"Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln"


I chose to read “Team of Rivals” because reference to it became increasingly fashionable in the media following Obama’s election, particularly in the frenzied Who’s-It-Gonna-Be coverage of his cabinet picks. It got to the point that some articles were even making ironic, self-aware references to the media’s obsession with the term, commenting sarcastically “insert obligatory ‘Team-of-Rivals’ reference here!’” Rather than being overrated, “Team of Rivals” deserves the accolades: it’s an exceptionally involving, very readable, engaging history book. Goodwin has plenty to interest everyone here, from the hardcore Lincoln scholars, to the Civil War battle plan and strategy aficionados, to the “people’s history of the U.S.” fans. There’s a lot of eerie parallels between present and past that make for particularly fun reading–I folded the corner of the page over every time I read something that reminded me of Obama’s campaign or lifestory, so the first half of the book (which deals with Lincoln’s pre-president vida) is dog-eared with all these little folds (hopefully things will end better for Barry-O than they did for Abraham). 750 pages is a little dautning, so maybe save this one for when you have long commutes on a bus or subway, or an extended Christmas vacation/snowpocalypse, like I fortunately had.

It can be tricky to go beyond the more obvious parallels between this book and the current state of things—little known Senator from Illinois, famed for his eloquent speeches, goes on to win the presidency in an election where Ohio is a decisive state, winning the party ticket nomination in an upset over his rival, a long-time experienced Senator from New York who was assumed to be the favorite (stop me if this is starting to sound familiar to you). Time will tell if current events continue to reflect (follow?) the path previously set by history (for example, I will be okay with Hilarly and Obama becoming best buds on the level of Lincoln and Seward’s friendship, but I am definitely not okay with a deathbed or assassination scene).

The central thesis of the book is that Lincoln was a cool, chill dude whose biggest asset (or what specifically made him a “political genius”, as described by the book’s subtitle) was his ability to emphasize with others, to put himself into other people’s positions. Near the end of the book, Tolstoy is quoted as describing Washington as classically American, Napoleon as classically French, and Lincoln as the classic humanitarian, thus explaining his appeal to not only starry-eyed hopeful American presidential candidates, but also to wild white-haired Russian authors.

I’ve read at least one article/review arguing that the basic premise of constructing a “team of rivals” is fundamentally false, because by building a team out of political rivals, Lincoln gave himself a lot of unnecessary crap and drama to deal with. This is definitely true in the case of the unfortunately named Salmon P. Chase, one of Lincoln’s rivals of the Republican nomination, who doesn’t come off too kindly in the latter half of the book (i.e. even after Lincoln gives him the prestigious Treasury Main Boss position, he comes off as a whiny pants consumed by the delusional belief that the presidential nomination was still his to be had in the future, instead of just making the best of things with his current position like Seward). However, I’d say for the most part Godwin effectively argues that Lincoln’s “Team of Rivals” (last time I use that phrase in this review, I promise) did a pretty good job, all things considering. Stanton’s badass military plans in particular make Lincoln look pretty smart for choosing him for Secretary of War. Goodwin argues that by choosing the men he thought would be the best for the job, instead of his friends or people who were just going to suck up to him, Lincoln revealed himself to have the admirable quality of being capable of burying old grudges (such as Stanton calling him “a long-armed ape” upon their first encounter as lawyers in Illinois) instead of being bitter or petty. Lincoln also demonstrates an admirable capacity of taking the blame for things (even for things he definitely didn’t need to take the blame for). My general impression from this book is that so much of politics seems to involve this very fine dilly-dalling dance, hopping back and forth between the thin line of offending one person or damaging the pride of another. Que stress. Good luck, Barry.

The book departs from the premise that by understanding the character and conduct of the men who were on Lincoln’s cabinet, Lincoln’s own exceptional qualities as a politician will stand out more clearly. Goodwin does an excellent job at this. By explaining how Seward and Chase had made enemies by appealing to the abolitionists and using a lot of blatant anti-slavery rhetoric in their speeches, Goodwin in turn explains why Lincoln took such a moderate stance on slavery throughout the years of his presidency (doing so without excusing said moderate stance). As I understand it, one of the reasons why Lincoln won the nomination (and then the presidency) was because he simply hadn’t been in politics long enough to make enough enemies, like Seward and Chase (and Clinton).

