The top reader review on Amazon right now for Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln begins by saying, “I feel a bit presumptuous adding the 246th review…” and possibly, this review is presumptuous in a similar fashion. But I recently reread this book, and in light of all the recent comparisons between our President-elect’s cabinet and that of Lincoln’s, I was inspired to read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s great book again, as I’m sure many others were.
If you haven’t read it yet, and are a U.S. history buff, an Obama acolyte, or just curious about all the comparisons, I think it’s a great read. Of course, I’m a U.S. history nerd, raised by a teacher of U.S. history, who has degrees in American Studies, so I’m not exactly impartial, but isn’t that the fun of writing reviews on your own blog? So yeah, I think it’s a great read, with an interesting approach– rather than being a biography of Lincoln (of which there are many), DKG looks at Lincoln in the context of the men who were his major rivals in the 1860 presidential elections, all of whom ended up in his cabinet during his administrations. DKG weaves together the threads of all five men with a clear eye and skillful hand, showing us not only how Lincoln made his incredible rise, but what prevented each of his rivals from gaining the Presidency, and what made him such a great President.
For a modern reader like me, especially in the year 2008 and in light of recent cabinet discussions, the sections of the book dealing with Lincoln and his Secretary of State, William H. Seward, are especially enlightening, and almost eerie at times.
In their time, Seward and Lincoln were viewed as so close, so tightly knit, that the assassination plot that ended Lincoln’s life very nearly took Seward’s as well, as he was attacked in his home by a conspirator of John Wilkes Booth’s the very same night as the murder at Ford’s Theatre. However, in the months and years leading up to the 1860 elections, Seward was a brilliant and charismatic politician from New York who was widely seen as the presumptive front-runner for the nomination. Only on the convention floor did the nomination turn on a dime, towards Lincoln, shocking most of the country. Seward was more radical than Lincoln on the question of emancipation, and they disagreed on fundamental issues, but over time, Seward became so convinced of Lincoln’s wisdom and moral conviction that he became the President’s most loyal counsellor.
One can only hope that there will be a similar evolution in the relationship between Obama and Clinton in this next chapter of our history. However, that’s certainly not the only reason to read this book. I was struck by many of the differences between that time and ours as well– as much as we are grappling with a great economic crisis, at that point in history, the very future of our country was uncertain. Families were dealt terrible blows by both war and illness– the Lincolns lost three of their four sons before the age of twenty-one to illnesses, and Mary Lincoln lost three brothers/in-laws during the Civil War– and statesmen faced terrible choices, sometimes forced to weigh human lives in both hands and decide which was more valued. DKG relates all of this and more in clear and eloquent prose that is comprehensive in its reach and honest in its depth to provide a portrait of a nation in crisis, led by flawed and great men who struggled to hold together a country ripped apart at every seam.