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

Being a history major and frequenting various history related websites, one cannot help but be inundated by narrative based pop histories, usually to my disdain. In fact, this book, controversial in the blogosphere if not on Amazon, only arrived at my house because I proved too lazy to preempt the Book Club from sending it as the Editor's Choice.

Even disregarding that the "Editor's Choice" stamp is usually a tell tale sign of this genre of history, I had already read a number of things about this book, mostly from Dimitri Rotov's site. At the same time, I decided to start reading it because I was not terribly familiar with Bates or Chase. Yes, there are a number of flaws with the book. But yes, this book does serve a purpose.

When I read the description of the book months ago, I, like many others, wondered why a book about Lincoln's Cabinet would focus on Chase and Bates instead of Stanton and Welles (especially in a book titled Team of Rivals, given the Democratic backgrounds of the two). This sentiment was echoed by the Publisher's Weekly review spotlighted on Amazon, which notes the "spotlighting of the president's three former rivals tends to undercut that Lincoln's most essential Cabinet-level contacts were not with Seward, Chase and Bates, but rather with secretaries of war Simon Cameron and Edwin Stanton, and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles."

If there's one maxim about writing history, it's that taking an original angle for the sake of innovation and something fresh is wise from both a financial standpoint and and an influential standpoint. Why write the one millionth book about Gettysburg if you can do something groundbreaking? Kearns attempts to do this by focusing on the challengers for the nomination, as opposed to the more common (and arguably more influential) Stanton and Welles.

The problem is that attempts to do this can become so contrived that they reach the point of being unoriginal and unnecessary. This problem is compounded by the fact that Goodwin's story is nothing but the same old story approached from an unusual (but contrived) angle.

Before I even get into discussing some of the substance of the book, I'll gripe about the way the book references sources. This is made all the more important by the fact that Goodwin was previously accused of plagiarism. Much to my chagrin, there are no numerical footnotes in this book. Instead, at the end of the book, different quotes on each page are sourced. This system has no business being in a history book, and it makes it extremely difficult to follow the sources.

The book starts by tracing the political backgrounds of Chase, Seward, Bates and Lincoln from the start of their political careers to the Republican nomination of 1860. Goodwin's book acts as a simplistic political primer, focusing mostly of course on the creation of the Republican party. If a novice to the political era is looking for a relativly condensed overview of the period, the book serves its purpose.

All of the Republican challengers get a mini biography of sorts as Goodwin interweaves the story. Again, for someone even like myself who wasn't terribly familiar with Chase's prewar political career or Bates almost entirely, the book serves its purpose through condensation. If a reader is too busy or lazy to read individual biographies on the principal players, this book can be useful.

There are a number of sticking points that continue to bother me:

I can't figure out any reason for the exclusion of Welles and Stanton (if not Cameron as well). Goodwin hints at the strength of the Stanton-Chase relationship, and both Stanton and Welles (and Chase for that matter) were former Democrats.

Not that this is a thesis driven project, but when exactly is the political genius of Lincoln questioned? He's almost universally acknowledged as politically shrewd, and there have been only a few instances in the first 400 pages of the book where Goodwin believes Lincoln's "political genius" is underestimated or overlooked.

Moreover, Goodwin glosses Lincoln to the point in which he is nearly a demigod with superhuman Master of Puppet capabilities and magnanimity beyond belief. In fact, I find it ironic that Goodwin attributes Lincoln's selection of Seward, Chase and Bates to his Cabinet as good will and incredible moral fortitude when the selections were so clearly politically expedient that it could bolster the notion of his "political genius."

This probably won't surprise skeptics, but once this book gets to Lincoln's management of the war, it's probably outlasted its usefulness. Goodwin manages to find fault with Lincoln's push on the generals to the rout at Bull Run...which manages two sentences in the narrative. Even more incredibly, Nathaniel Lyon's activities in Missouri are given one paragraph (an extremely praiseworthy one at that). I have not read all the way through, but Leonidas Polk is not indexed in the book. Maybe Lincoln singlehandedly kept Kentucky in the Union? (And of course, since Lincoln represents the nearly perfect protagonist, McClellan is crucified.)

In essence, Goodwin's book offers readers a compendium of short biographies on the Republican bigwigs in the 1860 nomination. Lincoln's management of the war is certainly handled better in books written by authors such as Wert.

The author's own analysis and insight is nearly nonexistent in the book. The political tightrope regarding the border states gets mentioned but not analyzed all that much. My guess is that a grad student could write something just as substantive if given all the sources Goodwin used. But since it's hard to track the sources due to the crappy reference system, that's probably not too easy either.

My advice: rent the book for the first 300 or so pages, and assume that a general Civil War reader with basic knowledge of 1861-1865 will not need the rest. And if you don't even want to bother doing that, make sure to preempt it from coming via a book club.

As somewhat of an aside, suggestions in the past have been made that Lincoln may have been homosexual because he shared a bed with intimate friends such as Joshua Speed. If there's one thing that will catch a reader's eye in this book, it's how sentimental and flowery some of the principal characters write to each other. It's no wonder that some of the communications, when placed in a 21st century context, come across as being almost explicitly homosexual, particularly in some of Stanton's correspondences with the thrice married Salmon Chase. In 1846, Stanton wrote to Chase, "no living person has been oftener in my mind: --waking or sleeping,--for, more than once, I have dreamed of being with you."

Maybe Goodwin should have done her book on 19th century writing and oration.

Comments

Recently, I had the opportunity to read Doris Kearns Goodwin's book "Team of Rivals" and I couldn't disagree more with the reviewer. First, the title of the book "Team of Rivals" denotes the three major rivals for the Republican Presidential nomination in 1860, Chase Bates, and Seward, not Stanton and Welles. I believe Goodwin performs a wonderful job in retelling the dramatic story of the 1860 Republican Presidential nomination and then relating how Lincoln assembled his cabinet of his chief rivals, democrat and republican, in order to achieve a balanced cabinet to foster national harmony.
Secondly, I don't perceive Goodwin portraying Lincoln as superhuman but giving us a truly human Lincoln, his faults and brilliance. Goodwin beautifully weaves a story of how Lincoln battled the competing rivalries of his cabinet members while battling his own inner demons.
Overall, this reviewer truly enjoyed Ms. Goodwin's Lincoln and believes it will stand the scrutiny of the Lincoln scholars.