As a friend of mine remarked on hearing that I was reading Doris Kearns Goodwins' Team of Rivals, "Goodwin had a good subject." This account does its subject justice. It conveys the emotional power of its great subject while persuasively delineating the qualities that forged an obscure Illinois lawyer into the greatest commander and statesman in the history of the United States. While some have suggested that Team of Rivals is primarily about political compromise, it is really about one man's ability to rise above political compromise — the squabbling of his cabinet members and the factionalism of the Republican Party — to forge an unprecedented war machine, crush the rebellion, and eradicate the greatest institutional evil in American history, Remarkably, he accomplished this in the service not of subverting but of successfully preserving America's system of democratic government (a lesson subsequent leaders might take to heart). Ultimately, it is the clarity of Lincoln's moral vision that sets him apart.
The Lincoln We Never See
George Orwell once famously remarked that saints should be judged guilty until proven innocent, and there is no doubt that our veneration for Lincoln the historical giant — "Father Abraham" as the soldiers called him — obscures our view of Lincoln the man. While Goodwin does not shy away from Lincoln's abused childhood, or his mentally ill wife, or corruption in the War Department, one does have a sense that her critical portrait may be slightly airbrushed. There is a bit of a "feel good" quality to her portrait; then again, it takes a very jaundiced perspective or a strong effort of will to "feel bad" about Lincoln.
Sausage in the Making
A little bit of the seamier side of politics does come out in the account of the battle to pass the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, in which it is pretty clear that Lincoln was willing to beg, bribe, or steal any Congressional vote he could obtain to secure passage, which he narrowly did. His tactics, which are only briefly described, seem more reminiscent of our picture of Lyndon Johnson than of Abraham Lincoln. But perhaps it is as well to have a realistic view of Washington deal-making even in the noblest of causes.
The strongest sense that one gets from Goodwin's biography, however, is that Lincoln had a vision, moral clarity, and political acumen that clearly transcended those of his admittedly very gifted political contemporaries. In the political chess game, Lincoln was always two moves ahead. And the man who could go from plans for voluntary colonization of African Americans abroad to keeping a governor waiting so the he could speak with "my friend [Frederick] Douglass," and who could grow from the simple preservation of the union to the complete abolition of slavery under the Constitution, is a man of unusual moral capacity. Goodwin weaves a fascinating story of the men in Lincoln's cabinet who formed his "team of rivals," but she leaves no doubt as to who was the captain.