Book Review: “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Goodwin is America’s most famous historian, a Pulitzer Prize winner, who likes to write about Presidents and their families. Originally published in 2005, I hadn’t read it until this year, not least because of it’s weighty 750 pages!

ToR achieved mainstream fame in 2008 when Barak Obama reported reading it (a US President who reads books? Is that conceivable?), and further when he followed the model of Abraham Lincoln by embracing his principle rival, Hillary Clinton, into his cabinet.

The book also “inspired” a Hollywood movie, though I can’t say the movie is closely related to most of the book.

The book itself reflects Goodwin’s trademark style, focusing on the personal and professional relationships between Abraham Lincoln and his chief rivals for the Republican nomination of 1860. In this momentous year, the country shattered into civil war, triggered by Lincoln’s election. The stage is monumental, the cast of characters is larger than life—and it all really happened.

The “Team of Rivals” of the title is Lincoln’s cabinet, which he staffed with his electoral rivals, plus several other strong personalities.  Far from reflecting Lincoln’s own views, he pulled together a group with substantially conflicting views, They were not only rivals of the President, they were tussling with catch other–constantly.

Old Abe managed to work with all of them and get them to work together under his leadership. This is “the political genius” of Lincoln.

Through the book, Goodwin follows Lincoln from early life, early failures, through the election of 1860, and his administration, until his death. This story is familiar, and has been the subject of many, many books. Goodwin’s angle is to document Lincoln’s relationships with his cabinet members, as well as a number of important women in their circle.

Even though I know quite a little about the history of this time, I learned yet more about these important, but lesser known, individuals; and about Lincoln’s own leadership. Everything I have learned about Abraham Lincoln convinces me that he was a totally remarkable person, so many sigmas off the norm that we can’t even measure it. He’s clearly the most interesting and important US President, ever. Period.

We are also reminded that, no matter how brilliant Lincoln was, or how pivotal his contribution, he was operating is a messy and complex political, economic, and military situation. Both the North and the South were messy, partly democratic systems, with many players and a whole lot of incompetence and self-serving. Part of Abe’s genius was to pull the strings and levers of this machinery, and to select and work with effective people. In that, he beat his Southern counterparts hands down.

No one could be expected cover this giant field completely, and Goodwin is shallow and sketchy in many areas (e.g., she barely touches on the international dimensions of the war, or on the role of recent immigrants in the war, or the role of religion on both sides).  Her contribution is a fascinating and well researched examination of the larger than life personalities in Lincoln’s administration and circle.

And if this book inspired Mr. Obama to select Mrs. Clinton as Secretary of State, it may have helped one of the greatest success stories of his Presidencies.  Whatever else you want to say about the Obama administration, “Secretary Clinton” worked well for both of them.  And Goodwin did that?  Match that, all you other historians?


 

  1. Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2005.

 

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