Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Book Review: "Team of Rivals"

I've just finished Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, and I thought I ought to just write my review now while my thoughts on the book remain fresh. This is a striking tour de force, capturing not only Lincoln's political genius but also his life and the intertwined lives of those around him, the famous 'team of rivals' that he created to guide this nation through one of its most turbulent periods.

I should say at the outset that my feelings on Mrs. Goodwin are mixed, but her previous errors notwithstanding I knew that this was not a book that I would skip, given my keen interest in the historical period generally and William Seward in particular (like me a graduate of Union College, Seward has been a personal research interest for several years now).

Goodwin gives the first portion of Team of Rivals over to biographical sketches of Lincoln and the men who would comprise his rivals for the Republican nomination in 1860 and later the core of his cabinet: Seward, Edward Bates of Missouri, and Salmon Chase of Ohio. In well-honed style, the early lives and careers of these men are outlined through the exciting Chicago convention where Lincoln found himself victorious over the other men (each almost certainly more qualified on paper than the former one-term congressman and twice-unsuccessful Senate candidate). From there the story moves quickly, and Goodwin deftly handles the process by which Lincoln carefully came to choose the members of his cabinet, playing regional, ideological and personal rivalries off each other with a skill unmatched before or since.

The president's talents were not sheathed once the cabinet was established, of course - one of the most amazing things about Lincoln that comes through in Goodwin's work is his nearly unending patience with his advisers, even as their ambitions, rivalries, jealousies and weaknesses manifested themselves in ways that would have driven a lesser leader to distraction or worse. Most if not all of those Lincoln brought into his cabinet probably thought themselves superior to him in all but name at the outset - it is to Lincoln's everlasting credit that before long he had earned the heartfelt respect, admiration, and loyalty of nearly all of them.

As a joint biography of Lincoln, Seward, Chase and Bates Goodwin manages well until the commencement of the Administration; at this point Bates falls by the wayside somewhat, replaced by Lincoln's eventual second Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. Others get their due, including Mary Lincoln, Chase's daughter Kate, the key Blair clan, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, and Generals McClellan and Grant. But it is Lincoln, Seward and Chase who rate the most attention, with justification.

It was Seward and Chase whose rivalry most infected the Administration's deliberations, and the two provide an interesting contrast: the New Yorker who came to admire and love the rustic president, enjoying night after night of amiable companionship and storytelling; the Ohioan whose presidential amibitions controlled him to the last and could never quite overcome his initial contempt for a man he felt had risen above his station. Lincoln somehow managed to play these two men off each other brilliantly (even to the point of managing to obtain both their resignations after one spat just so that he could reject both).

There are villains in this book - Chase fares poorly, while General George McClellan comes in for a well-deserved flogging from Goodwin's pen for his preening and self-serving (not to mention downright insubordinante) attitude as well as his not insignificant Napoleon complex. But on the whole, Goodwin focuses her narrative prowess on the interplay between and among Lincoln and his subordinates, masterfully detailing how it was that the team of rivals came together effectively under Lincoln's leadership.

Given Goodwin's recent troubles, I expected that careful attention would be paid to the way sources were cited in Team of Rivals. I was surprised that footnotes were not indicated in the text; only by going to the back of the book and searching for the cited quote (by page) could the source be obtained. While frustrating methodologically, at least the notes are there, all 120 pages of them.

Goodwin's treatment of Seward is excellent; I learned several things that I didn't remember from other biographies, including the views of WHS' wife Frances on the slavery question, which were somewhat more stringent than those her husband voiced publicly. Interestingly and unfortunately, Goodwin does not discuss the impact of Eliphalet Nott on Seward's thinking (Nott, the president of Union and another personal research interest of mine, was Seward's mentor and longtime correspondent; his advice was very important to Seward, who kept an engraving of Nott in his office).

The final section of Goodwin's book forms the best short treatment of the assassination that I have read, putting the simultaneous attacks on Lincoln and Seward into their proper context - coming as they did fast on the heels of the jubilation accompanying Lee's surrender at Appomattox. Perhaps the most compelling anecdote of the entire book comes here: Seward, recovering from his grievous injuries, was not told that Lincoln had been killed for fear that he would not survive the shock. Looking out his window on Easter Sunday, however, Seward declared to those with him "The President is dead." His companions tried to deny the fact, but Seward knew beyond a doubt, saying "If he had been alive he would have been the first to call on me, but he has not been here, nor has he sent to know how I am, and there's the flag at half mast."

Like Seward, Stanton and the others, Goodwin's respect for Lincoln is evident throughout this book, and it has helped her to construct a great work of narrative history.