Reviewed by Larry J. Sabato
By Doris Kearns Goodwin
Simon & Schuster
We often hear that we are living in an age of political polarization, and it’s true. But America’s polarization in 2005 pales to white compared to the polarization during the Civil War. We were literally, not just figuratively, the Divided States of America. And one man, Abraham Lincoln, was determined to make us the United States again.
Image is not reality, however. It is never just one man. Lincoln had a Cabinet full of remarkable men in their own right, and they helped — or hindered — the president as he strove mightily toward his goal. Noted popular historian Doris Kearns Goodwin attempts to paint the full portrait of the collective Lincoln presidency in her new book Team of Rivals. On the whole, she succeeds admirably. While the writing is a bit breezy at times and the details can be overwhelming in this 944-page volume, Goodwin has made Lincoln’s era and colleagues accessible to a public that needs a refresher course in real polarization.
Goodwin’s theme is contained in the book’s subtitle: “The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.” When he became president in 1861, Lincoln had few strong allies in Washington; he was mainly a stranger to the ways of this most political of cities, and he faced the dissolution of the Union in a matter of weeks. Even more than most chief executives, he needed all the help he could get. So Lincoln made a strategic decision to include his major Republican party rivals in his Cabinet: Salmon P. Chase as secretary of the treasury, William H. Seward as secretary of state, Edwin M. Stanton as secretary of war and Edward Bates as attorney general. Chase, Seward and Bates had been competitors for the GOP presidential nomination, and all of them, especially Chase and Seward, had a shockingly low regard for Lincoln’s abilities and promise. In short, this was not a Cabinet made in compatibility heaven.
Contrary to modern presidents’ approach to Cabinet-making, Lincoln wanted not compliant ciphers that he could ignore but men of accomplishment with their own base of support. As Goodwin argues, this is unquestionably admirable — but then, what choice did Lincoln have? He had been elected with a mere 39.8 percent of the votes in a four-way contest, and at the very least, he required a completely united party to have a chance of governing successfully in the greatest period of crisis the United States has ever known.
Lincoln simply applied the time-tested axiom that a politician should hold his friends close and his enemies closer. His approach worked. As ambitious men almost always do, Chase, Seward, Stanton and Bates were easily induced to accept their high-status posts, and they wanted to keep them, which meant that they could only go so far in opposing the president’s policies. In fact, for the most part the four Cabinet members raised remarkably few strong objections even in private discussions with the president, while fulminating from time to time about Lincoln’s alleged high-handedness. More significant, Lincoln gradually won over Seward, Stanton and Bates as they came to appreciate the homespun leader’s keen intellect and skillful sense of politics. Lincoln was not at all what they had once thought. The awful bloodletting of the war and their common, solemn purpose in restoring the Union no doubt contributed to the eventual solidarity of this unexpected band of brothers.
Notice that one name has been omitted. Salmon Chase never joined the brotherhood. His contempt for Lincoln was unabated, and his desire for the presidency was never quenched. Incredibly, Chase plotted to replace Lincoln as the Republican party’s presidential nominee even while still in the Cabinet; Lincoln knew all about it but kept him on anyway. After repeated provocations and intrigue that might seem unthinkable today, Chase finally exhausted Lincoln’s goodwill, as well as the president’s self-serving belief that Chase was less dangerous under his close supervision. Lincoln accepted Chase’s resignation in the summer of 1864. Stunningly, after Lincoln’s reelection, he chose Chase to be chief justice of the United States, believing no one was better qualified — and Chase swore in Lincoln for his second term, just five weeks before the president’s assassination.
Hundreds of books have been written about the 16th president, and perhaps it is a legitimate criticism to wonder why we need another. Yet Goodwin performs a service in shining her light on Lincoln’s method of governing. One despairs that we will ever again have a president so confident that he will seek out his most prominent and able rivals for the Cabinet or the Supreme Court. But Goodwin clearly demonstrates how this approach benefited Lincoln and the country. There is a lesson to be learned here by a shrewd president-elect, who might serve a presidency and the nation well by taking some risks in the selection of key advisers. Like Lincoln, a wise chief executive should always seek out the most impressive and talented people available. What a pity that, with few exceptions, modern Cabinet positions have been filled with nonentities who cannot even be recalled while in office, much less after they have vacated their posts. Lincoln still has much to teach his successors.