Lincoln Redux

 

Doris Kearns Goodwin plays new light on the most scrutinized president

By Sally Baker
Photography by Bettmann/Corbis
 

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Abraham Lincoln reading the Emancipation Proclamation before his cabinet.
Illustration by Bettmann/Corbis
If the examined life is the only one worth living, Abraham Lincoln's life was worth a lot. He is by far the most written-about of United States presidents, and it seems impossible that anyone could bring a fresh perspective"much less new material"to Lincoln scholarship. Yet Doris Kearns Goodwin '64 has done both with Team of Rivals (Simon & Schuster, 2005) the winner of the prestigious Lincoln Prize in 2006.

The book looks at Lincoln through a unique prism: the biographies of his various political foils. These include the three chief competitors for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860"William Henry Seward of New York, Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, and Edward Bates of Missouri"as well as, most prominently, Edwin Stanton, a nationally renowned litigator who scorned Lincoln at their first meeting and went on to virtually give his life for the president. With the exception of Chase, whose ambition to be president caused him to betray Lincoln time and again, the men became Lincoln's closest advisors, fiercest defenders, and most treasured friends.

The Republican Party was almost brand new in 1860, when its leaders gathered in Chicago to nominate a presidential candidate. Seward's strength seemed unassailable. He was the most prominent politician in New York, then the most populous state in the Union. His positions on the hottest issues, including whether slavery ought to be extended into new states and territories, were moderate enough not to alienate the majority of voters.

Bates and Chase, too, had national reputations far outstripping Lincoln's. He was a circuit lawyer, former one-term congressman, and failed senatorial candidate from Illinois, a "western" state that seemed as rawboned to easterners as Lincoln himself. But as Goodwin shows, the manifestly ambitious Lincoln defied expectations. Respectful and admiring of his opponents, Lincoln refused to overestimate them at his own expense. While the others disdained campaigning, Lincoln accepted invitations to speak in a number of states where he was unknown, and his knack for plain and simple communication"his anecdotes ran more toward farming and railroading than quotations from ancient Greek statesmen"made him a favorite with voters. He quietly worked to see to it that the convention would take place in Chicago, in his home state. He managed his own campaign. And, most importantly of all, Goodwin says, he made no enemies, where Seward, Bates, and especially Chase left their campaign trails strewn with those they had offended (in two presidential campaigns, Chase twice failed to carry Ohio, his home state).

So it was that, after losing the nomination and considering it the bitterest moment of his life, Seward could go on to campaign wholeheartedly for Lincoln in 1860 and again in 1864, as well as to be Lincoln's secretary of state. Lincoln named Bates attorney general, Chase secretary of the treasury, and Stanton secretary of war. According to Goodwin, each came into the administration believing that Lincoln was a hayseed who could be easily manipulated, and each soon developed intense appreciation for Lincoln's astuteness. He listened to advice, took blame when it was due him (and sometimes when it was not), apologized when he was wrong, capitalized on and reveled in the talents of others, and settled the petty acrimonies among cabinet members with tact, but he made it clear that he and he alone was president. Bates described him as "very near being a perfect man."

Goodwin illuminates Lincoln's genius for leadership by showing that men like Stanton and Bates continued to work for him despite its effect on their health. Stanton, who suffered horribly from asthma and died in his 50s, told friends that his life was not as important as the work he did to bring the Civil War to an end and serve the president's cause. Seward was marked for assassination by a confederate of John Wilkes Booth, and both he and his son Frederick nearly died the night Lincoln was killed at Ford's Theater.

Unfortunately Goodwin never addresses the fact that Lincoln, to this day, remains elusive on the matter of race. But perhaps that too is part of his political genius. Publicly, he dealt with the issue of slavery only insofar as it threatened the Union. He once said that if he could preserve the Union without freeing a single slave, he would do it; and he sold the Emancipation Proclamation to doubters not as the right thing to do but as the right thing to do to defeat the Confederacy (by relieving southern soldiers of slave labor both in their camps and at their homes, Lincoln said, he could reduce the manpower strength of the entire Confederate cause). Goodwin writes that Lincoln knew "the North would not fight to end slavery, but it would and did fight to preserve the Union. [He] realized that any assault on slavery would have to await a change in public attitudes."

But Goodwin makes a good, if not explicit, case for the idea that Lincoln was such a fundamentally moral man that he would have found the right time and the right way to declare slavery reprehensible without reference to the Union. His premature death leaves this an open question.
 
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