Team of Rivals: the political genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns-Goodwin

I don’t like to include book reviews in this blog because I don’t like writing book reviews, but I had to make an exception for this gem: “Team of Rivals, the political genius of Abraham Lincoln” by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

I have a special interest in this period of American history due to my love of Mark Twain. I am drawn to the excitement of opportunity and newness, and the challenge of building a nation on great principles such as government by the people for the people, and on freedom and opportunity.

It was a time of truly great men – and I mean men, not sure women always had such a great time (and I will now follow up on two more greats, Frederick Douglass and Ulysses S Grant, for starters), and Lincoln’s own story is one of remarkable resilience and resourcefulness in the face of a terribly bleak childhood on the harsh Illinois frontier.

Lincoln’s genius was combining this determination with his humour, kindness and wisdom, to not just bring the fledgling and divided Republican party with him on issues as controversial and divisive as war and slavery, but to bring an entire nation with him (or at least the northern Yankee part).

I’m sure, had he lived, he would have eventually brought the south with him too. In fact it was many of the more enlightened southern leaders and newspapers that recognised that the confederacy had lost more than the north with his assassination. Lincoln, more so than Johnson or Grant who followed him, would have done so much to heal the wounds and rebuild the nation.

The book begins by focusing on Lincoln’s three rivals for the Republican Party nomination: New York’s William Henry Seward, the heir apparent and eventual Secretary of State; the ambitious Salmon Chase from Ohio who would become Treasury Secretary and later chair the Supreme Court; and lastly Missouri’s Edward Bates who became the Attorney General. We follow their careers and how they came to be seen as the three leading contenders for the newly formed Republican ticket. This gets to feel like a little bit too much background, but means that by the time we get to the convention, we really know who’s who and are no longer confusing our Salmons with our Sewards.

Lincoln’s own background is fascinating. A self-educated farm boy who becomes a lawyer, famous for his humourous storytelling, he debates Stephen Douglas for the Illinois Senate seat and although he narrowly loses, he established himself as a great orator, debater and thinker. The publication of these debates and the subsequent speaking tour is the main reason Lincoln gains a national profile.

The next part shows his campaign for the Presidency – the first Republican to win the White House – and the consequent break up of the union as the confederate states, desperate to keep their slaves and to ensure that slavery can move into the new states opening up in the west, refused to recognise a Republican president.

We then follow how he establishes his authority among the rivals in the cabinet, all of whom think they are better qualified than Lincoln (all – except perhaps Chase – change their minds), and how he takes the north into a civil war which eventually includes a controversial emancipation proclamation and the inclusion of blacks in the union army.

For Lincoln and many other northerner Yankees, the war was not about freeing the slaves, it was about proving that the concept of “government by the people for the people” could work. It was about the very concept of universal (sort of) suffrage and democracy.

For radicals, the main beef with the south was slavery, for conservatives the issue was the maintenance of the union – but absolutely not a war on slavery. Radicals wanted to wage war until the complete capitulation of the Confederacy, the conservatives wanted peace. That Lincoln held these two opposing wings together and eventually brought the south to accept emancipation is his greatest legacy.

That was his core skill, and what we can most learn from his leadership: be inclusive with those who disagree with you, treat everyone with respect, listen and be patient, understand the value of gestures (perhaps “actions” is a nicer word) in reinforcing your values (he warmly welcomed Frederick Douglass into the White House), and the right balance of courage, conviction and humility.

His death is tragic. I cried as I read it. Such a great leader, such a kind and generous man, he was intelligent, humourous, humble, gentle and wise, undoubtedly the greatest President of the US, and quite possibly one of the greatest world leaders of all time.

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