Saturday, June 6, 2015

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

I absolutely loved the book Team of Rivals by Doris Goodwin about Lincoln and his cabinet. She gives such in-depth portraits of each man that by the end of the book, you feel like you know them personally. This is the best kind of history!

She begins by reviewing the men up for the Republication nomination in 1860. Four men felt it was their due and that the odds of being nominated were very good. 

Most prominent among them was William Seward. He was so popular in his native Auburn, NY, that even the Democratic paper declared "He is beloved by all classes of people, irrespective of partisan predilections." He had spent years in public service, and while he had made a few enemies with his radical reputation, by and large he was honored and respected. 

Governor of Ohio, Salmon Chase also wanted the job. However, in personality he was nothing like Seward. He neither drank nor smoked and considered novels and the theater a waste of time. He did however have one great asset, his beautiful daughter Kate. After the death of his wives, she ran his household and his political life. He had been introduced to the anti-slavery movement when he stood in the doorway and blocked a mob intent on tar and feathering an abolitionist publisher. His blunt manner won him few friends.  

Judge Edward Bates of Missouri had been persuaded to throw his name into the ring by his supporters, most notably the powerful, conservative Blair family. He was a loyal family man who enjoyed nothing more than to be at home with his wife and 8 surviving children. "O! it is a pleasure to work for such a family, to enjoy with them the blessings that God so freely gives," he declared. Politics was not his first love, but he was so respected and of such good character, he was the first choice of many.

None of these three considered Abraham Lincoln a serious contender. Although each was familiar with him, the lawyer from Springfield Illinois "scarcely had a national reputation, certainly nothing to equal any of the other three, who had served but a single term in Congress, twice lost bids for the Senate, and had no administrative experience whatsoever..." He was the darkest of horses, yet he would become "the greatest historical figure of the nineteenth century."

One thing that proved Lincoln's greatness was his decision to incorporate all three of his former rivals into his cabinet, as well as others that had opposed him. In fact, "every member of [his] administration was better known, better educated, and more experienced in public life than Lincoln... It soon became clear, however, that Abraham Lincoln would emerge the undisputed captain of this most unusual cabinet, truly a team of rivals. The powerful competitors who had originally disdained Lincoln became colleagues who helped him steer the country through its darkest days."

Seward was the man most felt would become the nominee. He felt he deserved it and was devastated by his loss to Lincoln. Lincoln knew to offer him anything other than the prestigious Secretary of State position would immediately be turned down. After a face-saving dance, Seward agreed and became Lincoln's closest confidant and friend. In fact, many thought Seward actually ran the show and Lincoln was the puppet. This was absolutely false because even Seward came to see Lincoln's greatness. He never lost his faith in Lincoln, even in the worst of the Union defeats. Seward's home would become a welcome respite, "where he was assured of good conversation and much-needed relaxation."

Chase was a no-nonsense, cantankerous man, raised with a hard childhood. He was the most tin-eared of all Lincoln's cabinet members, even trying to run for the nomination in 1864 while still serving as Secretary of the Treasury. Lincoln was constantly putting out fires where Chase was concerned, but he treasured and respected his secretary so much he put up with a lot. When it finally became too much and Lincoln had to ask for his resignation, he made sure to promise Chase a future as a judge. He kept that promise when the position of chief justice of the Supreme Court became available. Lincoln showed again and again a magnanimity that would earn him everlasting loyalty even when the other was defeated.  

Bates, who after leaving politics and devoting himself to family, was not impressed with Lincoln at first. But because of his experience as a judge, Lincoln tasked him with the job of Attorney General. This position required someone with absolute devotion to the causes and issues Lincoln proposed because so many fell in a legal gray area. He needed an attorney who could make Lincoln's actions Constitutional. It did not take long for Bates to fall under Lincoln's spell, although at times he could be in cahoots with Chase. 

Lincoln had encountered Edwin Stanton as a young lawyer. They were to work together on a case, with Stanton in the lead. A mix-up led to a great embarrassment for Lincoln. Despite this, Lincoln tapped Stanton as Secretary of War six years later. "Despite his initial contempt for the 'long armed Ape,' he would not only accept the offer but come to respect and love Lincoln more than any person outside of [Lincoln's] immediate family." After Lincoln's death, Stanton was inconsolable for weeks. 

