Wednesday, August 10, 2016

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

Abraham Lincoln was undoubtedly the product of numerous forces: heredity, environment, books he read, friends and colleagues, historical and economic circumstances.  He’s commonly regarded as the greatest of American presidents, as one of the greatest of Americans from any walk of life. I certainly have admired him and his story all my life.  What would he have been had he not been elected president in 1860? What would he have been had the Civil War never occurred?  It’s the Civil War that formed Lincoln in the popular imagination.  Without it, we would likely never have known his name. Such speculation is pointless, of course.  I suspect many if not most Americans would name Lincoln as a great man, yet how many could explain his greatness? The Emancipation Proclamation was his greatest act, yet he came to favor emancipation only gradually.  When he began his campaign for the presidency, his main concern was seeing that slavery was not allowed to expand into western territories.  He was regarded as a moderate or even a conservative by abolitionists.  Only gradually did he come to embrace bringing an end to slavery as a prime goal, as the central reason for the Civil War.  Preservation of the Union was a prime goal as well—Lincoln famously said, shortly before he was elected president, that he regarded saving the Union more important than ending slavery.
Lincoln is the embodiment of the great American success story—a man born in a cabin who by hard work and study raised himself up to become a lawyer and then President, and who sacrificed himself for his country.
Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, 2005) describes Lincoln and his rise to the Presidency and the three men who opposed him for the Republican nomination: Salmon P. Chase, Henry Seward, and Edward Bates.  Lincoln was the least known of the four contenders, yet in the end, on the third ballot at the Chicago convention, he emerged as the nominee.  Lincoln invited these three opponents, along with several others who didn’t respect or like him, to join his cabinet.  Most of these men came to admire him.  Seward, whom Lincoln appointed Secretary of State, became a close friends. Chase, appointed Secretary of the Treasury, sought to undermine him and even to replace him in the election of 1864. Yet Lincoln continued to recognize his abilities and eventually appointed him Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  Edward Bates served as Attorney General. Lincoln’s use of the talents of these men in his efforts to save the Union, win the War, and to slavery is the great story this book tells.  Goodwin replaces myths about Lincoln with facts and details that in the end left me in greater awe of him than ever. Her book is a prodigious achievement.

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