Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Book Review: Team of Rivals

On Monday I finished reading Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, 2005 Simon & Schuster, ISBN 0-684-82490-6, a non-fiction book by Doris Kearns Goodwin. The book totals 754 pages, not including extensive notes, bibliography, and index. As I mentioned in a previous post, I expected this to be a two month read, or seven weeks if I could find more time to read on weekends. Well, I completed it in five weeks and two days.

The reason for my better progress? The combination of a well-organized book, easy reading that was at the same time scholarly, and an interesting subject. I found I could ready twenty pages a day without any trouble. On weekend days I did thirty to forty. I wouldn't say the book was a page turner; few history books are. But it treated the subject matter in such a way that it was perfect for me.

The book begins on a day in May 1860 when the Republican convention in Chicago was to select their candidate for the presidency. The four main candidates--Seward, Chase, Bates, and Lincoln--were in their respective home towns, waiting on the outcome. In those days candidates never attended or even addressed their convention. The opening chapter tells something of how the four men pursued the nomination. Then chapters 2 and 3 go into their lives leading up to that point, and chapters 4, 5, 6, and 7 cover the last decade or so leading up to the convention. It isn't until chapter 8 that we return to Chicago and see how Lincoln's team bested his rivals. Thus the book is in a D-A-B-C-E order.

Beginning with chapter 8 the book runs in chronological order, covering the Lincoln presidency in considerable detail. As could be expected from the title, the primary subject of the book is how Lincoln put his chief political rivals on his cabinet, and then how it was his personality and leadership style that molded them into a team that carried out what he wanted to do with the nation. Lincoln's style was one of quiet perseverance and charm. When faced with a disagreement with any of his cabinet, he resolutely forbore the arguments in favor of the opposing position, then with charm and quiet persuasion was able to bring the colleague around, or on occasion slightly alter his own position based on the logic of the other guy's.

This was no Harry Truman, who would tell his cabinet, "Here's what I'm going to do. Talk me out of it if you can." They never could. Nor was this a Teddy Roosevelt, speaking softly but carrying a big stick. Lincoln carried no stick at all, according to Kearns. He entered the presidency as a relative unknown, painted by the Democrats as a rail-splitter. In fact, a few months into his first term someone in power said, "We have voted for a rail-splitter, and that's what we got."

As the opening battles in the Civil War went against the Union, everyone questioned Lincoln's forbearance with non-performing generals. The radical side of his cabinet questioned his toleration of the conservatives, and the conservatives did the same concerning the liberals/radicals. The abolitionists declared Lincoln a friend of slavery, and Southern sympathizers declared him an abolitionist. Somehow, through his incredible forbearance and his refusal to become flustered or angry, Lincoln prevailed and the Union was saved.

Kearns does a masterful job at weaving this story. She tells how Lincoln used diversions to reduce his stress level and allow him to keep focused, diversions such as the theatre, the opera, carriage rides, weekends away from the White House, and simple evenings spent with friends where he could spin his yarns. He became good friends with his chief rival, William Seward (Secretary of State), and the two spent much time together not necessarily discussing government business.

It was not so with Salmon Chase (Secretary of the Treasury). Kearns describes how Chase constantly baited Lincoln, either purposely or just as a consequence of planning to unseat Lincoln in 1864. Lincoln stood for much abuse from Chase, refusing three times to accept his resignation. When he finally did accept it (to Chase's surprise), the timing was perfect and the rest of the cabinet, the Congress, and the nation understood it was for the best.

Tomorrow I'll cover a few more items, and summarize the review. For now I'll say this read is well worth the cost of the book and the hours you will dedicate to it. Don't take a chance to pass this up.

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