeply attention-grabbing when Goodwin focuses on the politics of the era and the manner in which Lincoln was able to successfully navigate the political rivalries among his chief advisers and navigate the nation through a crisis that threatened its very existence. Lincoln was able to traverse the political battles that were taking place in Washington. It can be seen throughout the book that the men that Lincoln worked with, were political creatures who were ready to turn on him, especially the case when both Chase and McClellan sought to challenge Lincoln in the 1864 election.

Goodwin decides not to fully describe the last days leading up to the assassination nor goes into intimate detail in regards to Lincoln’s assassination and its aftermath. I feel that this is all for the best, because this is not the point of what her book is about. Instead, Goodwin paints a picture of how a political team worked together to win the Civil War. Instead of all the details about the assassination, what Goodwin is able to show in the end, is that the team that Lincoln built would fall apart in the aftermath of his death, due in part to the conflicts they had towards the presidency of Andrew Johnson. Goodwin clearly concludes in her research that Lincoln was the man who was able to make everything work and kept things glued together. 

In conclusion, my overall evaluation of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, is that the book is put together very well, through the detailed background of historical figures present within the Lincoln Administration. There’s no strong bias or prejudice that Goodwin argues within the book, since it appears to be a pretty straight forward history of the Lincoln Administration, by providing plenty of evidence from everyone involved, both the good and the bad. This book is truly well written, it’s a history book that’s well worth reading for anyone who wants to learn more about Abraham Lincoln’s presidency.


Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Simon & Schuster: New York, NY. 2005.

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