Doris Kearns Goodwin pinpoints Lincoln's political genius
Vigorous research has a way of toppling a scholar's most reasonable expectations. When Doris Kearns Goodwin decided more than 10 years ago that her next book would be about Abraham Lincoln, she assumed it would roughly parallel the approach and structure of No Ordinary Time, her Pulitzer Prize-winning study of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt confronting World War II.
But as Goodwin delved into the wealth of primary sources, she became convinced that the story she really needed to tell was that of Lincoln's close and productive relationship with his three rivals for the Republican presidential nomination of 1860. At Lincoln's insistence, these men—William H. Seward of New York, Salmon Chase of Ohio and Edward Bates of Missouri—all became key members of his cabinet and went on to serve him well throughout the bloodiest years of the Civil War. He appointed yet another former adversary, Edwin Stanton, as his secretary of war. In recognizing, recruiting and relying on talent, Lincoln held no grudges.
Speaking to BookPage from her home in Concord, Massachusetts, about her new book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Goodwin says her awareness of Lincoln's political talents emerged slowly. "I thought at first that I might focus on Abraham Lincoln and [his wife] Mary, just as I had done with Franklin and Eleanor. You tend to get a certain comfort from knowing what you've done before. But then, [during] those early months and months of reading, I realized that [Lincoln] was spending even more time with these colleagues in the cabinet . . . than he was with Mary. And he was sharing emotions with them. Unlike with Franklin and Eleanor, where Eleanor was a central figure in the [World War II] home front, the story of Mary would be important, but it would be a private story."
Apart from Mary Lincoln, Goodwin also casts her attentive eye on several other forceful and fascinating women within the Lincoln milieu, notably Seward's politically radical wife, Frances, and Chase's beautiful and socially astute daughter, Kate. The author's depictions of the Washington social scene are photographic in both detail and dramatic impact.
Goodwin admits that she knew relatively little about the 19th century when she began her work. "All the other history that I've done has been in the 20th century. I wondered, will I be able to feel what it was like to live on a daily basis in an earlier time? Unlike the book on Roosevelt, where I was able to interview people, and certainly [the one on] Lyndon Johnson [Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream], where I knew him, I knew I wouldn't be talking to anybody [from that era]." Instead, she relied on primary source material. "They wrote so many letters and kept those extraordinary diaries. I could feel them living day by day, even more intimately than I understood Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt."
Virtually perching on Lincoln's shoulder as he navigates through incompetent generals, battlefield setbacks and warring factions within his own administration, Goodwin portrays him as a master manipulator—although never for petty or destructive causes. She illustrates how he led his cabinet, the military and the country with a light and sensitive rein, even as he endured a succession of personal crises. Oddly enough, the theater, where he would meet his death, became a principal source of solace in his final years.
In Goodwin's estimation, Lincoln has had no political equal. "Roosevelt understood timing, as Lincoln did. He had a feeling for the country as a whole, I think, so that he knew when to get Americans involved in [World War II], even before Pearl Harbor. And that's similar to Lincoln's understanding of timing—with when to do the Emancipation Proclamation and when to bring black soldiers in." But, Goodwin points out, it was Lincoln's "decency and morality"—and his ability to turn these virtues into political instruments—that ultimately set him above other leaders.
"My husband [Richard Goodwin] worked in the Kennedy administration," she says. "He remembers this great dinner one night with the great British philosopher, Isaiah Berlin. . . . Anyway, they were having a discussion about whether you could be great and good at the same time, and the only people they came up with were Jesus Christ and Abraham Lincoln."
Integrating the personalities of Seward, Chase, Bates and Stanton into the Lincoln chronicle was especially time-consuming, Goodwin observes. "I think the reason that it took so long was that it was like doing a biography on each one of them. It's the only way you could get the best stuff. You could have done this book, I suppose, by just reading secondary sources on the guys and then doing all the original research on Lincoln. But [you had to do more] in order to get the best stories and to emotionally connect with all these other people. . . . I had to have these huge chronologies of each one, and I would actually put them on a wall so I could see where they overlapped."
In 2002, a number of critics accused Goodwin of plagiarism or, at minimum, insufficient documentation, particularly in her book The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys. "The main thing about this book [on Lincoln]," Goodwin offers, when asked about the controversy, "was that I was able in this whole research—really from the beginning—to have everything on a computer, which made all the difference. It meant that all the notes that were taken on books could be scanned into the computer, not handwritten, and all the footnotes could be inserted simultaneously, instead of doing it after the chapter was done. So I had, all along as I was doing this, absolute confidence that there would be no [documentation] problem."
The problem Goodwin faces now is withdrawing from Lincoln's world without having another project to fall back on. "I miss it already," she laments. "It's weird, because—especially in the last couple of years—there was such pressure to finish it. You knew how to focus your day. It feels strange now, not having that. I wake up and I feel sort of scattered."
Edward Morris writes from Nashville. Copyright 2005 BookPage Reviews.
Choice Reviews 2006 October
Noted historian Goodwin attempts the ambitious task of capturing in a single volume the complex relationship between President Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet. Her thesis, as indicated in the subtitle, is that Lincoln possessed the political genius to harness the best effort from erstwhile rivals for the presidency, cabinet members with personal animosities toward each other, and secretaries with different goals and political agendas. By succeeding in welding querulous advisers into a winning team, Lincoln demonstrated an unusual level of political acumen. Lincoln certainly possessed rare political skills, but earlier works have already discussed that fact, revealing the weakness of Goodwin's book. While this work is elegantly written and certainly readable, there is little new information in the text. Instead, Goodwin centers the book on well-known political debates (e.g., concerning the Emancipation Proclamation) and anecdotal accounts of Lincoln and the cabinet, concentrating more on personality clashes than on achieved outcomes. The result is a mass of information that fulfills the book's thesis, but neither appreciably adds to the knowledge of Lincoln's administration nor adds or detracts from Lincoln's legacy. Summing Up: Optional. Undergraduate collections. Copyright 2006 American Library Association.
