Skip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information) Volume 27, Issue 2, Summer 2006
Doris Kearns Goodwin. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005. This is a terrific book. Goodwin has stepped with confidence into the well-mined, weary field of Lincoln historiography and emerged with a gem. Of interest to both specialists and generalists, this engaging trip through Civil War politics also offers pointed insight into the politics of today's America. Stepping back a century from her usual haunts, Goodwin daringly takes an approach to Lincoln unlike that of any previous biographer. Rather than looking at ever smaller aspects of his career, as historians anxious to carve out a new niche have been wont to do, Goodwin has opened up her lens wide. She shows us a Lincoln at the center of a vibrant political and social community. This is not unlike what David Herbert Donald did a few years ago in his "We Are Lincoln Men." Goodwin, though, has included the women who made up part of Lincoln's world. The product is the best rounded view of wartime Washington I have ever read. It is probably the most accurate as well. Goodwin builds her book around the lives of Lincoln's cabinet members and their female partners. Following the lives of the four rivals for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination, she introduces her readers to the world of nineteenth-century politics as the men and their companions experienced it. Here, Republican spokesman William Henry Seward climbs his way through the New York political machinery with the help of powerful newspaperman Thurlow Weed. Seward's developing hunger for politics pulls him away from his beloved wife Frances, who stays mostly at home in New York with their children while he pursues national office, but who is present here through the letters she and her husband exchanged. Missouri's Edward Bates illuminates the sectional tensions of the antebellum years as well as the domestic contentment with his wife Julia and their seventeen children that curbed his love for politics. Humorless Salmon P. Chase, whose moral stand against slavery dragged him into politics, is the pompous representative of abolitionism. Burying three wives before he was forty-five, Chase concluded never to marry again, and instead molded his daughter Kate into his political helpmeet. Unionist Edwin M. Stanton, who illustrates class distinctions with his unspeakable rudeness to Lincoln in their lawyering days, enters the book as a main character when he replaces the cabinet's corrupt Simon Cameron. Although late on the scene, Stanton is utterly committed to the Union and becomes one of Lincoln's staunchest supporters. Much as she did in her Pulitzer Prize winning No Ordinary Time—but here with a wider lens—Goodwin uses her characters' perspectives to make her material come alive. The developing sectional crisis has personal meaning for Seward, Lincoln, Bates, and Chase; seeing it through their eyes brings home just how profoundly the events of the early nineteenth century affected the lives of Americans. Dry congressional events like the Kansas-Nebraska Act become mesmerizing as Lincoln sits up all night on the edge of his bed contemplating what the extension of slavery that it enables will mean. The war years, too, have personal meaning when interpreted through the eyes of those so closely involved in prosecuting it. The horrific loss of sons on the battlefield becomes real when the Lincolns' son Willie dies from typhoid, devastating both parents. The inexorable pressure of the war is felt as Lincoln's need for companionship drives him to Seward's hearth where he can relax and talk of something other than strategy. Historians have long noted that Chase's unquenchable...