Interviews November 2005

Master Among Men

Doris Kearns Goodwin, the author of Team of Rivals, talks about Lincoln and the unlikely band of colleagues he rallied to his cause.
book cover

Team of Rivals
[Click the title
to buy this book]

by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Simon & Schuster
916 pages

On the morning of May 18, 1860, four men waited to see which one of them would become the Republican nominee for president. Three of them—William Seward, Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates—thought victory would be theirs; celebratory crowds were already gathered around their homes in preparation for the expected win. The fourth, Abraham Lincoln, nervously awaited the results, knowing he had an outside chance, yet realizing that his hopes would most likely be dashed. But Lincoln, though by far the least-known of the candidates, had strategically positioned himself at the center of his party, and as delegates began to worry that Seward and Chase were too radical to be elected, and Bates too conservative, they settled on Lincoln. All three of Lincoln's rivals, especially Seward and Chase, who had spent their lives working toward the presidency, were bitterly angry that they'd been defeated by this poorly educated, relative unknown from Illinois. Bates even commented that in selecting Lincoln as its candidate, the Republican Party had "committed a fatal blunder." Yet, after the election, when it came time for Lincoln to select his cabinet, these were the very men he turned to, realizing that if he was going to succeed in leading the country through the sectional conflict threatening to engulf it, he would need their strength and experience.

This is the story that Doris Kearns Goodwin tells in her new book, Team of Rivals. It's a biography not just of Lincoln, but of the men who surrounded him and helped shape his presidency. And it's the story, as well, of Lincoln's masterly ability to corral the ambitions, resentments, and differing points of view of those in his cabinet while using their skills to help him run the country effectively. When Seward became Secretary of State, Chase the Secretary of the Treasury and Edward Bates the Attorney General, each thought that he might be the real power behind the inexperienced president. But they underestimated Lincoln's intelligence, strength, and bureaucratic skills, and his ability to put aside personal enmities in assembling the best possible cabinet. As Goodwin describes it,

While it was possible that his team of rivals would devour one another, Lincoln determined that "he must risk the dangers of faction to overcome the dangers of rebellion."

Later, Joseph Medill of the Chicago Tribune asked Lincoln why he had chosen a cabinet comprised of enemies and opponents. He particularly questioned the president's selection of the three men who had been his chief rivals for the Republican nomination, each of whom was still smarting from the loss.

Lincoln's answer was simple, straightforward, and shrewd. "We needed the strongest men of the party in the Cabinet. We needed to hold our own people together. I had looked the party over and concluded that these were the very strongest men. Then I had no right to deprive the country of their services."

...They were indeed strong men, But in the end it was the prairie lawyer from Springfield who would emerge as the strongest of them all.

As it turned out, Lincoln was right that the fractious blend of personalities he'd selected would coalesce into an effective cabinet. And, as Goodwin describes it, his rivals came to realize that they'd been wrong in their judgments of Lincoln. Seward, who, despite his galling defeat at Lincoln's hands became Lincoln's particular friend and confidant, came to describe him as "the best and wisest man" he had ever known.

Just a decade after Lincoln's death Frederick Douglass commented, "Any man can say things that are true of Abraham Lincoln, but no man can say anything that is new of Abraham Lincoln." But through the lens of his relationship with his rivals, and with her characteristic flair for anecdote and narrative, Goodwin brings new life to a story that has been told and retold over the past century and a half.

We spoke by phone on November 8.

Katie Bacon

Doris Kearns Goodwin
Doris Kearns Goodwin
(Photo by Richard Goodwin)

What made you decide to write about Lincoln in the context of his cabinet? Was that your original concept for the book or did it change shape as you worked on it?

No, it definitely emerged as I went along. At first I really had no idea how to approach Lincoln other than knowing that I was going to live with him and learn about the Civil War and understand him. It was just kind of a leap of faith I took at the beginning that as I got into it I might be able to find my own angle into the story. And it took a while, because at the beginning I tried and realized it wouldn't work to tell the story of Abe and Mary as I had of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Was there just not enough about her?

Well, what I would like to believe worked about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt was that it wasn't simply the private story of their relationship but their public story as well, and Eleanor was such a major figure on the home front during World War Two that she could carry the narrative along with Franklin. If I'd been writing about the battles it would have been hard to keep Eleanor as an equal partner, but on the home front her role had an importance that allowed her to really carry one side of the story. She did so much in terms of civil rights and in terms of women working in the factories. But as I looked into Mary and Abe it was clear that by the time of the Civil War their relationship had evolved so that I would be telling essentially a private story about Mary along with a public story about Lincoln—and it wouldn't match correctly. In reading about Mary and about Lincoln's daily life during the war it soon became apparent that he was spending most of his time with these other characters—Seward and Stanton and Bates and Chase—and Mary was jealous of this. He would sit with them when they were waiting for news from the battlefront; they would accompany him on trips to see the soldiers after a battlefield loss; and he took carriage rides with Seward in the afternoon and relaxed with him late at night. I came to realize that in terms of emotion shared he was much more married to them than to her—and more importantly that they were fabulous characters. I'd known about them but I had never gotten into their lives before, and as I got more and more involved with reading about them—reading their letters and diaries— I felt that I began to know Seward and his wife and his daughter, and Chase and Stanton and their families. There was a sense of just feeling their presence. And then, when it turned out, of course, that they were not only in his cabinet but had been his rivals I realized that this was the story I'd like to tell.

Presented by

Katie Bacon, formerly executive editor of The Atlantic Online, is now a senior editor at Legal Affairs magazine.

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