Aug 31, 2007

Team of Rivals

Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Abraham Lincoln made his enemies part of his cabinet.

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

Key passages:
“He has called around him in counsel,” the [Charleston, South Carolina] Mercury marveled, “the ablest and most earnest men of his country. Where he has lacked individual ability, experience or statesmanship, he has sought it, and found it.… Force, energy, brains, earnestness, he has collected around him in every department.”

Lincoln’s “first decision was one of great courage and self-reliance.” Each of his rivals was “sure to feel that the wrong man had been nominated.” A less confident man might have surrounded himself with personal supporters who would never question his authority.

“His crowning gift of political diagnosis was due to his sympathy … which gave him the power to forecast with uncanny accuracy what his opponents were likely to do.”

In Team of Rivals, Goodwin tells the story of Abraham Lincoln and the three rivals he beat out for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860: William Seward, Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates. Each rival was shocked when Lincoln, a little-known former one-term congressman from Illinois, won as a compromise candidate. Lincoln appointed all three men to his cabinet, soothed their outsize egos, drew upon their substantial talents, and used their political skills and experience to further his own agenda. Broadening the cast of characters and weaving the narratives of multiple figures into Lincoln’s story, Goodwin taps a rich record of personal correspondence and memories to illustrate Lincoln’s leadership style.

Team of Rivals recounts how Lincoln, a great motivator, got the best out of the three titans, as well as the others who served him. The narrative is epic in scope, spanning decades, touching on the events that led up to the Civil War, outlining the war’s big battles, and ending with the assassination of Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre. All four main characters played pivotal roles in epochal events at different times, and Goodwin uses their stories to personalize history. After introducing readers to their respective backgrounds, she traces their political ascent, in alternating narratives, as they rise from young attorneys to prominent politicians. Bates was a respected elder statesman from Missouri, and he first entered politics in 1820 during the debate over Missouri’s statehood, which was complicated by the issue of slavery. Seward served as a senator and the governor of New York. Chase, also a senator, was governor of Ohio. Seward and Chase both played prominent roles in the national debate over slavery in the days leading up to the Civil War, and through them, Goodwin revisits some of the great battles that took place in the Senate in the 1850s. By the Republican convention of 1860, the three contenders had reason to hope for the nomination, and Goodwin follows each one as he catches presidential fever, grapples with the devastating loss to Lincoln, then weighs the offer for a cabinet position. Throughout, she weaves in Lincoln’s narrative as he deals with personal setbacks, rises from obscurity, and eventually unites his cabinet and a deeply divided nation to defeat the Confederacy and save the union.

Through it all, a strong sense of Lincoln’s leadership emerges. Readers see his superhuman empathy, superlative sense of political timing, and patience. But what really set him apart was his ability to strike compromise and control his own emotions—whether he was under attack by subordinates or besieged by public opinion after Union troops sustained enormous casualties. He waited for a Union victory to unveil the Emancipation Proclamation, even though it meant enduring months of scathing attacks by abolitionists. And he overlooked slights that would have enraged a lesser man. For example, as treasury secretary, Salmon Chase repeatedly attempted to stir up the radical wing of the Republican Party in order to further his own presidential aspirations in the 1864 elections. But Lincoln hid his irritation, appealed to Chase’s concerns, and never said a harsh word. Lincoln did finally accept Chase’s resignation in 1864—then Lincoln appointed him chief justice of the United States, a decision Lincoln later said was “right for the country,” but that he “would rather have swallowed his buckhorn chair than to have nominated Chase.” Lincoln’s unwillingness to retaliate for slights, indulge in malice, or show the world his wounded pride won him universal respect as a leader and praise even from his enemies.-(portfolio)

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