One of the more interesting points Goodwin makes in the book is that no one can ever know for sure Lincoln’s personal feelings on race, save for the man himself. However, she points out in all the Lincoln scholarship, in all the countless letters and memos and notes he and his secretaries and contemporaries left behind, there is not a single act of racial bigotry or racial slur to be found. Lincoln also gets plenty of respect and kudos from Fredrick Douglas once they finally meet each other (before meeting Lincoln, Douglas bitches a lot about how he isn’t doing enough to help the slaves—fair enough, in my view). It sucks that Lincoln wasn’t this totally radical, ahead of his time guy who from the beginning was like “Aight bitches, no more slaves, equal educational and employment opportunities for all, and lots of other good stuff,” … but as Goodwin argues, that simply wasn’t what the country was ready for at the time. As I understood it, a lot of what being president often entails is taking the middle ground. That being said, the Emancipation Proclamation was a totally great, non-middle ground thing to do (there’s a very dramatic scene that would be great in Spielberg’s movie version, where Lincoln takes a deep breath and tries to calm down before signing the Emancipation act because he doesn’t want his signature to come out shaky and thus leave people believing that he was hesitant). And this is where the whole Lincoln’s Great Empathy Quality comes in again. Lincoln’s empathy entailed him to put himself in the place of the American people, to understand how they felt and what they were thinking and where exactly they stood in public sentiment, what they were ready for. With the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln kind of adopted a common reverse child-psychology technique: when you expect great things from people (and make it clear that you expect them), it’s easier for people to do great things. (This feels incredibly reminiscent to me of Obama’s call to young people for service and political participation)

The book starts out with a biographical description of each man’s early lives. Once Lincoln wins the presidency, he naturally assumes a more central role. I found the latter half of the book the most interesting, as it describes the Civil War and the dealings of Lincoln’s administration in great detail. The book kind of splutters out at the end in the last chapter describing Lincoln’s last term, but perhaps that is to be expected of a 759 volume.

One interesting theme that emerged in this book was Lincoln’s relationship with death. It makes me want to read that recent academic-looking book about Death and the Civil War (hello, Chapter Two of thesis again—maybe I should go all the way and start attacking all kinds of Death Criticism in general). In the early sections (which I’m afraid I can’t remember all too well—so many hundreds of pages ago!) Goodwin talks about the death of Lincoln’s childhood sweetheart and how that affected Lincoln’s attitude towards death. Unlike his peers Seward and Chase, who populated their speeches with grandiose religious imagery and references to a “better life” following this one and the “designs” of a creator, Lincoln tended to avoid such imagery in his speeches. Instead, his rhetorical flourishes were more grounded in man himself, in the individual’s capacity for self-betterment, in earthy references (reflecting Lincoln’s fondness for tall-tales, humorous anecdotes and his Kentucky, down-to-earth background). I’d definitely like to read more about attitudes towards death before and after the Civil War (and in the latter half of nineteenth-century in general). I’d like to read more about the history of slavery in the U.S. and the Reconstruction. This book made me want to learn more, it made me think, it made me ponder, it made me crave, and quite frankly that is quite a compliment for any work.

I’d like to close this review with some selected quotes from this book that seem relevant to the title of this blog (in which “doubt’s best ally” is “hope”): “ ‘Having hope,’ writes Daniel Goleman in his study of emotional intelligence, ‘means that one will not give in to overwhelming anxiety, a defeatist attitude, or depression in the face of difficult challenges or setbacks.’ Hope is ‘more than the sunny view that everything will turn out all right’; it is ‘believing that you have the will and the way to accomplish your goals.’ “(631) Throughout the book, whether dealing with his political defeats, the death of his son, the violence of the war, “As he had done so many times before, Lincoln withstood the storm of defeat by replacing anguish over an unchangeable past with hope in an uncharted future.” (521)

To paraphrase Vonnegut: What a man. What a war. What a language.

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Filed under books, civil war, non-fiction

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