Blogs > Cliopatria > Daniel W. Crofts: Review of Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005)

Mar 19, 2006 2:03 am

Daniel W. Crofts: Review of Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005)

Mr. Crofts is Professor of History at the College of New Jersey.

This massive book arrived last fall as a media event. Goodwin was widely interviewed on radio and television. Team of Rivals thereby gained immediate notice in the most visible places. Ever since publishing her fascinating memoir, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream (1976), Goodwin has commanded a wide following of interested readers. They quickly vaulted her newest contribution to the top of the best seller lists. Few academic historians will sell as many books in a lifetime as she sells in a week.

Goodwin is a skilled biographer. To get a fresh angle of vision on Abraham Lincoln, she decided to study in depth the men he appointed to his cabinet, among whom were his four chief rivals for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 1860. Goodwin thinks Lincoln can be better understood and appreciated by studying his interactions with those who were “better known, better educated, and more experienced in public life” than he, most especially his Secretary of State, William Henry Seward, and his Treasury secretary, Salmon P. Chase (xvi).

Goodwin admires Lincoln. She notes astutely that he enjoyed “a profound self-confidence.” An “even-tempered disposition” enabled him to overcome a “melancholy temperament” and “function at a very high level,” even in the face of “appalling pressures.” Only someone with “remarkable talents” could transform an unstable collection of bruised egos into a team that could fight and win an enormous war. It is telling indeed when a biographer of Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and the Kennedy family recognizes in Lincoln surpassing qualities of leadership (xvi-xix).

Team of Rivals is Goodwin’s most ambitious book to date. The Civil War era stretches back long before oral sources can shed much light on a subject. Perforce, Goodwin has had to do without the sort of material that she has heretofore used with such telling effect. Instead, she has been obliged to rely on archival sources and a mountain of secondary literature. Her achievement in mastering the necessary documents and monographs is impressive.

Goodwin is at her best when using letters to illuminate relationships. Lincoln, Seward, Chase, and the women in their lives all come into memorable focus. Her insights about individuals ring true. She also makes a convincing case that individual experiences can be better comprehended by widening the focus to include other key actors, both personal and professional. The composite approach used here does yield insights that could not have been realized by a more narrowly focused biography of Lincoln.

In creating a three-dimensional Lincoln, Goodwin must do the same for his chief rivals. Readers therefore enjoy a rich account of the affectionate but distanced marriage linking Seward to his wife Frances. A gifted “semi-invalid” who hated political life in Washington D.C. and therefore stayed home in upstate New York, Frances was also a far more unyielding opponent of slavery than her husband. Their relationship was “sustained chiefly through the long, loving letters they wrote to each other day after day, year after year” (155, 303). Never before have these letters been used to such telling effect. Also quite unforgettable is the relationship between the thrice-widowed Chase and his beautiful daughter Kate, who was as extroverted as Frances Seward was withdrawn. Although Goodwin convincingly challenges the idea through her careful reading of original sources, it was widely assumed at the time that Kate Chase married the immensely wealthy but otherwise ordinary William Sprague in order to fund her father’s presidential dream (580-81).

One must not conclude that Team of Rivals is simply historical soap opera. The Goodwin approach largely delivers what it promises. Seward quickly understood Lincoln’s exceptional attributes and subordinated himself accordingly. The two became fast friends, and their friendship provides perhaps the key story line for the book. Chase, however, always thought that he deserved to sit in the White House, and this undermined his relationship with Lincoln. Goodwin tries to be fair to Mary Todd Lincoln, but it is a tough assignment. Though born to far greater privilege than her husband, she had none of his inner confidence. Her gratuitous snubs of Frances Seward and her petty refusal to attend Kate Chase’s wedding contrasted diametrically with her husband’s readiness to reach out to those who resented him (386-87, 581-82). Mary Lincoln’s spending sprees reflected a craving for attention, but they earned her the wrong sort of attention. She too, somewhat like Chase, envied her husband’s success and confidence.

Team of Rivals works best when the team is limited to Lincoln, Seward, and Chase. Goodwin might better have defined the book as such. Her design, however, also compels her to include Lincoln’s other two1860 rivals. Edward Bates, the Attorney General, looms large here even though his wartime role was modest. Simon Cameron never comes into focus, no doubt because he lasted less than a year as Secretary of War. His more consequential successor, Edwin Stanton, deservedly receives more coverage. Goodwin likewise details the roles played by two other cabinet members, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles. The title of the book is a double entendre. The five 1860 rivals for the Republican nomination did and did not make their peace with each other, but they and the others in the cabinet soon faced challenges that made 1860 ancient history. Intra-cabinet rivalries—and new alignments among the rivals—persisted throughout the war. At times the jousting became so distracting that Lincoln simply refused to hold cabinet meetings (525). He must have been relieved to ease both Chase and Blair out of his official family as the 1864 elections approached.

