- The Washington Times - Friday, December 2, 2005


Simon & Schuster, $35, 916 pages, illustrated, REVIEWED BY JOHN LOCKWOOD

“Team of Rivals” is an ambitious, and successful, multiple biography of President Lincoln and four members of his Cabinet — Secretary of State William H. Seward, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, and Attorney General Edward Bates.

They were chosen by Mrs. Goodwin as the four strongest secretaries, although this writer would have preferred to see Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles on the list also.

All five men get equal coverage, from their childhood to the Civil War. At that point, President Lincoln unavoidably dominates the narrative a bit more, just as he was to dominate his Cabinet in real life. The reader, by the way, should not be put off by the book’s 916 pages, index included. This is one story that moves right along, as opposed to some books that are like wading through glue.

Although Abraham Lincoln definitely had the poorest, most hardscrabble upbringing, Mrs. Goodwin shows in detail how the others also had to work their way up from very little. Over and over, similar patterns show up. Loss of a parent or prosperity at first, followed by a determination to better one’s place in life. Each one spent his adolescence and young manhood in grinding regimes of study, often accompanied by working for a living and making connections. It was as if each one were determined never to be poor or vulnerable ever again.

“Team of Rivals” shows how Seward probably ended up with the happiest personal life. He married well and had a large and loving family. His cordiality was well-known, especially at his dinner parties, where the menus were so long the modern reader may wonder where his guests found room for it all.

Stanton, on the other hand, responded to life’s batterings with a gruff, what-do-you-want-sir persona. Chase seems to have become a rather stuffy paterfamilias type, while Bates spent as much time as possible with his family.

Their histories make plain that although all four Cabinet members were supremely talented men, there was still a certain something they lacked that Lincoln had. Perhaps, despite early hardships, the four of them had developed a certain overconfidence.

For example, the book shows in detail how Seward, Chase and Bates missed getting the 1860 Republican nomination for president. Seward was one of the Republican Party’s founders, and definitely the front-runner — so he took a trip to Europe. Chase and Bates seemed to have thought the nomination would come to them because they were so talented. Lincoln, on the other hand, as a long shot, took nothing for granted and worked steadily at building a winning coalition.

The big four continued to underestimate Lincoln even after he became president. Seward, for example, just after becoming secretary of state, wrote one of the strangest letters any president has ever received, “Some thoughts for the President’s consideration.” Seward proposed running the government himself: “Either the President must do it himself … or DEVOLVE it on some member of his Cabinet.” Lincoln gently but firmly let Seward know who was running the show, and the two even became close friends.

Chase was first-rate at finding ways to finance the war, but he always thought himself Lincoln’s superior, even trying to get the Republican nomination in 1864. Several times during his tenure, he offered his resignation, not because he really wanted to leave, but as a means of getting his own way. Lincoln, recognizing Chase’s abilities, let him get away with it until 1864, when he surprised Chase by accepting the latest resignation.

The president was never one to bear grudges though, and nominated his would-be rival to become chief justice of the United States.

Stanton was not part of Lincoln’s first Cabinet, but was added to it in 1862 to replace Simon Cameron. He originally had thought of Lincoln as the quintessential country bumpkin, but, as usual, Lincoln was more concerned with who could do the best job than with personal feelings. In time, Stanton also became a close friend of the president.

Bates settled into his job and didn’t cause any particular trouble, which may be why he is less well remembered than the others, although the book still gives him equal attention.

“Team of Rivals” does tend to give the other Cabinet members short shrift. The team also included Gideon Welles as secretary of the Navy, Montgomery Blair as postmaster general, and Caleb Smith as secretary of the interior. Poor Smith, for instance, isn’t even mentioned until Page 129 (Chapter 4), and Lincoln choosing him for interior rates one paragraph on Page 316.

The Cabinet of President James Buchanan, who came just before Lincoln, makes an interesting contrast, as “Team of Rivals” clearly shows. Buchanan had the misfortune to be in office just as the country was splitting up, beginning with the secession of South Carolina. At this critical time, the weak Buchanan administration mostly drifted with events, while the country and Lincoln had to wait four months until the old Inauguration date of March 4.

Overall, the point of Mrs. Goodwin’s book might be summarized by an anecdote on Page 319 (Chapter 11). A journalist “asked Lincoln why he had chosen a Cabinet comprised of enemies and opponents.” The answer: “I had looked the party over and concluded that these were the very strongest men. Then I had no right to deprive the country of their services.”

Mrs. Goodwin adds that although the Cabinet consisted of strong people all right, “it was the prairie lawyer from Springfield who would emerge as the strongest of them all.”

John Lockwood is a Washington writer.

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