The Very Rich Hours of the Lambrights

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Team of Rivals

April 26th, 2009 · No Comments

Just finished Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It’s a weighty tome (aprox. 750 pages) that took me six weeks to read.  With a subtitle like The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, it should be pretty clear what the book is going to be about. Kearns shows how Lincoln created his cabinet by assembling the best and most talented men available, including several heavy-hitters who had also ran for the Republican nomination for President.  The fact that these men all believed themselves superior to the “prairie lawyer” didn’t deter him from enlisting them into his “official family”.  Several, like William Seward (Sec. of State) were confident that they would dominate this midwestern lightweight who had managed to get himself elected.  To his credit, Seward quickly realized how he had misjudged Lincoln and became the President’s closet friend and confidant.  Others such as Salmon Chase (Sec. of Treasury and then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) never seemed to get it figured out and undercut Lincoln at every opportunity.

Lincoln’s political genius lay in his ability to harness this unruly bunch, impose his will upon them, and ultimatly use them to achieve his goals to win the war and reunite the country.  This is familiar territory to anyone who has read a lot of Lincoln but Kernes does a great job of making the case in one authoritative work.  One thing that struck me was how Lincoln foreshadowed Teddy Roosevelt’s admonition to walk softly and carry a big stick.  Lincoln consistenly spoke softly, almost never failing to treat those under him with consideration and respect.  But when it came time to get out the big stick, he could show the steel under his softer exterior.  One of the measures of Lincoln’s success is how often he achieved his goals without having to resort to such measures.  It was very common for those who opposed the President to end up liking and respecting him even after being defeated by him.

To help make her point, Kearnes provides biographies of several rivals who lost the nomination to Lincoln but wound up in his cabinet including Seward, Chase, Edward Bates, and Edwin Stanton (who didn’t run against Lincoln but had a very low opinion of him at first).  I found this valuable;  my knowledge of these poeple was a little sketchy.

Another thing that stuck me in reading this book was not really relevant to the thesis but still got my attention.  I knew that death was more prominant in the 19th century but was unaware of how prevalent it was.  Almost all the major figures in the book had lost a child.  Several had lost two or more.  In a ghastly 20-year period, Chase lost three wives to disease and complications associated with childbirth.  Stanton was known as a irritable man who went out of his way to antagonize people but, as a young man, he was known as a cheerful, happy sort.  Then, in the course of a year, he lost his wife, child, and younger brother.   Those who knew him all agreed that the experience changed him forever.  I’m not really going anywhere with this; it just struck me.

Having worked my way through this book slowly but surely, I think I’m going to relax and read fiction for awhile.  More on that later.

Tags: Books

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