Posted: September 25, 2006
t is with great trepidation that one opens the pages of a new biography of Abraham Lincoln. How can an ambitious author find something novel to say? One could develop a revolutionary thesis, overturning the established wisdom or revealing some heretofore suppressed truth. Lincoln was racist. Lincoln was gay. Lincoln was a tyrant. Or if one is less ambitious, it might be enough to suggest that Lincoln was a man controlled by events, a compromiser, a politician, or a Republican. Fortunately, Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals takes a different approach. Risking the calumny of critics who might complain that she has given us nothing new, she paints an unabashedly respectful and heroic portrait of Lincoln.
Goodwin, however, is not altogether lacking in ambition. She believes there is something more to be said about him, something new that can be learned through an examination of his relationships with William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates, his rivals for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination and later members of his cabinet:
Just as a hologram is created through the interference of light from separate sources, so the lives and impressions of those who companioned Lincoln give us a clearer and more dimensional picture of the president himself. Lincoln's barren childhood, his lack of schooling, his relationships with male friends, his complicated marriage, the nature of his ambition, and his ruminations about death can be analyzed more clearly when he is placed side by side with his three contemporaries.
Goodwin's portrayal of these men is balanced and compelling. She notes that all four "studied law, became distinguished orators, entered politics, and opposed the spread of slavery." But Lincoln defeated his rivals and became their leader, not, as some historians suggest, by chance (i.e., because "he came from the battleground state of Illinois and stood in the center of the party"), but "because he was the shrewdest and canniest of them all."
For one thing, his impoverished upbringing meant that he was "[m]ore accustomed to relying upon himself to shape events." As the nomination process heated up, Seward vacationed in Europe, Chase calculated his prospects on the basis of the flattery of friends, and Bates waited at home hoping the convention would turn to him as a more moderate alternative to Chase and Seward. In contrast, Lincoln developed a strategy and worked tirelessly to implement it. Lincoln earned the nomination. We also see the different forms ambition can take, as well as the way in which ambition is shaped by other virtues and vices. Her depiction of Chase's coolness and lack of humor, Seward's confidence and charm, and Bates's love of his wife and family help us to better understand the characters that would play such major roles in Lincoln's presidency.
But most importantly, these parallel portraits develop a more complex picture of Lincoln himself. As Goodwin describes Chase's talent for detached calculation and sense of destiny, Seward's adaptability and sociability, and Bates's care and patience, she reveals, as if in relief, the different dimensions of Lincoln's character. For instance, she shows us how much brighter the flame of ambition burned in Lincoln than in the others. Bates's ambition had been difficult to ignite, and compared to Chase and Seward, he accepted defeat with little bitterness. Chase's ambition, by contrast, was blinding, both to himself and his supporters. He was too selfish to take into account the interests and ideas of others, even though he craved their good opinion, and he often sought to highlight his own virtue by diminishing everyone else's. Only in Seward do we see even a pale reflection of Lincoln's ambition. But prior to 1860, Seward's self-confidence may have thwarted his ambition. Life had given him much, and thus there was less for which to strive. He was accustomed to the idea that his goals were always within his grasp. In contrast, Lincoln's ambition was fueled by both the difficult road he had traveled to success and his ability to see beyond what he could grasp at any moment.
* * *
The first half of Goodwin's book, titled "The Rivals," culminates in Lincoln's 1860 electoral victory. Her account of his political strategy prior to the election is one of the best available. It has the feel of a story from a talented reporter who traveled with the candidate and enjoyed his confidence, and what's more, a reporter willing to consider the possibility that the candidate knew what he was doing. This is not a bad model for history.
The reader would expect the rest of Team of Rivals to focus on the team, which to some extent it does. Goodwin shows that Lincoln's presidency was a collaborative effort. To succeed, he needed his former rivals' assistance—partly to diffuse political conflicts, and partly because of their peculiar talents. Seward was a diplomatic Secretary of State, Chase a shrewd financier at Treasury, and Bates a loyal and trustworthy Attorney General. The second half's title, however, is not "The Team" but "Master Among Men." This is appropriate; the rivals are no longer equals. Goodwin exhibits their growing appreciation of Lincoln's genius, as well as Lincoln's ability to use their virtues and vices to good ends. But her portraits of these men diminish in integrity and fullness as the book proceeds. Their lives and actions increasingly have meaning only as they relate to Lincoln's project. We tend to lose sight of their own perspectives, whether on themselves or America.
Part of the problem is that the cast of characters expands dramatically. In addition to Seward, Chase, and Bates, Edwin Stanton at the War Department, Gideon Welles as Secretary of the Navy, and Postmaster General Montgomery Blair play major roles. There are also the generals, Lincoln's assistants John Nicolay and John Hay, and various members of Congress who dominate certain scenes of the story. In the end, however, it is not these characters who overshadow Seward, Chase, and Bates, but Lincoln.
Seward is the quickest to grasp and accept this fact. He is wise enough to recognize Lincoln's greatness once face-to-face with it, and confident enough to accept his subordinate place. He ultimately finds that his own ambition can be satisfied in service to Lincoln's. Perhaps this is why he is the only one of Lincoln's rivals to grow in stature once a member of the cabinet. Bates remains what he always was, a decent man who served the public but whose life was never consumed by politics. He was there when Lincoln needed him to play his part, but we are not surprised that he is often offstage.
Chase is the most diminished by association with Lincoln. On some level, he comes to recognize Lincoln's greatness but is never able to overcome his envy of it or his own lack of self-awareness. Even when Goodwin extols his virtues as Secretary of the Treasury, she cannot overcome our distaste for his smallness of soul. As we watch the "master of men" use Chase's vanity in the service of a higher cause, it's hard not to take perverse pleasure in Chase's pain.
