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
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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.

Of those cabinet members—those rivals and Stanton as well—was there one whom you most enjoyed writing about?

Oh, absolutely Seward. I think part of it was that early in the project I went up to Seward's home in Auburn, New York, which has never been out of family members' hands and is now a private museum. Unlike many museums that are reconstructed after the fact, everything is as it was when the Sewards were there—the books he liked to read are in the study, the pictures on the walls are the family pictures, the china on the table is the family china, the garden where he sat to wait for the news from the Chicago convention has been kept the same. They even put the family clothes on mannequins. I felt somehow that I really got to know his family—his wife, Frances, so far ahead of her time, who suffered the typical nineteenth-century frailties that women seemed to get when they couldn't exercise their talents; and his daughter, Fanny, who wanted to be a writer and wrote that wonderful diary, but died at the age of twenty. And I think the fact that Seward reminded me in a lot of ways of Churchill—they both, in a certain sense, lived every man's dream that you can drink and smoke and live until you're ninety and have those huge appetites. More important, I suppose, was the enormous ability he had after the almost irrecoverable disappointment of not getting that nomination to somehow adjust himself to becoming Lincoln's ally and great friend. That surprising friendship moved me a lot.

Chase seemed to me an obvious candidate for least appealing. I was wondering if his story provided any special challenges when you were writing the book.

I think that the challenge was that on the one hand you knew that early on he had had such an honorable career and still did. His defense of the runaway slaves and his being willing to put himself beyond public opinion in the 1850s on curbing racial discrimination made you admire him for what he stood for. But temperamentally I think it would have been very difficult to warm up to him. Somebody said to me the other day that Seward might have been somewhat Clintonian and Chase was somewhat Nixonian in the sense that it didn't come naturally to him to like politics, even though he was very smart and became successful. It used to be said that Nixon would go home at night and practice conversations that he was going to have. Chase would go home at night and practice jokes that he could never deliver. I've often wondered whether his life would have been different if his first wife—who I think was the one he really loved passionately—had not died in childbirth. There was a real warmth in his attitude toward her and a love for her that seemed to have opened him up from the earlier much colder person that he had been. So it was hard to attach oneself to him, but on the other hand you had to say you understood where he was coming from.

You seem to give Lincoln more credit for his presidential victory than historians traditionally have, and I wondered if you could talk about what separated him from Seward and Chase and Bates and made him the Republican nominee.

Reading some of the accounts by people at the time and then by historians somewhat later, it seemed as if people assumed Lincoln won simply because he was in the center of the party and because the convention was held in Chicago. But when I looked into it, it seemed that he had already made possible the idea that he would be the second choice if any of the top people faltered. Lincoln somehow understood that his chance would come, as he said, "If people are willing to give up their first love." He wanted to be there as the second love, and because he, unlike his rivals, had not made enemies along the way and because he had actually been working harder than any of them in those months prior to the convention, his plan worked.

Lincoln spent his campaign going from one state to another giving wonderful speeches, making his name known, and writing letters to other people in the campaign to try and stake out a middle position, not just because he knew that's where the victory would be but because he naturally came to that. And then he successfully strategized to get the convention in Chicago. At the national committee meeting held to decide where the convention would be, the Seward people wanted it in New York, Chase in Ohio, Bates in Missouri, and they said, Why not Illinois? There's nobody really there. But Lincoln understood ahead of time, Let's get it in Illinois. Then he could pack the hall with all of his people and get them to yell louder for him than for Seward. It was a lifetime's work, in a way, that prepared him for that. He was really ready when the circumstances opened the opportunity for someone other than the top guys to get the nomination.

Also, he was so personable, and people were so loyal to him. It seems like that played into his hands as well.

Yes, I don't think I fully understood until reading everybody's accounts and these primary sources what a great personality he had. He was full of kindness and humor and fun. Even when he was defeated for the Senate in 1855, he was kind to his opponents, and they in turn became central to his later presidential nomination. It made so much sense for somebody to do, but it doesn't seem like political figures are easily able to do that now. The anger that develops when somebody has been your opponent and the viciousness of the campaign means that those hurts remain inside you and so you're not able somehow to turn those former opponents into allies.

He seems really unusual in that. I read a review of your book in The Washington Post by Allen Guelzo and in it he writes that the " weak-kneed presidents of the 1850s—Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan—were routinely upstaged or subverted by their secretaries of war and state." In this context, and with his relative lack of political experience, how did Lincoln have the confidence to appoint such strong-willed rivals to his cabinet?

It really is astonishing, because not only were they his rivals, but they were so much more experienced than he was, and he knew that. Not only in terms of being governors and senators and nationally known, but in terms of their educations: they were college graduates, Phi Beta Kappas. So it showed that from early on Lincoln had enormous self-confidence, and he had to. But he also, I think, always had his goal way, way ahead of him, to the extent that he was desirous of somehow leaving a legacy behind so his story could be told after he died. I think in some ways this was a central theme that I came to—he cared about something so much larger than just office or power, so that meant that he said to himself, These guys are the strongest people in the country, and I can't deprive the country of their services. What he's thinking is, if the country will be better off with them, then in the long run he will be better off, even if in the short term it's going to seem a little bumpy to have everybody make fun of him in contrast to them. But he had the serenity to know that in the end he would be able to deal with them, and he certainly was.

