Book Review: Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
“May our children and our children’s children to a thousand generations continue to enjoy the benefits conferred upon us by a united country, and have cause yet to rejoice under those glorious institutions bequeathed us by Washington and his compeers.” - President Abraham Lincoln
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln is Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography of President Abraham Lincoln and his Republican primary rivals who became his Cabinet members. For as much as you learn about Lincoln in school, Goodwin’s biography gives so much detail (over 750 pages worth!) about the lives of Lincoln and his rivals. When Lincoln won the Republican nomination in 1860, most Republicans were surprised; he was not supposed to beat William Seward or Salmon Chase. But when he won the presidency, he made all of his rivals prominent Cabinet members. Team of Rivals is less about the Civil War and more about the inner workings of the presidency and Lincoln’s political prowess.
Team of Rivals starts with each Republican candidate waiting on the outcome of the Republican Convention: Abraham Lincoln, William Seward, Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates. Goodwin gives us a little bit of background on each man. Chase is the most extreme, calling for abolition long before any of the other candidates, but he lacks the energy of Seward and Lincoln. Seward is seen as the most natural choice; he is neither too radical or conservative, and he has the presence and gravitas that would make a great president. Bates is the oldest candidate and was formerly a Whig; but as the Whig party fizzled out, he switched to the Republican party, and is seen as the most conservative choice of the four men. When Lincoln upsets them all and wins the nomination, the other three are surprised to be called by Lincoln to become Cabinet members. Seward became Secretary of State and would become Lincoln’s closest ally and friend. Chase became Secretary of Treasury, and Bates became Attorney General.
Lincoln and Seward consulted one another on just about every important issue, sometimes causing tension with other Cabinet members, but Seward was able to put aside his own political aspirations in order to see that Lincoln was the only one who could have effectively led the United States during this tumultuous period. Chase, however, always thought he was better than Lincoln and deserved the presidency more than Lincoln or Seward did. He never gave up his dream of becoming president and often stirred up drama to open up his path to oppose Lincoln in 1864. Obviously he failed, and he was constantly disappointed in his political aspirations. Chase also never took responsibility for his own actions that cost him votes and friends.
When Lincoln beat Democrat Stephen Douglas in the 1860 election, South Carolina seceded from the Union and would be followed by the other Southern states. Suddenly, Lincoln’s presidency would forever be immortalized by a Civil War and the issue of slavery. Lincoln had always believed that slavery was immoral, but whether or not it was constitutional was a different matter. He believed that slavery could be prevented from spreading to new states, but did not believe he could constitutionally abolish slavery in the Southern states. As the Civil War raged on, he would begin to rethink his long-held belief and would go on to make the Emancipation Proclamation and help pass the Thirteenth Amendment. However, Goodwin does not spend a lot of time on specific battles or the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment; instead Team of Rivals focuses more on Lincoln's shrewd political maneuvering.
Not only did Lincoln have to combat political drama and the Civil War, but also his beloved middle son Willie died in 1862 of a fever. This proved to be the undoing of Mary Todd Lincoln, and President Lincoln was equally devastated. I don’t think I ever learned about Willie’s death until I visited Arlington Cemetery the summer I lived in Washington, DC. It is not something that I recall learning during history lessons, but after reading about how it affected Lincoln and Mary, it should be included in history classes to contextualize how much Lincoln had to overcome in order to bring the Union back together. Hopefully, history teachers will begin to integrate that tidbit into the curriculum, especially since George Saunders’ acclaimed book, Lincoln in the Bardo, that is based around Willie’s death, came out in 2017. I have heard amazing things about that one (it won the Man Booker Prize), and I cannot wait to read it.
Team of Rivals is a very dense book with lots of details, and it took me about three months to finish it, which is significantly longer than I normally take to finish a book. But Doris Kearns Goodwin has a way of writing that made me so invested in not only Lincoln and his life, but also the lives of the other “rivals”. I wanted to know more about Seward and his family, was equally interested in Chase and his daughter Kate, who was the Beauty of DC, and was captivated by Edwin Stanton and his dedication to the War Effort as Secretary of War. Goodwin is an incredible historian, and I definitely want to read her other works, particularly No Ordinary Time about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, which won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1995.
I feel that my reading of Team of Rivals could not have come at a better time. Lincoln knew that he would need smart politicians surrounding him in his Cabinet. He put aside the rivalry and put together his “Team of Rivals”. I kept reading and wondering when the last time a president employed this tactic, certainly not our current president.
“While it was possible that his team of rivals would devour one another, Lincoln determined that ‘he must risk the dangers of faction to overcome the dangers of rebellion.’”
What an appropriate statement for our current national climate. If we could put aside our differences, surely the country would be stronger and a better place to live.
Team of Rivals is definitely one of the best history books I have read. I loved that it was not just your standard biography, but focused on other key political figures. And even though I knew how the book would end, I still found myself emotional at how Lincoln never got a chance to see his vision and hard work pay off for the Union. If you are looking for a great American history book, I cannot recommend Team of Rivals enough. I give it 4 stars.
Let me know what your favorite American history book is.