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

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Lincoln may well be remembered as the man who won the Civil War and freed the slaves, but he was not alone in his fight to do so. Team of Rivals, as well as being a biography of Lincoln, is also about the men who competed against him for the Republican nomination in 1860, and went on to serve in his cabinet.

William H. Seward was Governor of New York from 1839-1842 and was into his 12th year as a senator when he sought the nomination. From 1856, Seward was a leading figure in the Republican Party, and considered one of the most likely men to win in 1860. He had spent most of his working life in politics and went on to serve as Lincoln’s Secretary of State, remaining in his post until the end of the Johnson administration.

Salmon P. Chase of Ohio was also a senator, although his time in the Senate had been interrupted by a 4 year stint as Governor of Ohio. A man of principle and deeply held religious convictions, Chase had support among more radical members of his party. Chase’s biggest defect was probably his desire for high office: he had a somewhat fanciful understanding of his own popularity and continued to feel he was wrongly overlooked in 1860. He was Lincoln’s somewhat grudging Secretary of the Treasury, and did a decent job in the post.

Edward Bates was prominent within Missouri politics and the favoured candidate of conservative Republican members. He had briefly served in the US House of Representatives, and had been Missouri’s Attorney General for a year. He was a prominent member of the Whig and the Know-Nothing Parties, and was competent as Lincoln’s Attorney General.

The brilliance of Team of Rivals is in its ability to tell these competing stories in an engaging, entertaining, and informative way. Goodwin captures the characters of the men well. Seward comes across as hard-working and clever: one can easily see why Lincoln placed so much trust in him. Bates was not a particularly interesting man, but Lincoln’s decision to choose him was a shrewd political move. And Chase was often right but also often pompous, and I found it entirely understandable that his biggest support came from his daughter, Kate, rather than from those embedded within the political scene.

Kate is an interesting but sad character: she was clever, ambitious, and highly independent early in life. Having spent much of that time working to support her father’s career, she ended up in an unhappy marriage with William Sprague, a textile magnate from Rhode Island (I got the impression that his wealth was not an irrelevant factor in the match). Kate later had an affair with Roscoe Conkling, who controlled most of the patronage in New York and was responsible for Chester A. Arthur’s nomination as Vice President. When Sprague caught Conkling sneaking out of the window of his summer house, according to a contemporary account, Sprague chased Conkling off with a musket. After her divorce in 1882, and her son’s suicide in 1890, Kate seems to have become a recluse. Although she retained her reputation as one of the leading ladies in Washington, she died in poverty and her funeral was poorly attended.

I enjoyed Team of Rivals for its vivid presentation of the figures covered and for the light it shed on Lincoln. By putting Lincoln into context, and highlighting the comparisons between him and his contemporaries, particularly in relation to the political scene of the time, I felt I gained a much better understanding of him.

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