He was a hick country lawyer with all the down-home quirks of a
frontiersman: His clothes were rumpled and he walked as if his legs
needed oiling. His political experience was almost as unimpressive.
While he'd made a slight mark as a freshman congressman, it was for
all the wrong reasons: He'd brashly accused a sitting president of
ginning up evidence to push the country into a needless war.
No wonder hardly anyone thought much of Abraham Lincoln's chances
for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860. Essentially, he
was the fourth man in a three-man race, up against a trio of
politicians with loads of experience as governors and senators.
But Mr. Lincoln carefully carved out a moderate position on
slavery and transformed himself from an also-ran to Republican party
nominee. He won again in November. Then, in a remarkable display of
equanimity, he immediately asked his three convention foes join his
They agreed, with visions of President Pushover dancing in their
heads. But they soon learned better, as historian Doris Kearns
Goodwin explains in her captivating 916-page book Team of Rivals:
The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.
In this immense and immensely readable work, Ms. Goodwin uncovers
how Lincoln's unusual combination of forgiving human spirit and
savvy political instincts converted his enemies into (mostly) loyal
friends and advisers.
Without their expertise and guidance, Lincoln could have lost the
Civil War; without his careful steering, the bipartisan cabinet
would have dissolved into endless angling for power.
Thanks to voluminous letters and diaries, William Seward and
Salmon Chase - Lincoln's Secretary of State and the Treasury - are
the most vividly portrayed cabinet members in "Team of Rivals."
Mr. Seward comes across as one of the forgotten heroes of
American history. He emerges as an energetic and inspiring
abolitionist who provides the basic wording that Lincoln - in one of
history's great feats of editing - turned into the powerful poetry
of his second inaugural address.
Mr. Chase - the man whose grim face stares out from defunct
$10,000 bills - is nearly a comic villain, constantly plotting to
gain power and endlessly threatening to resign. But even he, often
unwittingly, serves Lincoln's ends.
Goodwin isn't a prose stylist, and she could have included less
play-by-play and more color commentary. But this veteran of books on
the presidencies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Lyndon Baines
Johnson, and John Fitzgerald Kennedy is still a master storyteller,
and she includes dozens of memorable anecdotes.
Some of the tales resonate today, including those portraying
Lincoln's masterly use of press leaks and his obsession with
campaign battleground states. She also includes tales of some of
Lincoln's political missteps, including the young Abe's ill-advised
attacks on President Polk over the Mexican War.
Other stories liven "Team of Rivals" with delicious comedy.
They include Lincoln's favorite ribald jokes, Vice President
Andrew Johnson's gloriously addled 1865 inaugural address (during
which he actually stopped mid-speech to boom, "What's the name of
the secretary of the Navy?"), and the story of the young Army
captain who yelled "Get down, you fool! …