Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin is a book truly worthy of its epic subject matter: Abraham Lincoln’s improbable rise to power, his choosing political rivals as Cabinet members (with their lives and political and philosophical beliefs also laid out in detail), his desire to place the security of the Union above all else, and his tactics for and conduct of the Civil War and plans for post-war life. It is, in effect, several biographies in one volume, namely of Abraham Lincoln himself and each member of his Cabinet, who started off as his political rivals to win the Republican nomination in 1860. It is also the story of how Lincoln went from being a dark horse not given much of a chance to win the nomination to becoming one of the best-loved and most important Presidents of American history.
Coincidently enough, through a series of circumstances that placed me in Illinois this past weekend to attend the funeral of my mother, I also got a chance to visit the new Lincoln Library there - an immense library that cost, if I heard correctly, $1.45 billion dollars to build. It is a beautiful edifice I would recommend to everyone who gets the opportunity to visit. Visiting there and reading Team of Rivals brought home to me how much different history might have been if events had played out differently.
Though I knew much about Lincoln’s life from school, college courses, and reading books, I didn’t know until I read Team of Rivals that our sixteenth president had been nominated for vice-president in 1856, with John Charles “Frontier” Fremont the choice for President. Lincoln “had received 110 votes, second only to the eventual nominee, William Dayton of New Jersey.” The Democrat (pro-slavery) candidate Buchanan eventually went on to be the fifteenth President, but if it had been Fremont, with Lincoln as the vice-president, how much would history have been drastically different, for the better or (more likely) worse?
The very selection of Chicago, Illinois, as the city for the Republican convention was crucial to Abraham Lincoln’s winning the Republican presidential nomination. The other candidates, including Salmon Chase of Ohio and William Seward of New York, were so convinced that they were better qualified and had better chances of getting the nomination that they didn’t balk when St. Louis lost out to Chicago. Lincoln wasn’t even on their radar, so to speak, and it didn’t enter into their thinking that having the convention there would enable Abe to earn the nomination. By Lincoln’s deliberate tactic to become “everyone’s second choice,” and through the dedicated behind-the-scenes working of a “committed team of workers--including Judge David Davis, Leonard Swett, Norman Judd, and Stephen Logan,” to urge the delegates of various states to “nominate the man who could win,” enough delegates changed their votes from other candidates to Lincoln to tip the scales in his favor.
Team of Rivals is a long, long book: nearly a thousand pages including over a hundred pages of notes and thirty-some index pages for the index. It doesn’t seem that long, because the reader gets so caught up in it. History comes vibrantly alive in its pages, largely due to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s superb prose style. The Civil War era is undoubtedly the most-written about era of American history, but there never seems to be an end to our fascination with it, and reading and re-reading about the heroic generals on both sides like Grant, “Stonewall” Jackson, and Robert E. Lee, and the great battles that will be forever etched in our nation’s consciousness: Shiloh, the First and Second Battles of Bull Run, Antietam, Vicksburg, and Gettysburg. Sherman’s march to Atlanta will also always live on in our memories, the Emancipation Proclamation, Reconstruction, and the mourning the country felt at the news of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Team of Rivals covers all of these and much more. It is a must-read for anyone who loves reading about the Civil War and the great challenge it presented for those trying to keep the Union together and ensure, through the abolition of slavery, that the words of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” applied to all men, without regard for the color of their skin. I cannot recommend this book highly enough; it should be required reading across the country.