A review of "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln" by Doris Kearns Goodwin)
With the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th US president taking place in 2008 it would have been a missed opportunity for academic historians if they had failed to take the advantage of comparing his meteoric ascension to the White House alongside his predecessors. Hence its publication soon after.
If Obama’s political beginnings and his rise from US senator of Illinois to presidential democratic nominee are taken into consideration there is justification in making a comparison with Abraham Lincoln’s rise as Republican nominee in 1860. It could be argued that these were two men who came from lowly backgrounds who had to stride against all odds to secure the presidential nomination and take on board a furore besetting the country following their inauguration, namely a country beset by economic instability (2009) and a country threatened to be divided by secession and civil war (1860). Goodwin’s book therefore aims to delve into the political legacy of Lincoln during the civil war to establish how significant his diplomacy and policies were during this period and how to a great extent his actions during his presidency were a pivotal aspect that enabled the country to survive.
The most interesting and captivating example of this that Goodwin narrates and evaluates superbly is the choice of William H. Seward for the cabinet post of Secretary of State. Seward was the strong contender for the presidential nominee and was expected to win the nomination with a landslide victory. However, due to partisanship and tarnished allegiances by the strong contenders, Chase and Seward, Lincoln was able to emerge as the prime choice for the Republican ticket. Nonetheless despite Seward being an old rival and initially showing signs of holding the aspiration of acting as president de-facto as many historians have argued since, Lincoln disproved of seeing this as anything significant. Lincoln instead felt that his cabinet would be under-valued without Seward ‘in view of his ability, his integrity and his commanding influence.’ Lincoln therefore was determined to give the highest cabinet post to his rival Seward. Through the course of Goodwin’s work we can see that over time Seward would become a cornerstone within the administration of Lincoln, as is exemplarily demonstrated by the coverage Goodwin ascribes to his political dealings, such as the Trent affair that could have seen Britain sanction recognition of the Confederacy.
‘Shortly after the peace of the revolution was signed, the story began, the revolutionary war hero Ethan Allen had occasion to visit England where he was subjected to much teasing making fun of the Americans and George Washington, with one day obtaining a photo of the General and displaying it in the outhouse where Allen could see. When Allen made no mention of it the British asked if he had seen Washington’s picture in the outhouse. Allen replied that “he thought that it was a very appropriate place for an Englishman to keep it because there is nothing that will make an Englishman shit so quick as the sight of Gen. Washington!”’
The book is littered throughout with these lovely and witty anecdotes from Lincoln and was such a joy to read. This book I have no doubt will become an essential read for anyone studying the American civil war period or even a stalwart example of how diplomacy should be conducted. Worth its five stars! *****