Monday, September 07, 2009

Lincoln's Competition

Team of Rivals
by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Abraham Lincoln seems to me the grandest figure yet, on all the crowded canvas of the Nineteenth Century.
- Walt Whitman

. . . his supremacy expresses itself altogether in his peculiar moral power and the greatness of his character.

- Leo Tolstoy

Doris Kearns Goodwin has written a history of Abraham Lincoln that is unique in its approach to the subject. With a focus on Lincoln's "political genius" in her book Team of Rivals she tells the story not only of his ascendancy to the Presidency and various trials of office, but also the story of his rivals for the Presidency and the strategy he used for dealing with them once he was elected President. After his surprising nomination as a "dark horse" candidate and somewhat less surprising election he shocked the political establishment by naming his former rivals to his cabinet. It is this story and the background stories of each of these politicians that make Team of Rivals an essential addition to the massive library of books about Abraham Lincoln.

I found the narratives about the lives of William Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates fascinating and a rewarding read. While the story of Lincoln held my interest more due to the beautiful prose style of the author Goodwin than to any revelations about his well-documented life (for anyone who has not read a biography of Lincoln I would recommend that written by David Herbert Donald). With additional information about Edwin M. Stanton the quartet of major politicos was complete. Both the quotidian details of political life and the intrigue, including the nuance of the various shades of abolitionist behavior, were fascinating. If I have any criticism it would be that, after more than 700 pages most of which is about Lincoln, the narrative borders on hagiography. This is disappointing for after almost a century and a half of scholarship the Lincoln story itself must be more nuanced than it comes across in Goodwin's telling. However, the story of how these politicians complemented each other, often helped along by Lincoln's astute decisions, combined with the background of secession and civil war turmoil makes this a great work of history.

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Simon & Schuster, New York. 2005.

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