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

By Jelinas | Books | December 9, 2009 |

By Jelinas | Books | December 9, 2009 |

Team of Rivals deals primarily with Abraham Lincoln’s political savvy. He went from a hayseed lawyer on the fringes of the American consciousness to one of the greatest and most respected leaders in our nation’s history — in world history, even.

The book is about Lincoln’s shrewd leadership, but its heart is about his character. Lincoln was a political genius, yes, but it was his integrity and humility that strengthened him to stick to his political convictions. It was his knack for giving humorous illustrations to set his adjutants, friends, colleagues, and even his enemies at ease that earned the respect of the American people in the most difficult trial our nation has ever faced.

Goodwin carefully details the background of each member of Lincoln’s Cabinet. She doesn’t just set forth the facts of their biographies — she paints a picture of each man’s character and personality. She brings them to life the way only a truly gifted historian can.

She also gives the reader a feel for the zeitgeist of the era. We Americans have all studied the American Civil War in school. But textbooks and lectures can’t convey the emotional state of a nation in peril. She gives examples of Americans from many different walks of life — North and South, slave and free, rich and poor — to show a broad view of how the war affected every American. No one came through unscathed.

And of course Goodwin describes Lincoln’s own life and character in careful detail. What makes the book so powerful is Goodwin’s ability to take a subject of thousands of biographies and bring him to life afresh. The reader learns about Lincoln’s agony over the personal cost of the war to each American — Northern and Southern alike. We see his level-headedness in handling delicate situations involving indelicate men. We see the strength of his conviction as he graciously but firmly led his Cabinet while still humbly considering their counsel in every matter.

We see why the nation was so devastated by his assassination. To lose their leader at the end of its most difficult trial must have been a terrible blow to a nation already weakened by war. It’s a credit to Goodwin’s writing that we feel the grief of the nation as we read her account of Lincoln’s assassination and the aftermath. I wept as though I had lost a personal friend.

But, aside from Lincoln’s wife and sons, no one felt the loss quite as deeply as his Cabinet — the eponymous “team of rivals” that he assembled to give him a balanced council to advise him.

Secretary of State William Seward was nearly assassinated himself, and had to cope with his own recuperation as well as the loss of his friend, colleague, and President. Seward had bid for the Republican nomination in 1960, but lost out to Lincoln. After much hesitation and political maneuvering on Lincoln’s part, he finally reluctantly accepted the post of Secretary of War. He was the first member of Lincoln’s Cabinet to recognize the President’s genius. He was Lincoln’s most trusted friend.

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton couldn’t say the President’s name without weeping for weeks after his death. He had his fair share of conflicts with the President — when they first met, he was called in to handle a case that was originally given to Lincoln. No one ever told Lincoln he’d been replaced, so he showed up to court. Stanton ignored his presence and proceeded to present the case. Afterward, Lincoln admiringly said that he needed to go home to learn how to become a lawyer. Stanton rather brusquely dismissed his ability to do so.

But he quickly learned that underneath Lincoln’s simple manner and unassuming demeanor was a quick wit and an uncanny ability to assess a critical situation, along with the patience, wisdom and self-control that it took to wait before making important decisions (and nearly all of the decisions he had to make during his tenure as president would be crucial). It was Stanton who uttered, “Now he belongs to the ages,” at Lincoln’s deathbed.

Oh, man, so much for a tear-free review.

It’s no easy task to write an extraordinary book about an extraordinary man who led a nation in an extraordinary time with a team of extraordinary men. But Doris Kearns Goodwin has risen to the challenge, driven by her passion for Lincoln and his legacy. Her work is, in a word: extraordinary.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of Jelinas’ reviews, check her blog.

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