This multiple biography is centered on Lincoln's mastery of men and how it shaped the most significant presidency in the nation's history. Historian Goodwin illuminates Lincoln's political genius, as the one-term congressman rises from obscurity to prevail over three gifted rivals to become president. When Lincoln emerged as the victor at the Republican National Convention, his rivals were dismayed. Throughout the turbulent 1850s, each had energetically sought the presidency as the conflict over slavery led inexorably to civil war. That Lincoln succeeded, Goodwin demonstrates, was because of his extraordinary ability to put himself in the place of other men, to experience what they were feeling, to understand their motives and desires. It was this that enabled Lincoln to bring his disgruntled opponents together, create the most unusual cabinet in history, and marshal their talents to the task of preserving the Union.
It starts with Lincoln on the lawyer circuit in Illinois, gaining renown as a storyteller and orator. It then takes us through his adolescence and his marriage to Mary, and his astute jockeying for the Republican nomination over more celebrated and well-heeled rivals. After that is his election, and his forming of the cabinet of the best possible men from which the title derives, including those he defeated in the election. His attempts to avoid civil war, his learning to be commander-in-chief and to get the generals he needs to win the war (get out of here, McClellan!), the waging of the Civil War, and his brief time after its conclusion comprise the rest.
He famously educated himself, somehow overcoming that log cabin upbringing.
"Lincoln's book hunger was regarded as odd and indolent. Nor would his community understand the thoughts and emotions stirred by his reading; there were few to talk to about the most important and deeply experienced activities of his mind." He'd have been a great LTer, yes?
He even read geometry books, and worked on math problems in his office, to improve himself.
He lost loved ones early in life to disease - including his mother, his sister, and the great love of his life, Anne Rutledge. Contemporaries often remarked on his melancholy look that would become animated and sharply intelligent as soon as he began talking to people or telling stories. Seems like it would be hard not to be melancholy with what he experienced throughout his life - including those early losses, and the devastating war that he was responsible for, that killed over 600,000 Americans (out of 31.5 milllion in the country then), more than the rest of our wars put together.
The ubiquity of death by disease and in childbirth is staggering to read about. At the same time, families of nine and ten and more children were common - although those numbers would dwindle as family members were struck down by diseases such as tuberculosis. His wife Mary Todd's family had 16 children; her mother died in giving birth to her seventh child, and her stepmother had nine more children.
I loved learning that Lincoln was an irrepressible storyteller, constantly illustrating his points with down to earth stories, and Goodwin persuasively conveys his honesty, integrity, and personal charm. He was well aware of his physical deficiencies. When someone called him two-faced, he responded, "If I had two faces, do you really think I would have picked this one?" I read somewhere (not in this book) that he may have had Marfan's disease, a genetic disorder that causes unusual height and long, thin limbs.
A surprise for me was how personally vilified he was by rivals and skeptics, especially early in his career. "Ape", "long-armed gorilla", "imbecile", "second-rate Illinois lawyer", the list goes on and on. He came out of "nowhere" to be elected, and there were many who doubted his qualifications. Goodwin's portrayal of the rivals also is compelling - especially Salmon Chase, chock full of his belief in his wonderfulness and his predestination to be president, who instead became Secretary of the Treasury and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and Seward, a beloved politician who was expected to carry the nomination easily and instead bitterly lost to Lincoln. Seward became Secretary of State and an admiring close friend of Lincoln. He ended up calling Lincoln, this unknown upstart from Illinois, "the best and wisest man he had ever known."
Goodwin's extensive research supports that conclusion. Lincoln's ability to keep his eye on the big picture, to defuse animosity and to cause opponents to work productively with him, reluctantly or enthusiastically, and his sense of timing, waiting for the opportune moment for success, all come through vividly. It is fascinating to watch Lincoln inch his way toward emancipation of the slaves and passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. His pragmatic approach, beginning with pushing for a restriction of slavery to those states in which it already existed and not permitting its extension to new states, to publicly proclaiming, to assuage fears, that slaves would not be given rights equal to whites, to advocating full equality, is a much fuller and thought-provoking story than I had known before reading this book. Even after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, a carping congressman said, "Strange phenomenon in the world's history when a second-rate Illinois lawyer is the instrument to utter words which shall form an epoch memorable in all future ages."
