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

True to its title, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln chronicles the ingenuity with which a relatively unknown Springfield lawyer was able to construct a calculated, creative campaign for America’s highest political office – and later, how he was able to maintain it. Despite being one of the most influential presidents in American history, Lincoln entered the 1860 election as a relative unknown. Unlike rivals William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates – all three of whom had held several political positions and were well-known among constituents – Lincoln had held but a single, relatively unaccomplished term as a United States House Representative. Over the course of her 944-page novel, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin recounts the unprecedented tact with which Lincoln constructed both his campaign and cabinet.

Goodwin’s eloquent prose allows Rivals to progress at a pleasantly predictable pace, making the story both easy and enjoyable to read. The book is structured in a compare/contrast fashion that presents the concurrent narratives of its four rivals simultaneously. More than anything, Rivals’ semi-chronological arrangement reads like a well-crafted work of fiction. Much like an engineer constructing a converging railroad, Goodwin begins her novel by profiling the four future Republican rivals. Shifting back and forth from candidate to candidate every several pages may sound haphazard, but – in Goodwin’s practice – both natural and easy to follow.

Though the candidates’ paths overlap in a handful of pre-1860 events, their ‘tracks’ first truly converge at the Republican National Convention. Held in Chicago, the convention secured Lincoln’s potential for presidency. Moreover, as Goodwin reveals, such success was due – in no small part – to the failures of his rivals. Rather than devoting 1859 to campaigning, front running rival William H. Seward chose to take on a multi-national tour of Europe – a move that both alienated his country and deserted his constituents. Goodwin argues that Seward’s candidacy would have received a substantial boost had he chosen to postpone his European excursions. Fellow candidate Edward Bates devoted the year to a similarly slothful recluse at his Missouri estate. Perhaps most incongruously, candidate Salmon P. Chase chose to ignore discussion of his nomination altogether, assuming that the nomination had already been “given” to him. By a shocking vote of 231.5-180 (later ‘corrected’ to 349-111.5), Lincoln swept the electorate and became the newborn Republican Party’s official candidate.

In an unprecedented stroke of political genius, President Abraham Lincoln proceeded to appoint all three of his former Republican rivals to his cabinet. Seward became Secretary of State; Chase, Secretary of Treasury; Bates, Attorney General. The significance of Lincoln’s cabinet appointments is by no means underemphasized – Goodwin devotes the entirety of the lengthier, latter half of her book to its descriptive dissection. Since Lincoln’s tenure consisted almost entirely of the Civil War (South Carolina seceded upon his election, and he was assassinated just four days after the Union declared victory), so, too, does Goodwin’s narrative. I was particularly surprised to learn about Lincoln’s leadership style, which favored patient analysis over the impulsive judgment of his colleagues. Such command may have actually hurt the Union in the first half of the Civil War. Lincoln had first been reluctant to dismiss the likes of an incompetent General George McClellan and disloyal administrator Salmon P. Chase. While such steady decision-making ultimately led the Union to triumph, it also causes Goodwin’s tale to be very, very long – a length that, past the 600th page, begins to eat at her novel’s potential to truly captivate a reader.

While Goodwin’s sentence structure does approach a formulaic quality at times, it is this same formulaic organization that ultimately makes the progression of her tale as comfortable as it is intuitive. Knowing what to expect, the reader is able to devote less time to re-reading excessively complex sentences, and more time synthesizing the author’s informative discourse. Dialogue is incorporated both directly and indirectly, withholding quotation marks from statements whose origins cannot be identified. From Rivals’ structure to style to even its vast reservoir of referenced sources, it is clear that the author has poured significant thought and effort into her nine-hundred-plus page work. Citing source upon source in a practically effortless fashion, Goodwin transforms a treasure of primary sources – newspapers, letters, pamphlets, and statements, among others – into a truly readable history. As a testament to Goodwin’s bibliographical fetish, Rivals’ bibliography takes up roughly 6% of the entire book. While such analysis is undoubtedly impressive, it’s also tiring – we know that the novel is factual. Must she give us every relevant newspaper headline to prove this?

With such determined allegiance to her subject matter, I suppose it is almost inevitable that Goodwin boasts a strong, pro-Lincoln tone. Though not biased per se, she does romanticize Lincoln as a leader with unprecedented presence and unquestionable superiority. While she doesn’t omit the flaws of Lincoln’s persona, she alludes to them in a mother-esque fashion, attributing even his smallest failures to the faults of others. In discussing Lincoln’s depression, she explains that Lincoln possessed a “melancholy” temperament – a by-product of Lincoln’s emotional rollercoaster of a home life (attributed to the mood swings of wife Mary Todd) and political miscalculations (like Lincoln’s ‘drop of blood’ House Resolution) whose defeats can only be credited to the ignorance of his fellow Congressmen. At times, Goodwin’s use of adjectives is almost ironic. While she maintains that Lincoln was an unwavering Atheist throughout his life, she curiously elevates him to a pedestal of godlike proportions.

Numerous parallels have been drawn between the nominations and presidencies of Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama. Having also read The Game Change, a political biography of Barack Obama’s acquisition of the 2008-2012 presidency, I am able to identify a plethora of parallels between the phenomena and the books themselves. While the two works share similar organizational techniques, writing styles, and even lengths, they differ in the depth of their discussion of one key electoral element: campaign staff. Unlike Game Change, in which the reader is thoroughly introduced to Obama, Clinton, and McCain’s masterful campaign assistants, Rivals breezes over their origins, plunging headfirst into Goodwin’s comfort zone of “unprecedented political genius.” While the reader is briefed somewhat extensively on New York political boss Thurlow Weed’s role in Seward’s nomination, the same degree of attention is not devoted to Lincoln’s assistant, Judd.

Indeed, if there is one area in which Rivals succeeds more than any other, it’s in a strict adherence to a thesis of Lincoln’s godlike greatness. While Game Change does present Barack Obama as the ‘best candidate,’ its attitude pales in comparison to Goodwin’s brazen love for Lincoln. Though I have come to admire Lincoln for his political tact and unwavering determination, Goodwin’s exuberant appraisal of the president leaves me almost skeptical – could a man so perfect really have existed?

In sum, I loved the incredible detail with which Goodwin decorated her political tale. Goodwin’s relentless research behind such engaging synthesis is likely to extend beyond even my wildest imaginative capacities. Nevertheless, despite Goodwin’s eclectic resume (which boasts a Government Doctorate from Harvard University, two additional honorary doctorates from Bates and Westfield State colleges, a Pulitzer Prize, ten years’ teaching experience at Harvard University, among a plethora of other notable accomplishments) and its clear flaunting of the author’s historical aptitude, I could not help but feel relief upon completing Team of Rivals.

Despite her focus on a wartime era, Goodwin discusses on the administrative action behind the war’s major battles but not the battles themselves. While the higher order certainly held substantial influence on the ongoing conflict, as the late historian Howard Zinn would point out, neither McClellan, Seward, Chase, nor Lincoln fought the Civil War – the soldiers did. Neglecting to mention these brave souls for more than a sentence throughout an extensive near-thousand-page novel is both disrespectful and ignorant.

Begun as a promising tale of Lincoln’s political finesse, Goodwin’s writing devolves into a drawn-out cheerleading routine for Abraham Lincoln. Any attentive reader could guess that Rivals was not the book Goodwin received the Pulitzer Prize for. Though researched extensively, composed thoughtfully, and read easily, Goodwin’s book is far too forgiving of Lincoln’s faults – not too mention the lumber companies whose plows demolished entire forests to simply sell a single copy of this massive tome.