Kirkus Reviews 2005 October #1
Well-practiced historian Goodwin, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in history for No Ordinary Time (1994), examines Abraham Lincoln as a practical politician, focusing on his conversion of rivals to allies.Was Lincoln gay? It doesn't matter, though the question has exercised plenty of biographers recently. Goodwin, an old-fashioned pop historian of the Ambrose-McCullough vein, quotes from his law partner, William Herndon: "Lincoln had terribly strong passions for women--could scarcely keep his hands off them." End of discussion. Lincoln was, if anything, melancholic--possibly as the result of abuse on the part of his father--and sometimes incapacitated by depression. Thus it was smart politicking to recruit erstwhile opponents Salmon Chase and William Seward, who had very different ideas on most things but who nonetheless served Lincoln loyally to the point of propping him up at times during the fraught Civil War years. Goodwin indicates that Lincoln knew that war was coming, and he knew why: He'd been vigorously opposed to slavery for his entire public career, and even if "many Northerners . . . were relatively indifferent to the issue" of slavery and the westward expansion of the slave states, Lincoln was determined to settle it, even at catastrophic cost. Chase, Seward and his other lieutenants did not always fall immediately into step with Lincoln, and some pressed for compromise; when he declared the Emancipation Proclamation, writes Goodwin, he assembled the Cabinet and said that while he recognized their differences, he "had not called them together to ask their advice." They acceded, though by the end of the first term, enough divisions obtained within and without the White House that it looked as if Lincoln would not be reelected--whereupon he demanded that his secretaries sign a resolution "committing the administration to devote all its powers and energies to help bring the war to a successful conclusion," the idea being that only a Democrat would accept a negotiated peace.Illuminating and well-written, as are all of Goodwin's presidential studies; a welcome addition to Lincolniana.First printing of 400,000; Book-of-the-Month/History Book Club main selection; Doubleday Book Club/Quality Paperback Book Club alternate selection; film rights to DreamWorks Copyright Kirkus 2005 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
Library Journal Reviews 2005 June #2
In a multiple portrait that includes William Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates, Lincoln's rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, Goodwin limns the political genius that brought Lincoln to the Presidency. With at 16-city tour. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal Reviews 2005 October #2
Goodwin, Pulitzer Prize winner for No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt; The Home Front and World War II , presents a study of Abraham Lincoln that focuses on his unique political talents during the last decade and a half of his life. The author seamlessly intertwines discussion of Lincoln with her tracing of his three main rivals for the 1860 Republican nomination for President, Salmon P. Chase, Edward S. Bates, and William H. Seward. By placing these men in subsequent key cabinet positions, President Lincoln, according to Goodwin, transcended emotional and personal grievances while still retaining complete control of administrative decisions at the height of the Civil War. She asserts that Lincoln's keen ability to interpret people enabled him to reach compromise and maintain working relationships during the sectional crisis and throughout his presidency. Goodwin's use of primary-source materials is exhaustive (120 pages of notes and no bibliography), but her overuse of exact quotes often detracts from the flow of her analysis. This book should be supplemented by other Lincoln scholarship, such as David Herbert Donald's Lincoln , Phillip S. Paludan's The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln , and Mark E. Neely's The Last Best Hope of Earth: Abraham Lincoln and the Promise of America . Despite its shortcomings, Goodwin's work will be a beneficial addition to public and academic libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/05.]--Gayla Koerting, Univ. of South Dakota Libs.[Page 63]. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Pulitzer Prize-winner Goodwin (No Ordinary Time ) seeks to illuminate what she interprets as a miraculous event: Lincoln's smooth (and, in her view, rather sudden) transition from underwhelming one-term congressman and prairie lawyer to robust chief executive during a time of crisis. Goodwin marvels at Lincoln's ability to co-opt three better-born, better-educated rivals--each of whom had challenged Lincoln for the 1860 Republican nomination. The three were New York senator William H. Seward, who became secretary of state; Ohio senator Salmon P. Chase, who signed on as secretary of the treasury and later was nominated by Lincoln to be chief justice of the Supreme Court; and Missouri's "distinguished elder statesman" Edward Bates, who served as attorney general. This is the "team of rivals" Goodwin's title refers to.
The problem with this interpretation is that the metamorphosis of Lincoln to Machiavellian master of men that Goodwin presupposes did not in fact occur overnight only as he approached the grim reality of his presidency. The press had labeled candidate Lincoln "a fourth-rate lecturer, who cannot speak good grammar." But East Coast railroad executives, who had long employed Lincoln at huge prices to defend their interests as attorney and lobbyist, knew better. Lincoln was a shrewd political operator and insider long before he entered the White House--a fact Goodwin underplays. On another front, Goodwin's spotlighting of the president's three former rivals tends to undercut that Lincoln's most essential Cabinet-level contacts were not with Seward, Chase and Bates, but rather with secretaries of war Simon Cameron and Edwin Stanton, and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles.
These criticisms aside, Goodwin supplies capable biographies of the gentlemen on whom she has chosen to focus, and ably highlights the sometimes tangled dynamics of their "team" within the larger assemblage of Lincoln's full war cabinet. Agent, Amanda Urban. 400,000 first printing; BOMC, History Book Club main selection; film rights to Steven Spielberg/DreamWorld Entertainment. (Nov.)[Page 74]. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.