It makes me think of Clinton, so obsessed with how he would be remembered, but maybe not able to go that extra step and build a lasting legacy. Of course he didn't have something like the Civil War...

That's right. It is a good thing to be desirous of leaving something behind, because that at least gives you a larger goal than popularity or something in the short term. But then you need discipline, you need self confidence, you need the will to subjugate yourself at certain moments if that goal is going to be reached. A war goes against that more immediate need for popularity, which I think is the problem for a lot of other presidents: they're not willing to take the risks that might be needed because they're worried how what they're doing will be seen at that moment.

Speaking of Clinton, I read another review of your book which described Lincoln as a master of Clintonian triangulation. Does that strike you as apt?

Oh, that's interesting. Yes, I do think that's right, if what's meant by that is that one feels responsible for bringing various factions together and finding consensus in the middle. Lincoln had no qualms about saying that in a democratic country public opinion matters. At one point he said something like, With public sentiment, anything is possible; without it, nothing. So he wouldn't have felt there was anything wrong with trying to find a position where you could bring people from two different sides together, as long as it didn't mean sacrificing the goals that you had.

Your book has been released at about the same time as Joshua Wolf Shenk's Lincoln's Melancholy, in which he argued that in many ways Lincoln was a man characterized by depression, and that that depression actually helped make him into the great leader he was. If you're familiar with his argument, how would you say that your takes on Lincoln differ?

Well, I do think Lincoln was born with a melancholy temperament, but I don't know if I believe that he was chronically depressed. He may have had some low level of sadness throughout it all, but he had remarkable resources to get himself out of his sad moods— in terms of humor, in terms of telling stories, in terms of going to the theater in the middle of the presidency so that he could replenish his energies from a difficult day, or going to visit the troops whenever a battle was lost so he could buoy their morale and bolster his own. In a certain sense he seemed to be his own best psychiatrist. It seemed to me that if he had suffered from a deep depression as president you would have found more evidence in those years of some sort of lack of energy or inability to deal with the extraordinary challenge he had. And yet, from everything I could see, he was the one who was sustaining others' spirits better than they were sustaining his. It seemed to me that there was just an enormous resilience in him that was more important to understand than to what extent he was still carrying his depression. But I think that's what struck me about the excerpt in The Atlantic from Shenk's book —that he was writing about the positives as well.

What was it like for you as you ended the book and your association with Lincoln after working on it for so many years? Was it difficult for you to write that last chapter about his assassination?

I think the hardest thing is that you've gone through such a long period of time and there was a wonderful ritual involved with working on the book. I would wake up every day, go to breakfast, and then have Lincoln to come to. Especially as the material was beginning to accumulate there was a feeling of knowing him better, of taking all these people through these stories together. And, as you say, when you get to the end and you know he's going to die and he doesn't know it yet—it really did make me sad. Especially because he didn't have any time to fully appreciate the pleasure of knowing that the North was going to win the war. When I finally finished it all, I would look at the place where I wrote and feel a sense of nostalgia for that time before my days got scattered. You're preparing for the book tour and you're talking and you're buying clothes— nothing is the same as that complete sense of focus on something that you really love. Even now when I go past that room where I worked I feel a sense of I wish I were back there, because it was such a wonderful experience—more than any other book I've worked on. To be with this group of people for that period of time was really terrific.

I'll bet most people who finish a 750-page book feel pretty relieved to leave the characters behind.

I'm sure there was part of that, especially because I was taking too long and I really had to get it done in the end. But along with that relief there really was this sense of sadness at a story that I had become so involved with coming to an end. To the point where it's hard to figure out what I want to do next.

It's hard to imagine leaving this era now that I've invested so much emotional energy in it and learned so much about it and enjoyed it so much. I'd love to come up with some other topic—even on Lincoln. But the hardest thing is that because this book was so sprawling it would have to be a smaller topic on Lincoln. But that might be great if I could figure out some aspect that I want to delve into more fully.

There's been so much written about Lincoln—so many thousands of books. Do you have a feeling about how the field of Lincoln scholarship has shifted over the years?

It does seem that in recent years there's been a lot of wonderful new stuff coming out. One of the pleasures of working on this book is that there's a group of modern Lincoln scholars—many of whom have spent their lives on Lincoln—who were so welcoming. You might wonder how it would be because I was such a rookie coming into the field, never having studied the nineteenth century, much less Lincoln or the Civil War. But because they've studied Lincoln for so long I think they felt the same sense that I now feel of the deep pleasure that comes from being in his presence. I became part of a larger community, and that community's response to the book was more important to me than anything else. When David Donald was able to say that the book is as fresh as if it's the first book on Lincoln ever published, that's all I needed to know. As I say, that sense of connection was special—I'd never had that before in any of the other books I'd worked on. You just work on a book and then move from one to another. Maybe it's just that I'm too close to it. You do feel, as I've sometimes said, a betrayal when you move on to the next subject. Even when I moved from Roosevelt to Lincoln and had to clear all of the Roosevelt books out of my study to make room, I felt sad letting Roosevelt go. But I think this one is going to be even harder somehow.