Abe and Company
How Lincoln bested, united, and exploited the talents of William Seward and other political rivals
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln
By Doris Kearns Goodwin
Simon & Schuster, 916 pp., illustrated, $35
It was 1908 and Leo Tolstoy was holding forth on the topic of great men in history in a North Caucasus village somewhere along the remote border between Europe and Asia. Storytelling was the Russian novelist's gift and, at the urging of a tribal chief, he was regaling the wide-eyed locals with riveting tales of Caesar and Napoleon. But as Tolstoy soon learned, it was Abraham Lincoln that these ''rude barbarians" begged to hear about. When he was only 22 years old, Lincoln -- running for public office in Illinois -- had written an open letter to the folks of Sangamon County, praying he was ''worthy of their esteem." Now, more than 40 years after his assassination, in a faraway land, the mere mention of his name brought joyous tears to peasants craving a humble hero. ''Lincoln was a humanitarian as broad as the world," Tolstoy concluded. ''He was bigger than his country -- bigger than all the Presidents together."
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of four previous bestsellers, is a charter member of the Tolstoy School of Lincoln Studies -- with an important caveat. Unlike the portrait drawn by Tolstoy, who focused on Lincoln's ''peculiar moral power," the Lincoln who emerges from Goodwin's ''Team of Rivals" -- a brilliantly conceived and well-written tour de force of a historical narrative -- is a cunning pragmatist bursting with raw ambition and Machiavellian guile. This is not a novel concept. Lincolniana is a cottage industry. Nearly 200 years after his birth, original thoughts about him are hard to come by. If you don't believe me, visit the Abraham Lincoln Bookshop in Chicago, which offers (on any given day) 10,000 to 12,000 titles about our 16th president. But even in this crowded publishing field, Goodwin's contribution is refreshingly unique: Using the 1860 presidential election as her pivot-point, she offers a group portrait of the Lincoln administration during our Civil War crucible, with pronounced emphasis on New York Senator William H. Seward (secretary of state), Ohio Senator Salmon P. Chase (secretary of treasury), and Missouri State House Representative Edward Bates (attorney general). All three had sought the White House only to have their dreams foiled by a gangly dark-horse candidate from Springfield, Ill. ''That Lincoln, after winning the presidency, made the unprecedented decision to incorporate his eminent rivals into his political family, the cabinet, was evidence of a profound self-confidence and a first indication of what would prove to others a most unexpected greatness," Goodwin writes. ''Just as a hologram is created through the interference of light from separate sources, so the lives and impressions of those who companioned Lincoln give us a clearer and more dimensional picture of the president himself."
To write ''Team of Rivals" Goodwin not only ransacked libraries for secondary sources but did a massive amount of original primary research. (At book's end there are over 100 pages of microscopic footnotes to endure. Still, Goodwin can't be too careful, given that this is her first book since admitting three years ago that she used another writer's research without proper attribution, a use she called unintentional.) With her eye on wives, daughters, and sisters, Goodwin here offers a fresh feminist perspective on Lincoln's political rise and subsequent White House years. She mines archival nuggets from Seward's daughter Fanny (an 800-page diary), Chase's daughter Kate (a diary plus hundreds of letters), and Bates's wife, Julia (letters). Although the Lincoln saga has been approached from a familial perspective before -- as in Jean Baker's excellent ''Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography" (1987) -- Goodwin's emotive prose elevates this tome from mere popular history to literary achievement. Like a skilled juggler, Goodwin tosses a vast array of 19th-century characters into her narrative, and, quite remarkably, none of them descends into trite cliches or cardboard cutouts. Not since Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas wrote ''The Wise Men" on our leading Cold War diplomats has a multiple biography been so intricately woven.
''Team of Rivals" is also an America ''coming-of-age" saga. Lincoln, Seward, Chase et al. are sketched as being part of a ''restless generation," born when Founding Fathers occupied the White House and the Louisiana Purchase netted nearly 530 million new acres to be explored. The Western Expansion motto of this burgeoning generation, in fact, was cleverly captured in two lines of Stephen Vincent Benet's verse: ''The stream uncrossed, the promise still untried / The metal sleeping in the mountainside." None of the protagonists in ''Team of Rivals" hailed from the Deep South or Great Plains. They were Eastern swells and Midwestern elites. Lincoln was the only backwoods bumpkin of the lot. Although not abolitionist firebrands, they all disliked slavery. Out of the group Goodwin profiles -- which also includes, to a lesser degree, Republican stalwart-newspaperman Gideon Welles and former attorney general Edwin Stanton -- Lincoln was by far the poorest. Seward, for example, went to Union College while Lincoln was home-schooling. Therefore only Lincoln -- the self-taught log-cabin legal prodigy -- understood the inherent pathos of rank economic deprivations. ''The distance between the educational advantages Lincoln's rivals enjoyed and the hardships he endured was rendered even greater by the cultural resistance Lincoln faced once his penchant for reading became known," Goodwin writes. ''In the pioneer world of rural Kentucky and Indiana, where physical labor was essential for survival and mental exertion was rarely considered a legitimate form of work, Lincoln's book hunger was regarded as odd and indolent."
