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Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin

13 December 2007

I actually picked up this book from my father — he bought it after seeing an TV interview that mentioned it, and suggested that I should read it once he’d finished with his copy. Which meant that I had to wait for a bit, as he took his time reading it…but it was worth the waiting.

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin

At times, it seems as if everyone and his or her mother has written a book about Abraham Lincoln. Hagiographical biography, revisionist history, stacks of dense tomes trying to prove that he was a genetic freak or clinically depressed or homosexual or secretly racist or made out of jam or any number of other shocking revelations. And that’s not even to start talking about the books about Mary Todd Lincoln and her forays into wacky behaviour. So at the outset, it might seem that Team of Rivals is just another Lincoln book to add to the towering pile. But Doris Kearns Goodwin takes a slightly different tack by looking at Lincoln in the context of the men who formed Lincoln’s cabinet during his five years in office — particularly the three men who had actually competed with him for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860. Not only did Lincoln bring these former rivals into his cabinet, but he also sought to include the strongest political players from all factions of his fractious political party: former Whigs, hardcore anti-slavery Democrats, and others who were less interested in what Lincoln had to say than in what his political clout could get them. But the new President wanted the best men (as he saw them) surrounding him, and he was prepared to assemble a team of his own former rivals and even enemies if it meant that he got the best men for the job. Managing such a complex jumble of egos and rivalries would seem an impossible task, and Goodwin shows that at times it nearly was — and yet Lincoln was able to do so, in the middle of attempting to fight and win a devastating civil war.

Goodwin draws on reams of correspondence and diaries of the period, sketching images of the nonstop life that Lincoln and his contemporaries led from the frontier circuit courts and smoke-filled back rooms to the glittering drawing-rooms of fashionable Washington mansions. Goodwin’s subjects really come to life on the pages as she compares and contrasts their family backgrounds, their lifestyles, their personal and political beliefs, and their ability to move in the political world of antebellum America. What interested me most in reading Team of Rivals was the stark contrast (which Goodwin doesn’t emphasise nearly enough) between Lincoln’s ability to wrangle his cabinet members and the bigwigs in the Republican party, and his seeming inability to find a decent general for the Union armies. It’s a very odd contrast, and one worth pondering on, because Goodwin doesn’t really elaborate on what might seem to be a noteworthy contradiction.

Team of Rivals is a fairly ambitious book, encompassing pretty much the whole of Lincoln’s life and the lives of his contemporaries and family members as well. There are places where it’s rather slow and clogged with detail, and sometimes it’s hard to keep track of who’s who and what position they hold. But there’s plenty of gossipy details about family life and Washington society, and Goodwin does an excellent job at times in showing just how complicated Lincoln’s task was in keeping the White House running smoothly and still keeping one eye on political currents and undercurrents in state and local politics as well. It’s a good solid history book, and remarkably enough it says something new about a president who has been the subject of many a good book (and many a bad book) in the last century and a half or so.

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