Easy Chair — From the February 2013 issue
There have been an estimated 16,000 books written about Abraham Lincoln; like the lives of the wealthy and the secrets of self-improvement, a fascination with the Great Emancipator is an unchanging feature of American literary taste. Few of these volumes, however, have had the extraordinary resilience of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. In 2005, when the book first appeared, it was the subject of “vast critical acclaim” and remained on the New York Times bestseller list for some twenty-seven weeks, according to the press release that accompanied my copy. Three years later, a junior senator from Illinois named Barack Obama anointed Team of Rivals one of his favorite books, once again pushing it into the glare of public adulation. And last year, when Steven Spielberg transformed it into his movie Lincoln, the book climbed the charts for a third time. (Should the film win an Oscar later this month, the vastness of Goodwin’s critical acclaim will no doubt get yet another boost.)
Despite having triggered these sequential booms in Lincolniana, Team of Rivals is uninspiring to the point of boredom. It is not only a retelling of the most familiar story in American history but also a fairly dreary one. Goodwin’s account doesn’t provoke or startle with insight. Most of what she tells us has been told us before — many, many times. Indeed, the theme song from Ken Burns’s The Civil War played involuntarily in my head as I read, again, about the election of 1860, the Peninsula Campaign, the maneuvering in Washington over emancipation.
Goodwin’s hypothesis, if she can be said to have one, is that the successes of the Lincoln Administration were not a one-man accomplishment. No, the president had help, and he knew how to motivate people. It was Lincoln plus Secretary of State William Seward; Lincoln plus Attorney General Edward Bates; Lincoln plus Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase (you know, the man on the $10,000 bill). Do you get it, reader? The Civil War was a team effort, in which men who didn’t really like each other — political rivals, even — held important government jobs.
One cavil you might raise is that this isn’t much of a revelation, since big wars are generally fought by national unity governments. Nor is the “team of rivals” concept an innovation of the early 1860s, though Goodwin assures us it is. As the historian James Oakes pointed out in 2008, administrations incorporating the president’s adversaries were standard stuff in the early nineteenth century. They have been fairly common in our own time as well. During the Great Depression, for example, Franklin Roosevelt hired prominent men from the opposition to fill cabinet posts, and almost every subsequent president has followed suit.
It was, in other words, an unremarkable arrangement, documented here in an unremarkable book, all of it together about as startling as a Hallmark card. How did such a commonplace slice of history come to define our era?
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