It may be an occupational hazard among biographers to downplay evidence that would place their subjects in anything less than the best light. Goodwin plainly finds Lincoln admirable. Admiration may intensify—but may also cloud—historical judgment.

Goodwin wants Lincoln to be consistently principled. She eagerly calls attention, as do other Lincoln biographers, to Lincoln’s private denunciation of anti-immigrant nativists. In an oft-quoted letter to his old friend Joshua Speed, Lincoln deplored the tendency to exclude foreigners and Catholics from the promise of the Declaration of Independence. Goodwin fails to make it plain, however, that Lincoln prudently avoided taking a comparable public stance. Unlike Seward, who outspokenly rejected anti-Catholic intolerance, Lincoln judged that he needed to appease voters who had both anti-immigrant and anti-southern tendencies (180-81). When Lincoln’s promoters argued successfully that he was more “available” (that is, electable) than Seward, their case rested in part on a recognition that Lincoln would be more acceptable to the anti-immigrant wing of the Republican party. Goodwin acknowledges as much in a single sentence ( Lincoln was “less offensive than Seward” to those who disliked immigrants), but she gives the matter no emphasis (237-56, quotation on 254).

Goodwin delights, as Lincoln biographers must, in the soaring language of his annual message to Congress in December 1862—an admonition that “we cannot escape history,” and that “the fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation” (501). She does not mention that Lincoln coupled his elegant defense of emancipation with a flagrant concession to white racial phobias: he wanted the federal government to pay the costs for freed slaves who wished to be colonized abroad.

Goodwin faithfully notes instances when dubious means were used to secure laudable ends, but she focuses on the ends. Thus, when Lincoln enlisted Thurlow Weed to come up with a secret slush fund to influence the Connecticut and Rhode Island elections in April 1863, “it was money well spent” (505). When the fate of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery hung in the balance in January 1865, special favors and what other historians have described as overt bribery were used to win the votes of several wavering Congressmen. Lincoln also used a “cunning evasion” to deny that Confederate Peace Commissioners were seeking a negotiated end to the war (687-88). Without such underhanded tactics, the Amendment would likely have failed—and that, quite understandably, is Goodwin’s bottom line.

Biographers also tend to depict their subjects as larger than life and to empower them with almost superhuman qualities. Lincoln has seduced many a previous biographer. Notwithstanding the excellence of her research and writing, Goodwin too sometimes succumbs to the same temptation.

For example, Goodwin’s Lincoln knew what he was doing during the winter before the war started. He allowed the would-be compromiser Seward to make conciliatory overtures toward the disaffected South, in hopes of preserving the peace, and he even incorporated many of Seward’s words in his inaugural address. But Lincoln also knew where to draw the line, and he “retained an astonishing degree of control over an increasingly chaotic and potentially devastating situation” (304). While Seward aged ten years in just a few months, Lincoln alone had the composure and inner strength to make the right decisions.

Goodwin has plenty of esteemed company in depicting Lincoln as the master of his fate. She glosses over, however, much evidence that points in a different direction. David Potter wisely reminded us that Lincoln never expected to become a war president and never expected to preside over the forcible destruction of the slave system. Potter’s Lincoln “groped and blundered” as he confronted the awful fact that Southern secessionists were in earnest [Potter, Lincoln and His Party in the Secession Crisis, 315]. Lincoln himself confessed that the unexpected challenges during his first weeks in office were “so great that could I have anticipated them, I would not have believed it possible to have survived them” (340).

In a public letter defending his emancipation policies, written in April 1864, Lincoln disavowed his “sagacity.” He insisted that he had not controlled events, but rather that “events have controlled me” [ Lincoln to Albert G. Hodges, 4 April 1864, in Basler, ed., Collected Works, VII: 281-83]. His biographers rarely accept this striking instance of presidential modesty. Goodwin does not mention it at all. Instead, she joins a long parade of those who not only acclaim Lincoln’s uniquely strong capabilities and his gift for responding effectively to challenges that he encountered—but who also celebrate an almost superhuman omniscience that gave him the confidence to shape outcomes and make an indelible mark on history. Biographers find such an approach almost irresistible; historians worry that Lincoln’s biographers may claim too much.

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