Lincoln's astounding eloquence, as an "instrument to utter words", is heard throughout this book. I was happy that she gave us the Gettysburg address in full, and it is quite moving to read it in context. I can't say enough about what a good book this is. You finish wishing you had a chance to meet this great man, whose kindness to others was perhaps his most fundamental trait.
Sadly, it all escaped me and I was left feeling simply disappointed. Yes the story is told from the humble beginnings of Lincoln’s early life and leads up to his unlikely nomination, over more qualified and much more experienced, candidates, by the Republican Party for the presidency in 1860. I think I knew all this already. It told how he brought together improbable individuals, particularly his former rivals for the nomination William Seward, Edward Bates and Salmon Chase. The rest of his cabinet came from the Democratic Party. Unusual, especially as compared to the tense and vociferous divide we have between today’s political parties, but again, no compelling narrative. Mary Lincoln is portrayed as a very unstable personality, verifying all that I already knew about her. And it broke my heart when she and the president lost their sweet son Willie. As the war rages we meet the incompetent McClellan, who my partner was just swearing at on the TV several months ago as he watched a program on the Military channel. At that time, he explained to me, in detail, the uselessness of the Civil War general, spoiling it for me to read about now. It’s not until Grant takes on a greater role that the war starts to turn in Lincoln’s direction. Interesting that Goodwin gave such short shrift to the bloodiest battle of the war. Only a couple paragraphs for the Battle of Gettysburg where over 50,000 soldiers gave their lives. That seems like a complete oversight for a book that almost drowns in tiny, insignificant details and minutiae.
The last hundred pages were the best part of the book. Well written, compelling, somehow suspenseful even though I (and everyone else) knows that Lincoln will be assassinated, and by whom, and how, and the collateral damage that will ensue, as well.
So I have no answers. I don’t know what made this book seem like a slog through knee-deep molasses with heavy rubber boots, but that’s how it came off to me, one lonely voice in a sea of over-exuberant admirers.
The key point - at least in my mind - was that Lincoln was a natural politician. He had the innate ability to get people to do what he wanted them to do by making them believe that they also wanted the same thing. He was reasonable, always willing to listen to opposing viewpoints, but always making his own decision. He was a master at diffusing tense situations and potential scandals. He was humble, but not weak. He was generous whenever he could be. He was willing to give nearly anyone the benefit of the doubt in a given situation. He had the rare ability to see the strengths of men he disliked or disagreed with and was willing to give them appointments to high and powerful positions in the government if he believed they were the best men to serve the interests of the country.
I'm sure the book is not flawless and that a more learned historian would be able to point out inaccuracies. But I give the book 5 stars for its ability to make the political atmosphere of the day, the problems facing the nation and its people and its leaders, clear and easy to grasp by ordinary but interested readers. Highly recommended.
The bad: By choosing to write not just a straight biography of Lincoln, but instead to focus on some of his cabinet, we get to read the early lives of Chase (Treasury secretary), Bates (um... I forget), and Seward (secretary of state), as well as their every waking thought. These three guys were also in line to run for President in 1861. I could have done without much of this, or at least some heavy editing. Then Stanton (secretary of war) and Welles (secretary of the navy) get chucked into the mix later in the book. Others aren’t in it at all – I kept wondering what the VP, Hamlin, spent his time doing. Although I felt like Goodwin did a great job at making the characters distinct, there was so much repetition. Yes, I got it that Chase was desperate to be President until he ended up as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Yes, I got it that Seward and Lincoln started off as rivals for the Presidency – with Seward the favourite by a mile – and ended up working really well together and becoming very close. And Goodwin treats Kate Chase (Salmon’s daughter) like tabloids today treat Kate Middleton. I didn’t need to know all about her wedding and how long Lincoln stayed at the reception.
Lincoln was obviously an amazing guy but I found myself wanting Goodwin to write something – anything – negative. His ability to lead from the side comes through, as does his integrity most of the time. I’m not sure I’d describe him as a genius based on her book. I like a bit more criticism in my non-fiction. There just isn’t that much analysis in the book and the writing style had me falling asleep. And I’m not afraid of chunky non-fiction. And there wasn’t really that much about the horrific civil war either. Maybe Goodwin felt she wasn’t writing a history of the civil war and too much background would have made it even longer.
This book reveals the private details of the lives of Abraham and Mary Lincoln as well as William Seward, Edward Bates, Salmon Chase, Edwin Stanton, and Montgomery Blair during the time of the Civil War. The images of these great men depicted in this volume place the reader within the Lincoln's circle of confident antes so thoroughly that you feel that you are part of the decision making Team of Rivals.
