I admit that, prior to reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, I harbored the suspicion that the book’s focus on Lincoln’s seduction and subsequent manipulation/enhancement – in the name of the Union cause – of three of his former competitors for the presidential nomination (New York Senator William Henry Seward who became Secretary of State, Ohio Governor Salmon P. Chase who was destined to become Treasury Secretary, and Judge Edward Bates from Missouri who was to be Lincoln’s Attorney General) and a well known lawyer who had humiliated Lincoln years earlier (Edwin Stanton who became Secretary of War) was a gimmick invoked to justify the publication of yet another volume on Lincoln and, in the process, perhaps sell a book or two.
In any case, my high school American History teacher had given our class the lowdown on Lincoln’s psychological campaign to bring his rivals aboard his administration as a sort of palate cleanser for the brain between heftier entrées – just after the six reasons for the Civil War and before descriptions of the Scalawags and Carpetbaggers during Reconstruction.
The reasons for the Civil War and the definitions of Scalawags and Carpetbaggers were on the exam; the story about Chase, Stanton et al wasn’t. So, why bother with a book about something of too little importance to be included on a Sophomore history test at a tiny high school in southwestern Missouri?
Eventually, however, I was exposed to enough positive word of mouth about the best-seller to pique my curiosity and eventually lead me to pop for the paperback.
Now – well, now I’m pretty convinced that my suspicion was well founded – what makes this gimmick unusual is that it turns out to be incredibly effective.
Sharpening Lincoln’s Image
Many reviewers have addressed the the utility of this perspective in presenting the book’s primary story lines such as Lincoln’s election campaign and his management of those in his cabinet. I am offering, instead, the following excerpts to demonstrate the power of this approach to refresh and sharpen the typical, hackneyed image most of us reflexly conjure up when Lincoln’s self-education is mentioned.
For me, that image is the one shown above – Lincoln as young boy lying before a fireplace, reading a huge book. It’s OK but hardly impressive.
Compare that to Goodwin’s sketch of Lincoln’s efforts on his own behalf as contrasted to the advantages of his rivals.
That Lincoln is impressive.
Washington DC At Risk
View From Balloon Of Washington During Civil War
Apart from the multiple-biographies perspective of Team of Rivals, Goodwin has also made certain relatively well known facts about the Civil War more vivid by emphasizing one or another detail.
I could have, for example, correctly answered a True-False question asking if Washington DC was ever imperiled by Confederate troops early in the War.1
Perhaps because no attack actually occurred, I assigned that knowledge to my “How about that?” repository. Goodwin’s emphasis on the severing of the city’s communication with the rest of the Union casts this episode into a new light and increases it impact exponentially.
Suddenly, a fact I knew in my head became a visceral sensation in my gut of the terror the citizens of Washington felt when they could hear the cannon of enemy troops but had no contact with their own armies – or anyone else.
Coming Attractions: I have a couple of other points about Team of Rivals that I’ll be posting in the next two or three days.
- The correct answer, by the way, is “True, Washington DC was imperiled by Confederate troops early in the War.” [↩]