Lincoln S Legacy

By Osborne, George | The Spectator, April 11, 2009 | Go to article overview

Lincoln S Legacy


Osborne, George, The Spectator


TEAM OF RIVALS by Doris Kearns Goodwin Penguin, £10.99, pp. 928, ISBN 9780141043722 £8.79 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Every so often American Presidents let people know that they are reading a book. When George W. Bush was seen clutching a copy of Andrew Roberts s History of the English Speaking People, acres of newsprint appeared on this elegant apologia for neo-conservatism.

Now his successor in the White House wants us to know that he has a well-thumbed copy of Doris Kearns Goodwin s Team of Rivals; and just in case you missed that, the publishers have helpfully emblazoned the front of the UK paperback edition with the headline The Book that Inspired Barack Obama .

He could have done much worse. For Team of Rivals is one of the best biographical histories I have read in years. It is a powerful, personal and pacy account of the Lincoln Presidency told through the story of the four men who competed for the nomination at the Republican Party's first ever Convention in 1860. William Henry Seward was outwardly the most impressive and the clear front-runner.

Although born into a slave-owning family, he and his wife were profoundly affected by the dismal sight of a chain-gang of child slaves being whipped along a road near Richmond, Virginia. As Senator for New York, Seward had courageously led the campaign against the extension of slavery into the new territories of an expanding United States. The price he paid for that leadership was the fear that his election would hasten schism with the South. His closest rival for the nomination should have been the Governor of Ohio, Salmon Chase. Chase too was a leading voice of the movement against slavery and a founder of the new Republican Party.

But his fastidious self-importance and moralising did not endear him even to his own state, and judging from this book his company would have been insufferable but for the fact that, at this widower s side, was his brilliant, beautiful daughter Kate - the it girl of her day. Edward Bates, a judge from St Louis, Missouri, was the eldest of the candidates and the compromise choice for those looking for reconciliation with the southern slave-owning states. And then there was Abraham Lincoln, a circuit lawyer from Springfield, Illinois who had recently shot to national prominence in a closely fought, eloquently argued and ultimately unsuccessful battle for his state s Senate seat against the Democrat Stephen Douglas. No one gave him much of a chance. His desperately poor upbringing in a Kentucky log-cabin, his lack of experience, and his somewhat shambolic, gangly appearance, meant he enjoyed that greatest of political advantages of being consistently underestimated by his opponents - first as candidate for the Republican nomination and then as President of a country torn in half by bloody civil war.

To secure the nomination, Lincoln first manoeuvred to get the convention held in Chicago in his home state. Then he hit the trail, buttering up potential supporters in swing states like Pennsylvania, while his opponents remained aloof from the fray.

Judging correctly that Seward would win the most votes but not a majority, Lincoln saw that his best chance stood in becoming everyone s second choice. That he did, with the help of loyal friends and former adversaries that he had accumulated through long years on the gruelling judicial circuit round the small towns of rural Illinois, where night after night he would entertain the entire travelling court with the home-spun stories and well-honed phrasing that would later make him one of the greatest orators in history. …

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