Beyond that and because of that, you see every facet which made Lincoln the great man that he was. "His speeches possessed unmatched power, conviction, clarity and moral strength." Lincoln was always known for his humor as well as his drive, but the reader also sees his spirit of generosity, his gentleness, his ability to bring out the best in anyone. Lincoln was not a vain man and knew that there were abilities that he did not possess and so he turned to the men that he knew had those abilities and drew them to his support. He seem to know exactly how to convince his former rivals to become his friends and his allies. Each of these men wanted to be President and Lincoln "stole" the nomination in 1860. These men could have turned against him, but Lincoln used his abilities of persuasion and placed them in the position that aided in the preservation of the nation.
It is remarkable that a basically self-educated man was able to accomplish what he did at such a volatile time in our history. Men who served before and after him in the Presidency had more education, but perhaps, it is the spirit of the man, that in the end, succeeded where others would have failed. How sad that he was cut down before he was able to complete the task of reuniting our nation. History definitely would have been quite different.
Suzanne Toren on the Audio version (I had both hardback and audio) was tremendous making this 750+ page come alive.
I rarely give a book 5 stars, this one I couldn't give less - it should have more.
It didn't start that way. The first few chapters were interesting but it was easy to set the book down for one reason or another. I enjoyed the content but it had a bit of an episodic feel to it as the author moved from Lincoln to Seward to Chase to Bates and back, round robin.
All that changed when we reached May, 1860 and all the figures were drawn into a single story. From Lincoln's surprise nomination as the Republican candidate for the Presidency onward, I felt as if Doris Kearns Goodwin had plunked me down as a fly on the wall and I was actually there. Lincoln and his cabinet became real and only the demands of my job or my eyes closing of their own accord kept me from opening it. I feel that, although she is obviously a bit in love with her main character, Goodwin accomplished the objective of the book's subtitle, showing us the political genius of Lincoln. More than just a history lesson—however analytical and in-depth such a lesson might be—she manages to convey the certainty that this was, perhaps, the only man who could have navigated the country through those years intact and that his assassination in 1865 cost both the North and the South in the following years.
Beyond Lincoln, she also gives us the members of his cabinet. Some remain relatively minor participants in the drama, but Seward, Stanton and Chase leap into life...no longer just names but fleshed out figures whom I can admire (for the first two) or faintly despise (the third).
For anyone even vaguely interested in the era, the people or the war, this is a must-read.
When conservatives aren't trying to co-opt Lincoln as a Republican in order to entice the votes of Democrats, they often decry him as a usurper of state's rights and seem to dislike him as much as they do Obama, and for good reason. Both men seemed weak at times because they strove so hard for political compromise putting the good of the country above the desires of even their most ardent supporters. Both seem without vengeance in dealing with those who oppose them. But what is hated about both is that they promoted human rights above economic rights.
Goodwin's book explains the meaning of the Gettysburg address and Lincoln's 2nd inaugural address so that even those of us who had to memorize them in school finally understand the enormity of his words. And stupid John Wilkes Booth who so loved the South did it immeasurable damage by expressing his vengeance in killing the man who may have been able to bring the country together at the end of the Civil War: With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to know more about US history and about the contributions one person can make to the world.
The author does a great job in blending the political and personal. After all, political leaders are much of what they are because of personalities and add that to the culture of the times and one begins to get a much more interesting and insightful view of why things happened the way they did. The Civil War was a complicated affair; it wasn't just a case of the good guys fighting the bad guys and it certainly wasn't just about slavery.
In short, I would highly recommend this book to anyone especially those fiction lovers who normally don't consider non-fiction.
Obviously, Doris Kearns Goodwin is a wonderful storyteller. But it helps that her protagonist is such an extraordinary individual. Over and over again I was amazed by Lincoln’s wisdom, his decency, his patience, and his extraordinary political acumen. Goodwin’s intent here, it’s pretty clear, is to focus on the latter of these attributes. While most Americans know of Lincoln’s moral courage, his social legacy, and (of course) his exemplary oratorical skills, few (I’m betting) fully appreciate his political genius. Over and over again he pulls political miracles out of his hat – extracting victory from defeat, forging unforgeable compromises – armed with little more than an unwavering moral compass, an encompassing empathy, humility, patience, and a seemingly endless stock of jokes, puns, and folksy anecdotes. Few anecdotes illustrate his politicla genius as clearly as the fact that he staffed the major posts of his new cabinet with political rivals …. or that, in time, those same rivals became his most adamant supporters.