In the course of her book, Goodwin does a nice job of debunking many of Lincoln's debunkers. She dismisses claims of a homosexual relationship between Joshua Speed and Lincoln, reminding the reader that close male friendships, expressions of affection, and even bed-sharing were common in the 19th century. She says the assumption that such relationships must have been sexual tells us more about our own time than Lincoln's. She gives a full and fair account of Lincoln's attitudes on race. Although she observes that "racism, the belief in white supremacy, was deeply embedded in the entire country," she scrupulously avoids sensationalizing Lincoln's views. Though he initially advocated colonization as the best solution to the problem of what to do with freed blacks, he never supported forced deportation. He grappled with a difficult question: if not colonization, then what? Goodwin gives us his answer:
Free them all, and keep them among us as underlings? Is it quite certain that this betters their condition? But once freed, could they be made politically and socially, our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not. Whether this feeling accords with justice and sound judgment, is not the sole question.... A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, can not be safely disregarded.
Frederick Douglass explained later that Lincoln, as a statesman, was bound to consult the feelings of his countrymen. Had he not done so, and had he not in some sense shared those feelings, he would have failed as a leader.
But Goodwin also points out that there may have been a difference between his feelings and his sense of justice: "It is instructive, political philosopher Harry Jaffa perceptively notes, that the only unequivocal statement of white supremacy Lincoln ever made was as to 'color'—the assertion of an obvious difference." Lincoln could not deny this obvious difference, nor the feelings it might engender, but he also knew that from the standpoint of justice, what followed from that difference was insignificant. It is even possible that his sense of justice may have triumphed over his feelings. After meeting with Lincoln, Douglass reported:
He treated me as a man. He did not let me feel for a moment that there was any difference in the color of our skin. The President is a most remarkable man. I am satisfied now that he is doing all that circumstances will permit him to do.
What Douglass saw in Lincoln was not racism, but prudence.
In the end, the most significant contribution of Goodwin's history is not her depiction of Lincoln's cabinet, or his prudence, sense of justice, or mastery of men. It is his magnanimity, a virtue so manifest in Lincoln that even Chase's shriveled soul was moved by it. Throughout Lincoln's first term, Chase plotted against him, criticized him behind his back, and sought to wrest the 1864 nomination away from him while serving in his cabinet. Chase twice offered his resignation in an attempt to manipulate Lincoln, and yet Lincoln kept him in his cabinet until 1864, until a dispute over the appointment of an assistant treasurer for New York finally persuaded Lincoln that Chase had to go. But a few months later, Lincoln forgave Chase's treachery and nominated him as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
Goodwin reports that when Lincoln announced his intentions to a friend of Chase's, the friend replied:
Mr. President, this is an exhibition of magnanimity and patriotism that could hardly be expected of any one. After what he has said against your administration, which has undoubtedly been reported to you, it was hardly to be expected that you would bestow the most important office within your gift on such a man.
Of course, this display required some effort; Lincoln admitted that he "would rather have swallowed his buckhorn chair than to have nominated Chase." But he thought it was the right decision for the country and that Chase deserved it. It is impossible to imagine that Chase would have been equally large-souled if the situation had been reversed.
The Chase nomination is only one of the many examples of Lincoln's magnanimity offered by Goodwin. Other politicians might have seen the prudence of bringing rivals into the cabinet. Others might have been able to set aside personal animosity to do the prudent thing. But Lincoln's greatness of soul was such that he embraced his rivals. He was able to recognize their virtues, and this ability often transformed disagreement into respect, leading many who served under him to become their better selves. Upon learning of his nomination to head the Court, Chase immediately wrote the president: "I cannot sleep before I thank [you] for this mark of your confidence.... Be assured that I prize your confidence and good will more than nomination or office." At least on some level, Chase probably was being sincere.
* * *
It should be said that if you come to Goodwin looking for a philosophical analysis of Lincoln's genius, you'll be disappointed. Harry Jaffa's Crisis of the House Divided or the sequel, A New Birth of Freedom, are more satisfying in this respect. Yet her book isn't at odds with Lincoln's political thought; she shows his philosophy as it manifests itself in his relationships with other smart and ambitious men.
Seward, the most impressive of those men, was seriously wounded by one of the conspirators in Lincoln's assassination. Near the end of the book, Goodwin reports:
News of Lincoln's death was withheld from Seward. The doctors feared that he could not sustain the shock. On Easter Sunday, however, as he looked out the window toward Lafayette Park, he noticed the War Department flag at half-mast. 'He gazed awhile,' Noah Brooks reported, 'then, turning to his attendant,' he announced, 'The President is dead.' The attendant tried to deny it, but Seward knew with grim certainty. 'If he had been alive he would have been the first to call on me,' he said, 'but he has not been here, nor has he sent to know how I am, and there's the flag at halfmast.'
Seward knew that Lincoln was his friend, and that his friend would not have deserted him.
The scene's sadness is intensified by the stories Goodwin tells of the easy pleasure Lincoln and Seward took in each others' company. Lincoln's frequent evening visits to Seward's home, their trips to the theater, their shared jokes—these were not merely a means of escape for Lincoln, but signs of his enjoyment of life. Goodwin argues that the traditional image of a melancholy and lonely Lincoln is simplistic. Neither his genius nor the tragedy he endured alienated him from his humanity. This insight alone makes her book a worthy contribution to the study of Lincoln. Team of Rivals is also a wise and generous gift to those readers who doubt that great ambition can be compatible with the pleasures offered by the company of a familiar friend.