No Ordinary Tome

Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin's much anticipated book about Abraham Lincoln, marks her return to the arena after a devastating scandal. Throughout her personal trials, Goodwin says, Lincoln himself proved to be a major source of consolation. "His whole philosophy was not to waste precious energies on recriminations about the past"

Goodwin's principal technique for depicting Lincoln is to see him through the rivalrous eyes of three men from whom he snatched the presidential nomination when the Republican Party, minus the contending candidates, gathered at Chicago's Wigwam meeting hall in May of 1860. Having united the Illinois party two years earlier in his distinguished but unsuccessful Senate race against Stephen A. Douglas, and having delivered affecting, closely reasoned speeches about slavery and disunion on recent trips east, Lincoln stood as a largely unobjectionable second choice to New York's William Henry Seward, Ohio's Salmon P. Chase, and Missouri's Edward Bates. But, as Goodwin puts it with a nice sonorousness, "There was little to lead one to suppose that Abraham Lincoln, nervously rambling the streets of Springfield that May morning, who scarcely had a national reputation, certainly nothing to equal any of the other three, who had served but a single term in Congress, twice lost bids for the Senate, and had no administrative experience whatsoever, would become the greatest historical figure of the nineteenth century." The real plans for celebration—bonfires stacked, banners furled—had been made in Auburn, Columbus, and St. Louis, all of whose sons would in the end have to enter history as the "team of rivals" from which Lincoln made his Cabinet.

There's a wonderful, almost comically baleful villain to be had in Chase, the governor of Ohio, though with her typical, genuine niceness, Goodwin tells me she really can't call him villainous, "because I so respect his moral force about emancipation early on, and about racial equality." "But on the other hand," she says, "there's no question that his temperament is so the opposite of Lincoln's that it really shows what Lincoln is made of, in a certain sense." Jealous, puritanical, and tormentedly ambitious—suffused with the egomania of the self-loathing—Chase flogged himself toward success ("I almost despair of ever making any figure in the world") in the kind of diary that Lincoln didn't keep. A terrible speaker and a man of promiscuous political affiliations (he'd moved from the Whigs to the Liberty Party and then the Free Soilers before throwing in with the Republicans), Chase had earned great respect for the legal strategy with which he had challenged slavery in the 1840s (seeing it as "'a creature of state law' and not a national institution"), but his habitual double-dealing made it impossible for the Ohio delegation to unite behind his candidacy.

Chase would become Lincoln's secretary of the Treasury, in which capacity he did a splendid job both of financing the Union army and of getting his own face on the new one-dollar bill. Less inclined than his colleagues to revise an initial underestimation of Lincoln, he operated behind the president's back, repeatedly threatened resignation, and clumsily attempted, from within the Cabinet, to run against Lincoln for the 1864 nomination. Chase's pomposity ("a great change seemed to come over men's minds while I was in Washington") is exceeded only by that of the preening, inert General George B. McClellan.

Goodwin's second prismatic rival is a less well-known if appealing figure, though one who proves to be of limited utility as the book moves forward. Edward Bates, a sixty-six-year-old retired congressman and judge, a prosperous pillar of St. Louis blessed with personal contentment and an "ideal home life," was the most conservative choice before the delegates in the Wigwam, one who would have clear appeal to the Unionists in border states like Missouri. But readers will have trouble believing he was truly a contender amid the antislavery fervor sweeping Chicago.

Even after Bates becomes Lincoln's attorney general, Goodwin has difficulty keeping her attention on him, and strays instead to other members of the Cabinet, especially Edwin Stanton, a combustible, workaholic Quaker who would find himself awash in blood as Lincoln's second secretary of war. Having been overtly contemptuous toward Lincoln when they were teamed as lawyers on a patent case in the 1850s, Stanton had the furthest to travel along the road of re-evaluating his boss. He remained irritated by the president's drollery, storytelling, and theatergoing, but finally experienced an awed, emotional conversion, one his old friend Chase was incapable of undergoing with any completeness.

Next to Lincoln himself, Goodwin's standout figure is Seward, the almost dandyish front-runner for the nomination, whose popularity among abolitionists had been sealed with a prophecy of "irrepressible conflict" between North and South. Inevitably, the New York senator would disappoint them at key moments. His own political realism restrained his antislavery zeal, as did the enforced cautionings of the "Dictator," Thurlow Weed, the Albany editor and boss who had turned the state's Whigs into Republicans. Yet any reader whose image of Seward's personality derives from his stern expression in period photographs will be surprised to find in Goodwin's pages a fun-filled cosmopolite who had made the acquaintance of Gladstone, Queen Victoria, and the pope well before Lincoln made him secretary of state.

