Last year I read David McCullough’s John Adams and when he and Abigail died at the end I found myself sobbing like I’d lost personal friends. It wasn’t like I didn’t know how that turned out, but I sobbed anyway. This year I read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, and I noticed myself slowing down a hundred pages from the end because by then I was in love with Abe and I wasn’t in any hurry to get to Ford’s Theater.
Team of Rivals is the story of Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet secretaries, which includes nearly everyone who ran against him. Some of them aren’t over it, and
Joseph Medill of the Chicago Tribune asked Lincoln why he had chosen a cabinet comprised of enemies and opponents. He particularly questioned the president’s selection of the three men who had been his chief rivals for the Republican nomination, each of whom was still smarting from the loss.
Lincoln’s answer was simple, straightforward, and shrewd. “We need the strongest men of the party in the Cabinet. We needed to hold our own people together. 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.”
So he makes Seward Secretary of State, and Seward goes into office thinking Lincoln’s an unsophisticated hick and Seward will be running things. Lincoln makes Chase Secretary of the Treasury, even though he knows full well Chase is working from the getgo to unseat Lincoln in the next election, and is even hiring people at the Treasury who are working full time on his campaign. He makes Blair Postmaster General when half of the time the choleric Blair won’t even speak to half of his fellow cabinet members, and he hired Stanton for Secretary of War in spite of Stanton’s early and open contempt for him as a man, as a lawyer, and as president.
Goodwin is a wonderful writer, able to interpolate extensive quotations from primary sources and still make all the characters live and breathe. Of course, she couldn’t have chosen a better subject than Honest Abe, or for that matter a better writer. One of my favorite parts of this book is when Seward writes Lincoln’s first inaugural address, and then Lincoln rewrites it, and you can see for yourself right there on the page how much better Lincoln’s version is, both politically and poetically.
Impossible, when you have finished this book, not to wonder what our history would have been like if Lincoln had survived his second term.
Impossible not to mourn his loss, even a hundred and fifty years later.
Author and founder of Storyknife.org.