Nice guys don’t always come last: Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals

 Since its publication Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography of Lincoln has rightly become regarded as a modern classic. It is an exquisitely written account of Lincoln’s life from his birth in poverty in Kentucky, through a period in child slavery (by the modern definition of that human rights abuse), to self education and success as a lawyer, politician and President during the worst constitutional crisis in US history, to his death in the Petersen boarding house in Washington DC.

Tolstoy described Lincoln as a “humanitarian as broad as the world” and Kearns Goodwin’s approach to demonstrating the truth of this judgement is to focus on the relationships between Lincoln and his cabinet ministers, particularly Seward, his Secretary of State, Stanton his Secretary of War, Chase his Treasury Secretary, and to a lesser extent Welles his Navy Secretary, Bates his Attorney General and Blair his Postmaster General. Seward, Chase, and Bates were Lincoln’s principle rivals for the Republican nomination in 1860 and it was unprecedented for a President to bring such rivals into his “political family” as Lincoln did. But, such was the crisis that the nation was facing with the threat of secession from the slave states in response to the election of even a “moderate” anti-slavery candidate such as Lincoln, Lincoln felt that he had to have the most capable men for his cabinet. That some of them, particularly Chase, felt that Lincoln was an unworthy candidate and unqualified to be President added to the challenge that Lincoln faced.

Lincoln’s genius as a visionary, writer and speaker are well understood and well demonstrated in this biography. The book details his evolving thinking on the issue of slavery from a “moderate” anti-slavery position to an increasingly radical one as a result of contact with the anti-slavery struggle itself and with the likes of Fredrick Douglass and the ordinary black soldiers who were risking their lives to defend the Union: “There have been men base enough to propose to me to return to slavery the black warriors of Port Hudson and Olustee, and thus win the respect of the masters they fought. Should I do so, I should deserve to be damned in time and eternity”, he said at one stage.

In addition Kearns Goodwin book illustrates Lincoln’s managerial genius, arguing convincingly that it emerged from his enormous decency and magnanimity, and that it was fundamental in ensuring that such a disparate group as his cabinet acted together in the national interest in time of an unprecedented national crisis.

Lincoln’s lovely gift of humour and intense like-ability shine through the biography and consequently the devastating tragedy of his assassination still resonates down the centuries. This book is a fitting tribute to the greatest figure of the 19th century and one of the greatest figures of all world history.

6 thoughts on “Nice guys don’t always come last: Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals

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