- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 19, 2005



By Doris Kearns Goodwin

Simon & Schuster,

$35, 916 pages


The cover of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s history of the Lincoln administration, “Team of Rivals,” shows the president with his cabinet in Francis Carpenter’s famous painting, “The First Readingofthe Emancipation Proclamation.” There are two central figures in the foreground: President Lincoln and his secretary of state, William H. Seward. After Lincoln had become a much-loved martyr, Carpenter refocused his work. The canvas, which now hangs in the Capitol, has but one central character, the president, with a light background that provides a haloed effect. The revised painting is something of a metaphor for the way Abraham Lincoln has eclipsed his contemporaries.

Rather than give us yet another Lincoln biography, Ms. Goodwin has written a hefty book in which Lincoln is clearly the central focus but his supporting cast at last receives its due. The first third of the book tells the stories of Lincoln and three other men who also sought the Republican nomination in 1860: William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase and Edward Bates. Conspicuous among those whom Ms. Goodwin restores to favor is Seward, the senator from New York who was the odds-on favorite to win the Republican nomination. The following year, as secretary of state to the little-known Lincoln, Seward was widely seen as the real power behind the new administration, and for a time came to believe this himself. Lincoln’s skill in dealing with his prickly advisers was never more evident than in his handling of the gifted Seward who, in the author’s words, “Having relinquished his own future ambitions … fought tirelessly to advance the fortunes of his chief.”

At the opposite end of the loyalty spectrum was Lincoln’s secretary of the treasury, Salmon P. Chase. Whereas most members of Lincoln’s cabinet came to respect and admire their chief, Chase considered himself the true standard-bearer of the Republican Party and Lincoln a well-meaning incompetent. He conspired against the president until even Lincoln’s patience was exhausted. After the Emancipation Proclamation had confirmed Lincoln’s own antislavery credentials, the president accepted Chase’s resignation.

One Lincoln associate who receives kind treatment from Ms. Goodwin is his acerbic secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton. Caustic in his dealings with generals and contractors, Stanton also complained of Lincoln’s penchant for pardoning deserters, to the presumed detriment of army discipline. Ms. Goodwin, however, recounts an instance in which a soldier’s mother begs for her son’s life, only to be told by Stanton that her son must die. Stanton’s clerk thought his chief totally unfeeling until he found him moments later “leaning over a desk, his face buried in his hands and his heavy frame shaking with sobs, [crying] ‘God help me to do my duty.’”

The author’s graceful writing and eye for biographical detail compensate for her preoccupation with Lincoln’s eclectic cabinet, which included more than its share of nonentities. Only Seward had an intellect that approached that of the president, and his colleagues included run-of-the-mill politicos like Simon Cameron, Edward Bates and Caleb B. Smith — men who owed their positions to having helped nominate Lincoln or to representing states that were entitled to cabinet representation.

The author’s choice of title is a bit misleading. True, Chase and Seward had sought the presidential nomination that went to Lincoln. However, later acrimony within the Lincoln cabinet derived primarily from policy differences over issues such as emancipation.

Ms. Goodwin’s Mary Lincoln is a more sympathetic figure than the one found in many narratives. The author records the president’s dismay at Mary’s extraordinary expenses on the White House in wartime, and her unsuccessful attempt to hide her purchases in the president’s administrative budget. But Ms. Goodwin also notes the first lady’s regular visits to military hospitals, visits that were carried out so discreetly that they received little publicity.

And what of the central figure, Abraham Lincoln? In Ms. Goodwin’s words, Lincoln “possessed extraordinary empathy — the gift or curse of putting himself in the place of another, to experience what they were feeling.” In conversation, “Instead of the ornate language so familiar to men like Webster, Lincoln used irony and humor, laced with workaday, homespun images to build an eloquent tower of logic.”

Ms. Goodwin says that she began her book believing that Lincoln suffered from chronic depression. She concluded, however, that despite two despondent episodes in his early life, he was never immobilized by depression. “On the contrary,” she writes, “even during the worst days of the war, he retained his ability to function at a very high level.”

Not even Ms. Goodwin can tell us how the president developed his unmatched eloquence. Just before Lincoln’s first inaugural, Seward urged that he include in his address some conciliatory language toward the South, and proposed an insert:

“I close. We are not and must not be aliens or enemies but fellow countrymen and brethren. Although passion has strained our bonds of affection too hardly, they must not, I am sure they will not, be broken. The mystic chords which proceeding from so many battle fields and so many patriot graves pass through all the hearts and hearths in this broad continent of ours will yet again harmonize in their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angel of the nation.”

Lincoln welcomed Seward’s suggestion, but thought the language could do with some work. He closed his address with: “I am [loath] to close. We are not enemies but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” Small wonder that Seward was soon writing his wife, “The President is the best of us.”

John M. Taylor is the author of numerous books including “William Henry Seward: Lincoln’s Right Hand.”

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