Guest Columns

TEEGARDEN: POLITICAL GENIUS OF ABE LINCOLN WORTH STUDYING

Team of Rivals doesn’t apply to just Lincoln

Doris Kearns Goodwin published Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, in 2005. I knew I couldn’t go wrong, with one of my favorite historians writing about my favorite President.

But with Team of Rivals, Dr. Goodwin rose even further on my “heroes” list because of her ability to bring Abraham Lincoln to life from an entirely new perspective.

In case you have not read Rivals, I’ll try to briefly explain what was unique about Goodwin’s lengthy (more than 900 pages) but very readable book.

The statement has been made, and often repeated, that more words have been written about Abraham Lincoln than any other individual in human history except Jesus Christ. I have neither the time nor the inclination to research the accuracy of that assertion, but I do know this: I’ve read more words about Abraham Lincoln than I have about any other person in history, and Dr. Goodwin’s book is one of a select few which I consider the very best of a most impressive list.


The only downside to Team of Rivals is that the title is so catchy that it is regularly mis-applied as a comparison to present day situations, particularly in campaign circles. When President-elect Obama chose his most significant primary opponent, Hillary Clinton, as his Secretary of State, it was a gracious and politically astute olive branch for party unity. But it’s safe to say that, had Hilary Clinton behaved even half as poorly as William H. Seward did with Lincoln, she would be on the outside looking in today.

Likewise, with the multitude of Denver’s initial mayoral candidates now endorsing the two remaining candidates, at least one of the two remaining contenders has used Team of Rivals as a comparison to his own campaign. But be careful with this analogy, because Lincoln’s genius was in “who openly despised” one another and, in one case, actively campaigned to replace Lincoln while serving as a Cabinet member (Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase).

Just to be clear — this column is not a critique of either Denver mayoral candidate (I consider them both personal friends), nor of President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton, who are doing better than anyone expected at “playing nice” together.

But there is nothing unique about a successful candidate for an executive branch elective office reaching out to a group of competitors for assistance, nor for assembling a team that doesn’t necessarily get along with one another.

Those two precedents in U.S. history were established at the outset, when President George Washington chose Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton for his cabinet. The bitter enmity between Jefferson and Hamilton is the stuff of legend in American history, and Jefferson was also continually at odds with both Washington and his Vice President, John Adams. I suppose this is what we might call “creative tension.”

But to truly appreciate the challenges Lincoln faced, as illustrated in Goodwin’s Rivals, it’s worth knowing a bit more about the “Team” members.

Three of his cabinet choices, Secretary of State Seward, Secretary of the Treasury Chase, and U.S. Attorney General Edward Bates, had indeed been legitimate candidates for the 1860 Republican Presidential nomination that Lincoln won. In fact, Seward was the odds-on favorite to simply walk away with that nomination before Lincoln’s campaign operatives worked their “magic” at the Republican Convention in Chicago.

That alone, picking not just one, but three, high profile competitors for the cabinet, is significant in its own right. But to get a more complete picture, consider a couple of other “Team” members Lincoln chose as well.

Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War. Stanton was actually Lincoln’s second Secretary of War, when his first, the incompetent and likely corrupt Simon Cameron proved to be in over his head. Without going into detail, Lincoln’s willingness to bring Stanton into his inner circle and to eventually become his personal friend as well is nothing short of remarkable. As Goodwin relates in some detail, during a complex railroad litigation matter several years earlier, Stanton had professionally and personally insulted and belittled Lincoln in front of his colleagues, clients and peers. Yet Lincoln’s apparently bottomless reservoir of personal equanimity and devotion to his civic duty trumped a level of insult which, for others of that era, might very well have led to a duel. With the benefit of hindsight, Stanton’s administrative genius and considerable strength of will as Secretary of War made him possibly the third most critical person to the Union victory after Lincoln himself and Ulysses S. Grant.

Montgomery Blair, Secretary of the U.S. Postal Service. Blair was one member of a very powerful conservative Republican family in Maryland, whose clan leader was Frances P. Blair, Sr., one of Andrew Jackson’s closest confidants, and a Washington, D.C., power broker ever since Jackson’s own presidency. Montgomery was one of the unsuccessful lead attorneys representing Dred Scott before the U.S. Supreme Court. For those of us who admire Abraham Lincoln so much, we must hold our breath to overlook Blair’s conservative racist views about African Americans (his anti-slavery position was most definitely not based on an admiration for the race which had been enslaved!). Instead, Blair’s significant positive attributes were his consistent loyalty to Lincoln and his willingness to use his own personal and political capitol to thwart his own political archenemy, Secretary Chase, when the latter would attempt to undermine Lincoln.

To be sure, Lincoln’s cabinet was comprised of men loyal to the Union. But only through complete sublimation of his own ego and pride, and through intellectual superiority and unswerving commitment to the “greater good,” was Abraham Lincoln able to mold this factious crew into a cabinet that helped him accomplish unparalleled greatness for a himself and a nation.

Tough shoes to fill, so aspirants beware!

Patrick Teegarden’s series on the Civil War run weekly in The Colorado Statesman during the sesquicentennial celebration.