Team of Rivals

June 30, 2008

I don’t know why I’m drawn to read biographies. The books tend to be large and I chug through them very slowly, sometimes reading no more than a page or two in a day. Contrast this with a novel, always shorter, and always a quicker read. But no novel ever contains characters as spellbinding as those found in actual life. In the last 10 years I have plowed through the lives of great scientists (Feynmann, Bohr, Heisenberg, Pais) and leaders (Washington, Franklin, Lewis & Clark, Hamilton & Burr, Gandhi), and more biographies are sitting on my shelves unread.

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s study of Abraham Lincoln and his political rivals/allies, Team of Rivals, is another “giant” biography in every sense. 750 pages (not counting notes) about someone who was (I was eventually persuaded) was probably the greatest figure in U.S. history: Abraham Lincoln. We all know, or should know, from grade school about his legendary honesty (walking miles to return a borrowed book). Most of us know, or should know, about his love of stories and jokes. However, I had never appreciated his amazing generosity of spirit. He willingly accepted slurs on his appearance, intelligence, and reputation in order to advance his cause. Likewise, he willingly accepted personal blame for the wrongful or stupid actions of others. And, his famous speeches about the need to extend “charity” towards our enemies were reflections of his own deeply held beliefs and actions.

At the same time, this hugely intelligent, perceptive, honest, and generous figure, was a clever politician and capable leader. Throughout his presidency, other men, even his ‘rivals’ in the cabinet, would try to assert powers that, by law and custom, were Lincoln’s alone. Lincoln seemed to possess an intuitive grasp of wu wei (Taoism’s concept of doing through non-action) and he was frequently able to accomplish difficult ends by employing the least of means. At the same time, when his direct involvement was required or his prerogatives as President were being usurped, Lincoln would emphatically insist on his constitutional rights and make the final decisions himself. The simple and direct way in which he could establish his role would leave no doubt as to who was in charge.

One of the things that make biographies of great leaders so interesting is the way these leaders draw events towards themselves. We can expect to find in their lives reflections of nearly every aspect of the world they lived in. Goodwin emphasizes this aspect by providing detailed descriptions of the lives of Lincoln’s rivals: Seward, Chase, Stanton, and Bates. However, there were many other aspects of mid-19th century life that I found intriguing: the prominent role of the telegraph in providing information about elections and battles, (not quite enough about) the role of railroads in moving troops and supplies, the huge toll that disease and epidemics took on nearly every family, the proximity of Washington D.C. to key battle scenes and Lincoln’s frequent visits to soldiers in the field and the medical treatment of wounded soldiers in the capital.

At the same time, the book left me with many questions (this might be a good thing because I can’t imagine making the book any longer). There is very little about the Civil War beyond what is happening in the immediate vicinity of Washington DC. To my surprise, Lincoln’s eldest son spends most of the war as a college student. We learn little about this son (which is surprising since we learn so much about the other two boys) and I wonder why he and Lincoln were not closer.

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