Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

Book review by Deane Barker tags: politics, history

Much is made of the title and implied angle of this book, but – to be clear – this is a solid, comprehensive biography of Abraham Lincoln.

The purported angle is this: once elected president, Abraham Lincoln appointed his main rivals for the office to important positions in his administration.

  • William Seward became Secretary of State
  • Edward Bates became Attorney General
  • Salmon Chase became Secretary of the Treasury

Thus, Lincoln formed a team of his former rivals to govern the country.

Now, this may be true, and it’s an interesting footnote, but I feel like it was just a marketing angle for the book. Meaning, even if this angle wasn’t promoted, the book would have still played out the same way. All three of these men had large roles in Lincoln’s administration – regardless of why they were appointed in the first place – and would have played heavily in the story, no matter how it was approached.

That said, this book is a comprehensive look at the Lincoln years. It doesn’t spend a lot of time on his childhood – it mainly picks up when he aspires to office, first in Illinois, then nationally.

Of course, the book is dominated by the Civil War. The South seceded very soon after Lincoln was elected – they knew he was anti-slavery, and they knew what was coming. As it turns out, the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t happen until well into the war.

There were some new angles and pieces of information about the Civil War that I didn’t know:

  • The Confederacy tried to get Britain to recognize it as a country. The Monarchy was in a tough spot – they didn’t want to anger the Union, but, at the same time, they were dependent on cotton exports from the Southern states.

  • Some border states played both sides of the line. They mainly sympathized with the Union, even though they held slaves. A couple of them even had mini internal conflicts – some had two separate organizations claiming to be state government, each loyal to a different side of the larger war. In fact, West Virginia was created when some abolitionists seceded from Virginia to create a free state.

  • The capital of the Confederacy was Richmond, Virginia, just 100 miles from Washington DC. In fact a lot of the war was fought far further north than I expected. The First Battle of Bull Run, for example, was fought just 30 miles from the White House. In my head, the Civil War was something that took place in the Deep South, but there were a lot of battles in and around Virginia and Maryland. On multiple occasions, the Confederacy threatened to push all the way into Washington causing residents to flee or fortify the city.

  • There were lots of battles during the Civil War, all of which have been documented extensively. This list at Wikipedia catalogs 385 of them, each with their own page. (However, some inclusions are a little odd. Some battles with Native Americans in the west are included, I presume simply because they involved Union troops.)

  • Lincoln quietly hoped that Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, would escape capture. He dreaded the idea of Davis going to trial and becoming a martyr for the Confederacy. Davis was imprisoned for several years, then released under indictment, but fled to Canada. President Johnson mass-pardoned everyone in 1868.

  • In fact, Lincoln really didn’t want anyone to go to trail – he was deeply concerned with the reintegration of the South, and there were great arguments in his administration about Lincoln’s desire to simply have Confederate troops turn in their weapons and go back to their lives as if nothing had happened (officers were even allowed to keep their sidearms).

  • Lincoln was killed six days after the war ended. When you consider that the war effectively started when he was elected, his entire presidency was consumed by the war.

  • In the end, Lincoln was killed by the Confederacy, in the form of John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate sympathizer who was furious that the Union won the war. The fact that Booth committed the crime is fascinating because he was a well-known actor at the time. Lincoln had watched Booth at the theater several times, and even invited him to the White House (he did not accept). The situation would be like George Clooney assassinating Donald Trump.

  • Booth had help, in the form of a conspiracy to kill Lincoln, vice-president Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State Seward, all at the same time. Booth succeeded, but the man assigned to kill Johnson got cold feet. There was a brutal knife attack on Seward in his home where he was recovering from a carriage accident. Seward and his son were gravely wounded, but both recovered.

Lincoln’s personal family situation is covered as well.

  • His wife, Mary, was problematic. She had a temper and a spending problem. At one point, she had gotten $27,000 in debt (a staggering amount back then) which she was hiding from her husband. She was terrified that her husband would lose the 1864 election, which would cause her debts to come due.

  • It might be said that Lincoln suffered from some mild depression as well. He was known to be regularly quite sad, though some of that was just the situation he was dealing with. Lincoln was gravely affected by the deaths of Americans in the war, and that no doubt contributed to his demeanor.

  • The Lincolns had four sons. One died as a toddler, and another died at 12, which devastated Mary. She never quite recovered from this. A third son died a few years after the war ended, leaving just one son to become an adult.

  • It was quite clear that Mary suffered from some level of undiagnosed mental illness – depression or bipolar disorder. She was even committed to an institution by her surviving son for a period after her husband died.

  • For four years as a young adult, Lincoln shared a room and a bed with a man named Joshua Speed. This has led to speculation about Lincoln’s sexuality. Lincoln and Speed were very close, and letters between them seem romantic, though that may just be the style of platonic friendship at the time.

It’s a good book, if a little tedious in places – there are lots of names to remember, and lots of quoted passages from speeches and articles in the English vernacular of the time, which can be tough to understand.

Again, the titular “team of rivals” angle doesn’t play into the story as much as I thought it would. These “rivals” were important players in the story, and would have been discussed regardless.

The inevitable ending is quite sad. Throughout the book, you come to understand the statesmanship of Lincoln – his sole concern was that the country would survive and reconcile. He approaches the war as a parent might approach disciplining their own child. They still love the child, but they do what must be done, even as they look forward to better days in the future.

I was affected when Lincoln died in the text. He was beloved by the people around him, and he successfully carried the country through its most turbulent period.

Book Info

Doris Kearns Goodwin
  • I have read this book. According to my records, I completed it on .
  • A hardcover copy of this book is currently in my home library.

This is item #90 in a sequence of 774 items.

You can use your left/right arrow keys to navigate