I thought I had a fairly good background knowledge of Lincoln’s life and his administration, but by the end of the second chapter I jettisoned this misconception. Goodwin’s scholarship is as exceptional as her storytelling skills. Scarcely a page passed without exposing me to some startling new bit of information, constantly enhancing and challenging my preconceived notions.
There are so many lessons here that I wish modern politicians would embrace: do the right thing for the right reasons, no matter how unpopular; always allow your political opponents to save face; invite – don’t avoid (or worse, squash)- dissenting opinions; compromise always trumps conflict; and, above all, always put the good of the nation above your own personal ambitions. Alas, since our politicians seem to be too busy doing the wrong thing for the wrong reasons, humiliating each other, squashing dissenting opinions, seeking out conflict, and placing their own interests above those of the country, perhaps it’s up to us U.S. citizens to absorb the lessons from this book on their behalf and then let them know the standards against which we intend to hold them accountable!
I don’t give out many 5 star ratings, but if I could give this 6 stars, I would. This is one of those rare volumes that has permanently changed the way that I view our country, our political system, our destiny, and – above all – the potential of ordinary Americans to accomplish extraordinary things.
I think what I learned most from this book is that his very qualities that made him such a great man - his generosity, his good humor, his even temper, his kindness, his drive, his affection - were the qualities that made him a great leader. He was able to work with just about anyone. He tried to bring out the best in people, but if they were still unwilling to cooperate, he usually found ways to get around them. His best friend was a man who could have been his worst enemy.
I admit that I cried when I read about Lincoln's death. It wasn't exactly a surprise ending, but it still made me cry as I read of his death, and even more when I read of how deeply he was mourned by all who knew him. Every man in his cabinet was deeply saddened by the loss of a man they each considered a friend.
For a man who was very private about his own religious beliefs and could not accept the existence of an afterlife, I can't help but believe that Abraham Lincoln was preserved by God for the very task he accomplished. It's hard to imagine another man who could have saved the union and end slavery at the same time. It is a miracle that he was able to accomplish as much as he did, and although his convictions cost him his life, Lincoln himself would have thought that a very small price to pay for his country. 5 stars
This is one of those books that has been on my TBR pile for a long time having gotten a lot of hype several years ago when Obama was reading the book and supposedly assembling his own team of rivals cabinet. Ultimately, it took an audiobook version for me to really get into the story because it is a very thick non-fiction book.
All that being said, I loved Team of Rivals and it has gone to the top of my list for reads this year. Kearns Goodwin uses the lives of several member's of Lincoln's cabinet to illustrate Lincoln's life. The primary comparisons are with William Seward, Edward Bates, and Salmon Chase who all contended with Lincoln for the 1860 Republican nomination although the stories of Edwin Stanton and the Blair family also figure prominently in the story.
The book opens with a discussion of just how unlikely a candidate Lincoln was for the 1860 Republican nomination and how, to the outside world, he was the least likely of the four men vying for the nomination to receive it. From there, the book moves backward to explain the formative years of the four men and how they came to the 1860 convention with a better chance of the nomination than Lincoln.
Once Lincoln wins the nomination and then the presidency, the book talks about how Lincoln turned each man into an ally and brought them into his cabinet where each served successfully and to the benefit of the country as a whole.
Finally, the book accounts, in detail, the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address and so on all the way up to Lincoln's assassination. However, where the book really shines is in the details of the lesser known struggles that Lincoln faced - whether it was placating warring factions in the Republican party, keeping border states from seceding, defusing international disputes with England, etc. Through it all, Kearns Goodwin portrays Lincoln as having almost supernatural powers of compassion, patience, forgiveness, and humor yet she also humanizes him too. It is a remarkable portrayal of America's greatest president and a fascinating read.
Just as I was beginning it, a friend forwarded me a rather snarky analysis of Kearns Goodwin's thesis or, I should say, thesis as he imagined it. I'm still not clear on whether he actually read the book or was just reacting to the press about it but, thankfully, I stopped reading about two lines in when his condescension became clear. Suffice it say that he believes that there was nothing remarkable about Lincoln's cabinet since all presidents up to that time culled their governments from their rivals.