All had come out in one form or another opposed to slavery. This is what made them Republicans. However, just being a Republican did not ensure unity. The Republicans had managed to sweep up all the "not-Democrats," including the old Whigs, the Know-Nothings, Free-Soilers, and the Radical abolitionists, as well as Democrats opposed to slavery. This rag-tag collection, then as now, was a big tent and some faction always needed pacifying. They ranged from the radical, war-mongering northern abolitionists, to the southern Conservatives who, although opposed to slavery, valued the union above all. Lincoln was the perfect man to bring them together. He could see all sides, even the secessionist position. Yet his firm belief in the idea that slavery must somehow end and in the constancy of the Union guided his every action. 

Lincoln needed a strong cabinet to weather the storm he inherited. Succession was declared by several states immediately upon Lincoln winning the presidency. The decision to try to hold onto Fort Sumpter in North Carolina led the South to fire the first shots in "a war... that no one imagined would last four years and cost greater than six hundred thousand lives. .. The devastation and sacrifice would reach into every community, into almost every family, in a nation of 31.5 million."

Despite enormous, unimaginable pressure, Lincoln held fast to his core beliefs. While he desired to end slavery, he knew the Constitution sanctioned it. He also knew that he could not legally end it without a Constitutional amendment, and if the South successfully succeeded, the amendment would have no effect there. Therefore, maintaining the Union took initial precedence. He stated, "I consider the central idea pervading this struggle is the necessity that is upon us, of proving that popular government is into an absurdity. We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose. If we fail it will go far to prove the incapability of the people to govern themselves." The Founders knew our form of republican government was always an unprecedented experiment. Lincoln would not let that experiment fail on his watch. 

"More than any other cabinet member, Seward appreciated Lincoln's peerless skill in balancing factions both within his administration and in the country at large. While radicals considered Seward a conservative influence on the president, in truth, he and the president were engaged in the same task of finding a middle position between the two extremes -- the radical Republicans, who believed that freeing the slaves should be the primary goal of the war, and the conservative Democrats, who resisted any change in the status of the slaves and fought solely for the restoration of the Union."

With astonishing political skills, Lincoln waited for a long-delayed Union victory to declare his Emancipation Proclamation. He argued, that as war-making property of the South, the Union had the right to confiscate and free the southern slaves. Legally, this could not apply to the slave-holding border states not in rebellion. He did it with the motivation of ending the war quicker and pacifying the abolitionists as well as satisfying his own moral indignation concerning slavery. It was a brilliant piece of legal maneuvering, yet it was only a stopgap until the war ended. Shrewdly, he managed to pass the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery, at the tail end of the war when it was clear the South would lose and would therefore be back in the Union and could stop the amendment's ratification.  

Remarking on the secret of Lincoln's wonderful political skills, "John Forney of the Washington daily Chronicle... observed, that Lincoln was 'the most truly progressive man of the age, because he always moves in conjunction with propitious circumstances, not waiting to be dragged by the force of events or wasting strength in premature struggles with them.'" I cannot imagine a politician like this today. Undoubtedly, he would be hated by all sides.

Speaking at his death, Gideon Welles, the Secretary of the Navy, noted that while everyone was there, Abraham Lincoln was not. "All felt this." Goodwin goes on to state, "None felt that absence more keenly than the members of his cabinet, the remarkable group of rivals whom Lincoln had brought into his official family. They had fiercely opposed one another and often contested their chief on important questions, but, as Seward later remarked, 'a Cabinet which should agree at once on every such question would be no better or safer than one counsellor.' By calling these men to his side, Lincoln had afforded them an opportunity to exercise their talents to the fullest and to share in the labor and the glory of the struggle that would reunite and transform their country and secure their own places in posterity."

Goodwin goes into so much detail in the lives of all the men and women included in book. It was actually overwhelming. I wish I could include it all in this summary because its fascinating stuff. However, now that I have a sense of who these people are, it would be fun to go back and reread it. But at 754 pages, that seems unlikely!

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