Lincoln eventually outfoxed his generational competitors by a wily combination of luck and pluck. It didn't hurt that his home state was Illinois, essential to any Republican victory in 1860. Also the GOP convention that year was held in Chicago. While Seward was the gambler's bet, he had a serious drawback: too much experience. A longtime Whig elected to the New York state Senate in 1830, the bold Seward had ginned up a hornet's nest of ruthless enemies and duplicitous backstabbers. With Seward an outspoken antislavery advocate, many GOP delegates fretted that his radical past would prohibit him from winning the general election. (After all, he had lost the Republican presidential nod to John Charles Fremont in 1856 for that very reason.) Enter the centrist Lincoln, whom Seward at first dismissed as a ''comparative unknown." That is, unknown everywhere but in the backwoods of Illinois, where he was already a legend. Drawing from the log-cabin playbook of Andrew Jackson (Old Hickory) and William Henry Harrison (Tippecanoe), the folksy Lincoln was singlehandedly adding archetypes to our national mythology: flatboater and rail-splitter and railroad lawyer and homespun orator. There was something likable about Lincoln that could -- under the right circumstances -- translate into votes. ''When ardent Republicans heard Lincoln speak, they knew that if their beloved Seward could not win," Goodwin writes, ''they had in the eloquent orator from Illinois a man of considerable capacity whom they could trust, one who would hold fast on the central issue that had forged the party -- the fight against extending slavery into the territories."
The Lincoln who emerges from Goodwin's tension-filled pages is a ''feel-your-pain" politician, a master of Clintonian ''triangulation" before the term existed. Always avoiding extremes, he had learned from prospering on the travel circuit how to speechify in a plaintive, down-to-earth fashion. There was nothing threatening about his countenance. His modest views and solid strategies were always reasonable. There was no cufflink shooting in Lincoln's well-honed simpleton oeuvre, just prairie wisdom girded by calculating political intuition. Poor Seward and Chase and Bates -- they didn't know what hit them. Never before, or since, in the annals of American politics, had an open-hearted lawyer emerged from the hinterland with such a mesmerizing disposition. He had, as Goodwin claims, the sanest judgment imaginable to help guide the Union through the impending Civil War. Imbued with an intense self-awareness, and full of aperçus, he was a genius at relieving others of their deepest fears. He was, in essence, a political psychiatrist, using laughter and a listener's ear as his all-seasons tonics.
Waxing on glowingly about Lincoln, however, is a historian's occupational hazard. He was -- as billed -- a phenomenon, an honest politician void of malice and pettiness. He was also a fantastic writer. By contrast, turning Seward into a historical megastar is an uphill trick of a more arduous sort. Although everybody concedes that ''Seward's Folly" -- the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 for $6.2 million -- was a real estate windfall, the battlefield gallantry of Grant, Sheridan, and Sherman has made short shrift of his indispensable role as Lincoln's Civil War confidant. At its core, ''Team of Rivals" is the long-overdue rehabilitation of Seward's forgotten legacy. Goodwin makes us realize how fortunate we were to have this clear-headed New Yorker at Lincoln's side throughout our bloody national ordeal. A true team player, Seward, his ego in check, evolved into being Lincoln's buttoned-down ''bad cop," arresting disloyal Northerners (Confederate sympathizers) and saber-rattling the British and French about the dire consequences of aligning themselves with the nefarious Jefferson Davis. And, lest we forget, it was Seward who calculatingly persuaded Lincoln to deliver the Emancipation Proclamation after a genuine military victory. The prescient moment arose in September 1862, following Antietam.
Every president needs his Seward; for loyalty, above all else, is the indispensable quality needed by those in power. The friendship that developed between these two former rivals is truly heartrending. (Although Mary Todd Lincoln, the first lady, always harbored suspicions that Seward was a political threat to her husband.)
Nobody in Washington had the nerve to tell Seward that Lincoln had died nine hours after being shot at Ford's Theatre in Washington. Their friendship was that marrow-deep. Even the doctors worried that he wouldn't survive the grievous shock. Peering out of his window on Easter Sunday 1865, Seward inevitably saw Old Glory at half-mast. ''The President is dead," he matter-of-factly told his attendant, realizing that nobody had wanted to tell him the grim news. He mumbled on a bit, all disjointed nonsense. Then ''great tears" coursed down Seward's ''gashed cheeks" as the reality settled in. His ''captain and chief," as Goodwin puts it, was gone, a lurking ghost for the ages to ponder. The team of Lincoln and Seward was no more. Together, in Tolstoyian parlance, they had truly been bigger than all the presidents combined. And Goodwin -- in ''Team of Rivals" -- is the historian who wisely brought them back together, for their first real encore.