“Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” is, by almost any measure, the most popular biography of Abraham Lincoln. Written by Doris Kearns Goodwin, “Team of Rivals” has been widely read and revered since its publication in 2005. Goodwin is a Pulitzer-Prize winning author and historian who has also written notable biographies of Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.
Although focused on Abraham Lincoln, this book is a skillfully-crafted multiple biography of Lincoln and his three key rivals for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 1860. William Seward, Edward Bates and Salmon Chase each became key members of Lincoln’s cabinet, and each contributed greatly to both the strength and the dissonance which infused his administration. How Lincoln harnessed the capabilities of this unique coalition of talented, but fiercely competitive, voices is the subject of much of Goodwin’s analysis.
Goodwin’s focus on Lincoln’s willingness to incorporate rivals into his administration, and on how he dealt with their often enormous egos, sets this book apart from the large roster of Lincoln-focused biographies. This interesting angle proves to be the book’s raison d’etre as well as one of its minor weaknesses.
Lost to the reader due to the need to jump between the early lives of the four main characters is a more comprehensive exploration of Lincoln’s scrappy frontier upbringing and his intense desire for self-improvement. While benefitting from time spent with Seward, Chase and Bates, it comes at the expense of a richer, more vibrant understanding of Lincoln’s evolution from unskilled laborer to budding lawyer to astute politician and master-of-leader.
Those who have not yet read a more comprehensive account of Lincoln’s early life (by Burlingame, White, Donald, Oates or others) will be largely unaware of the missing color. But for a Lincoln aficionado, Goodwin’s description of Lincoln’s early decades of life may seem slightly rushed or flat.
Also disappointing for me was Goodwin’s too-efficient handling of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Where other biographers highlight these debates as the crucial pivot-point in Lincoln’s political progression, Goodwin provides a less enthralling account and seems to underemphasize their significance somewhat.
However, after introducing each of the four main characters, Goodwin’s story begins to shine with Lincoln’s election as president. She provides as dramatic and interesting an account of events between Lincoln’s election and inauguration as I can recall seeing. And she presents the best review of the drafting and editing of Lincoln’s inaugural address I’ve read (providing an early but important glimpse into the relationship between Lincoln and Seward, who served as his Secretary of State).
Goodwin’s treatment of the volatile Mary Lincoln is the most balanced I have encountered – she is portrayed as a pathologic villain in some biographies and is barely mentioned in others. And as part of Goodwin’s account of the self-absorbed and overly ambitious Secretary of the Treasury, she often (arguably too frequently) highlights the side-roles played by Salmon Chase’s tantalizing and acutely intelligent daughter, Kate.
But the most valuable service performed by “Team of Rivals” is its analysis of Lincoln’s relationships with his cabinet members – and their relationships with each other. Rather than diluting the comprehensibility of Lincoln’s presidency, Goodwin’s frequent focus on this group of men enhances the reader’s understanding of events. Where some biographies describe a dizzying array of failed Union generals and unsuccessful military tactics, this biography maintains its focus on the decision-making process in Washington – while not ignoring the battlefield.
Although Goodwin spends comparatively little time in pursuit of Lincoln’s assassin once he flees Washington, she describes the audacious plot to simultaneously assassinate Lincoln, his vice president and Secretary of State Seward far better than any other biography I’ve read. And while Goodwin provides few of her own reflections on Lincoln’s legacy, she leaves the reader with a fascinating glimpse into the lives of each of the book’s major characters following his death.
Overall, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” is an interesting and thoughtful exploration of Lincoln’s life with a slightly different focus than is offered by most biographies. This book takes a few chapters to build a full head of steam, but in full flight it is enormously captivating. Probably most valuable to someone already acquainted with Lincoln, it can also serve as an excellent introduction for the Lincoln novice. “Team of Rivals” is both an entertaining story and a valuable source of insight into Lincoln – and not to be missed.
Overall rating: 4½ stars