Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Share & Comment

team-of-rivals-doris-goodwinDuring the US 2008 Presidential Elections, during a press conference, Senator Barack Obama (now President of the United States) offered his answer to a question from the press on how he would select his cabinet through quoting this book “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, an acclaimed historian. If you have watched “Meet the Press” in the days of Tim Russert, she was often invited as a political pundit to comment and reflect on how lessons from past presidents can be applied to look at the presidential elections or politics of today. The summary of the book narrates how the US President, Abraham Lincoln (famous for the abolition of slavery and winning the civil war) had managed to rope in his rivals (who ran against him in the 1860 election) in his Cabinet from 1861 to 1865. The most notable of his rivals who served him as  Cabinet members are: Edward Bates (Attorney General), Salmon Chase (Treasury), and William H. Seward (State). The book revolves around how Lincoln manage to reconcile people of conflicting egos and personalities (with their political factions) to resolve the greatest crisis which faced US at that point of time.

“The idea of progress comes naturally into one man’s mind; the desire to rise swells in every heart at once, and all men went to quit their former social position. Ambition becomes a universal feeling.”Alexis de Tocqueville

abraham-lincolnBasically, the whole book is divided into three parts (instead of the two in how the author structured it). The first part depicted how Abraham Lincoln has won over his other rivals to the nomination. In the early chapters, Goodwin discussed in detail about the four men: Bates, Chase, Seward and Lincoln, from their family background, education, their “longing to rise” and subsequently how they were lured into politics. Goodwin also described carefully how each one of them acquired the recognition and status that led them to run for the nomination, and the political background. In fact, one of the essential themes of the book revolves around the timing of when these characters came about, where the country has gone past a century of independence and moving towards a state of enlightenment that led these characters into working for a common notion to abolish slavery. It might be of interest to those who will find out that Lincoln was an unlikely candidate to win the nomination as compared to his three other rivals, given the family background and the education privileges they have over him. Interestingly Lincoln spent most of the time educating himself and carried a book everywhere he went. Even in the midst of hardships, Lincoln was able to put himself through to acquire knowledge and appreciation of the arts from poetry to music.  In fact, an interest passage I quote from Lincoln when he told a law student who sought his advice, “Get the books, and read and study them … The books and your capacity for understanding them, are just the same in all places … Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other one thing.

What follows after, the author shifted the emphasis on the rise of the Republican party and how the political climate and events in the 1850s propel the United States into a civil war. In the process, Lincoln, like his rivals become the chief architect of creating the party machinery within his state Illinois (coincidentally the same place where Barack Obama started his political career and eventually won the presidency recently), and lost an essential bid for senator against Stephen Douglas. Of course, it was through the bid for senate, Lincoln engaged in a series of famous debates on slavery with Stephen Douglas, a democrat that come to known as the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Although Lincoln lost the war, through compiling the points in the debate won him popularity that eventually sprang his next leap to be the Republican nominee for the president of the United States. Interestingly, it was his moderate views of slavery and his less privileged background that took him to the highest political office. On reflection, it took the US a century to abolish slavery and another century to give equal rights to the African Americans. It took many small steps to reach a tipping point, and Lincoln’s moderate position should show that in his struggle to unify the country and abolish slavery will take the Americans another hundred years to reach where they are today. Such is the story beautifully weaved in this biography.

In the final part of the book, revealed how Lincoln had to bring his rivals together and even in the midst of internal strife within his cabinet particularly Chase who continued to eye on his position. There is an  interesting analogue between Seward & Lincoln and Hillary Clinton & Obama. Both Seward and Hillary were both senators from New York and were very well-known to the foreign states (and shared the front-runner status when running for the nomination in their party as President). In the last half of the book, Seward helped Lincoln to deal with the British while the administration had to deal with the Confederacy and the secession of the southern states from union. Truth be told that Lincoln has to contend a bad economy with a nation in a civil war, even with a bold and controversial political move through Emancipation Proclaimation that forced the European states such as Britain not able to intervene.

While it is an inspiring biography, it also shares the truth about politics that there are no forever enemies and forever allies. It also revealed what happened to all his rivals in the end and none of them has managed to become President in the end. With the Lincoln’s success in the American civil war and the tragic tale of his assassination, he left a legacy behind that is much admired till even today. Of course, it is worth a read and if you are a lover of political history, don’t miss this book.

Share & Comment

Published by

Bernard Leong

A Pragmatic Idealist