With his supporters thunderstruck that the convention in Chicago had "given us a rail splitter" for a candidate, Seward, as irrepressible as the sectional conflict, rallied quickly and campaigned hard for Lincoln. Even so, once in the Cabinet he tried to make himself into the administration's real power, forcing Lincoln to establish dominance with a few shrewd, feline swats. Unexpectedly, the relationship that resulted was not only productive but mutually delightful. Seward's lively household in Lafayette Square, across from the White House, became a home away from Lincoln's troubled home, bringing back, Goodwin suggests, "memories of his convivial days on the circuit, when Lincoln and his fellow lawyers gathered together before the log fire to talk, drink, and share stories." The president sought refuge with Seward often enough to make Mary Lincoln jealous, and John Hay, Lincoln's young secretary, would come to marvel over how "the history of governments affords few instances of an official connection hallowed by a friendship so absolute and sincere." Seward may not be Goodwin's protagonist, but in her pages he's as perceptive, flashy, and satisfying as Boswell.

Last fall Goodwin speculated to me that had she stayed in academic life, she might have written a series of smaller books about less titanic figures, studies "in seriatum" of the sorts of Cabinet figures she now calls her "guys." Those books are not the kind that tend to get signed up by Alice Mayhew at Simon & Schuster, but Team of Rivals contains, at intervals, the chapters for a tiptop, almost extractable biography of Seward, as vivid as any that's been written.

Master Among Men was Goodwin's original title, one that perhaps even more strongly emphasized what remains her principal theme: Lincoln's political genius, a "gift for managing" men that was married to psychological necessity. He won the nomination, she argues, for many reasons: character, hard work, consistency of argument. (Helping to bring the convention to his home state didn't hurt either.) But Lincoln also won because of the remarkable extent to which he had learned to refrain from turning competitors into enemies—something at which Chase certainly, and Seward to a lesser degree, could not claim success. The Illinois delegation was united in Chicago, partly because of the way Lincoln met treachery with friendship after seeing his first Senate campaign, in 1855, heartbreakingly undermined by supposed allies.

Throughout the war his Cabinet would function successfully, even as its members fussed and feuded; Stanton's running of the War Department surpassed even Chase's performance at the Treasury. There are times, however, when Lincoln's management-by-magnanimity—after four years of badmouthing and betrayal, Chase was rewarded with the post of chief justice—seems to border on the masochistic. But Goodwin disagrees when I put the psychological possibility to her: "If the forgiveness were eating away at Lincoln, and not being able to deal with the anger directly was taking certain life force away, then it would be a negative thing; but you don't have the feeling that that's happening with him."

Lincoln could absorb the hurts and slights—suck it up, as we would say today—because he possessed, Goodwin convinces us, the longest possible view. For rewards he would leave himself to heaven; no matter that he didn't believe in its existence. The seraphim he could see was posterity, whose deferred approval would be huge. He furloughed soldiers so that they could go home and vote for him, and he was bolstered by their love. But he was after something more permanently enveloping than that, and he came to understand that the Emancipation Proclamation would be his guarantor of immortality. Always self-mocking of his stringy, badly dressed form, he could still imagine it in marble.

Goodwin gives us a man "acutely aware of his own emotional needs," one who managed his melancholy as shrewdly as he did his subordinates. She does not neglect the near-suicidal depression Lincoln sank into in the winter of 1841, though she highlights the political disappointments that contributed to it. She amply supplies us, too, with Mary's moods and behavioral binges, and also the grief both parents suffered over the death of their son Willie, who probably perished, from typhoid fever, in a sort of infectious friendly fire: "The White House drew its water supply from the Potomac River, along the banks of which tens of thousands of troops without proper latrines were stationed." But none of this dominates Goodwin's portrait. "I really do think that the idea of him as a depressed individual has been overstressed," she tells me; too much emphasis on the sad, homely expression has prevented Lincoln's full animation for readers, she believes. In some ways he was "more married to these guys in the Cabinet" than to Mary, she jokes; and it is Goodwin's picture of Lincoln laughing in Seward's parlor that stays with one after all the other lantern slides have been put back into the drawer.

Lincoln-Kennedy "parallels"—some of them bogus, some of them real ("Each president in his thirties married a socially prominent twenty-four-year-old girl who spoke French fluently")—are an Internet perennial, but Goodwin agrees when I suggest that few more disparate presidential pairs exist than the coolly detached JFK and the tender, mystical Lincoln. "Kennedy wasn't in my head" while writing this new book, she says. Lyndon Johnson (who's "always in my head") shared with Lincoln a passionate need to be remembered, though LBJ's developed only after he'd attained the presidency, whereas Lincoln had spoken of his as early as his first campaign for the state legislature, when he was twenty-three. The Lincoln parallels to Goodwin's third former president, Roosevelt, are occasionally temperamental—"They both understood, much more than Lyndon Johnson, the importance of relaxation," she says—but more frequently managerial: "They both had a magnificent sense of timing." Each knew how to bring a reluctant public around to his largest aims by picking the media forum that suited him best: Roosevelt's fireside chats and Lincoln's public letters, those widely disseminated but intimate-seeming communications that explained his evolving position on slavery.

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Thomas Mallon is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. His most recent book is the novel Bandbox.

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