Thankfully, Kearns Goodwin analysis of Lincoln is far more nuanced. While she clearly has a love affair going on with our 16th president, she persuasively shares Lincoln's qualities with her readers. As painted by Kearns Goodwin, Lincoln was a remarkable, ambitious but not egotistical, pragmatist. His ability to look past his rivals' personal slights and to see the strengths that they could bring to bear coupled with his innate diplomacy allowed him to cobble together a government during this country's most trying times.
Would that Lincoln's abilities had been equally as successful in his choices of generals. The most frustrating part of reading this book was the repetitiousness of the struggles Lincoln experienced with his parade of incompetent generals. More than once I found myself exclaiming out loud in frustration as Kearns Goodwin related yet another ridiculous episode with this general or that one.
Kearns Goodwin is obviously enamored of her subject and successfully persuades the reader that this admiration is well placed.
A Unique Look at a Presidential Administration
Team of Rivals
By Doris Kearns Goodwin
Format: Kindle Edition
File Size: 4594 KB
Print Length: 944 pages
Publisher: Simon & Schuster (December 20, 2006)
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services
Rating – 5 stars
Abraham Lincoln’s political life has been the subject of many books. Yet with Team of Rivals Doris Kearns Goodwin provides a unique and provactive look.
Much of what she covers is familiar. Yet this book is more than another Lincoln biography. It is a multi-faceted reviewof the entire team of personal and political competitors that he assembled to lead the country through its greatest crisis – The American Civil War. She profiles five of the key players in her book, four of whom contended for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination and all of whom later worked together in Lincoln's cabinet - Edwin M. Stanton, Salmon P. Chase, William H. Seward and Edward Bates.
The author provides insight into Lincoln's leadership style and his deep understanding of human behavior and motivation. Goodwin presents a case for Lincoln's political genius by examining his relationships with cabinet selections, three of whom were opponents for the Republican nomination in 1860: Seward, Chase, and Bates. These nationally known, accomplished men, originally disdained Lincoln for his backwoods upbringing and lack of experience Each was shocked and humiliated at losing to this relatively obscure Illinois lawyer.
Yet Lincoln convinced them to join his administration. He gained their admiration and respect. The tale of his soothing egos, turning rivals into allies, and dealing with challenges to his leadership, all for the sake of the greater good, defines the book. Without the wisdom and confidence to select and work with the best people, the author argues, Lincoln would have failed to lead the nation through one of its darkest chapters.
Well-written and throughly researched, this book was a joy to read. Its only negative is when the reader compares Lincoln leadership style to that we have experienced in this country during the past two decades. It leaves the reader to ponder why gifted individuals no longer aspire to public service.
Penned by the Pointed Pundit
June 11, 2008
The "Team of Rivals" to which the title alludes was the four leading contenders (Lincoln, William Seward, Edward Bates and Salmon Chase) for the Republican nomination for the 1860 Presidential election. It was a great testament to Lincoln's personal charisma that he was able to secure the cooperation of the three people whom he defeated to secure that nomination, and then to induce them to serve in his Cabinet. Professor Goodwin details the prior history of all four rivals, and we see the whole panoply of class and family prosperity laid out. Perhaps the only things they shared in common were their growing hatred of slavery and their heavy baggage of personal tragedy ... and their sheer determination to improve (themselves and their people).
She also offers a concise, yet still appalling, history of slavery within the United States. One aspect of my previous ignorance of the details of Lincoln's life was reflected in my subscription to the general canonisation of him. I was, therefore, surprised to find that while Lincoln abhorred the practice of slavery, he was less emphatic in his acknowledgement of freed slaves' rights for absolutely equal treatment. For instance, as late as 1860 he was still unconvinced of the appropriateness of African-Americans serving as jurors. Indeed, within the Team of Rivals it was William Seward who took the lead on seeking untrammelled equality of rights.
Professor Goodwin covers the Civil War with great clarity, evoking the horror of a nation torn in two but never clogging the reader's attention with unnecessary detail. Similarly, her coverage of the passage of the key legislation through the two Houses is handled sensitively, and the potentially dry material relating to political process is handled in a lively way.
I wish that more biographies managed to achieve Professor Goodwin's adept combination of scholarly depth and clarity of expression.
What makes this book interesting is that we never really know the people a president has to deal with and the delicate balancing act that is involved in order to make an administration run smoothly.
It is a little dry in the beginning and at first I thought I would never keep all the characters straight. But gradually it all comes together and I could see why the author took such care to give a detailed background for each cabinet member.