Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

Kearns Goodwin, Doris

Simon & Schuster, 2005

pp. xv - xvii

When Abraham Lincoln assembled his cabinet he made an unprecedented move. He named his three rivals for the Republican presidential nomination to sit in his cabinet—New York senator William H. Seward to be secretary of state, Ohio governor Salmon P. Chase to be secretary of the treasury, and Missouri’s “distinguished elder statesman” Edward Bates attorney general. He then named three Democrats to the remaining cabinet posts. “Every member of this administration was better known, better educated, and more experienced in public life than Lincoln.” Would they eclipse him? No. He emerged as their indisputable leader, an unmatched leader, through a remarkable array of personal traits and talents. He knew how to “repair injured feelings,” “to assume responsibility for the failures of subordinates; to share credit with ease; and to learn from mistakes.” He also understood presidential power down to its root and he possessed “a masterful sense of timing.” “His success in dealing with the strong egos of the men in his cabinet suggests that in the hands of a truly great politician the qualities we generally associate with decency—kindness, sensitivity, compassion, honesty—can also be impressive political resources.

Lincoln was very likely not clinically depressed (“there is no evidence he was ever immobilized by depression”) but he was definitely of a melancholic temperament, which “has been recognized by artists and writers for centuries as a potential source of creativity and achievement.”

p. xvii

Lincoln’s greatness as a leader partly consisted in his knowledge of ways to reduce sadness and stress—not only in himself, but also in others.  “Time and again, he was the one who dispelled his colleagues’ anxiety and sustained their spirits with his gift for storytelling and his life-affirming sense of humor.  When resentment and contention threatened to destroy his administration, he refused to be provoked by petty grievances, to submit to jealousy, or to brood over perceived slights.”

pp. 747-48

Ulysses S. Grant called Lincoln “incontestably the greatest man I ever knew.”  Walt Whitman regarded Lincoln “the grandest figure yet on all the crowded canvas of the Nineteenth Century.”  But the most impressive account of Lincoln’s fame came from Russia’s Leo Tolstoy who, in 1908, was the guest of a tribal chief who lived far from civilization in a remote part of the North Caucasas.  The chief had gathered family and friends to meet Russia’s most important writer, and he wanted Tolstoy to tell stories of the greatest men in history.  So Tolstoy told stories of Alexander the Great, of Julius Caesar, of Frederick the Great, and of Napoleon.  When he was finishing, the chief said, “But you have not told us a syllable about the greatest ruler of the world.  He was a hero.  He spoke with a voice of thunder; he laughed like the sunrise and his deeds were strong as rock. . . . His name was Lincoln and the country in which he lived is called America . . . .”  Tolstoy reports that that the chief and all the others in the group had faces that were glowing and eyes that were burning.”  Tolstoy later mused that it was Lincoln’s moral power that made him legendary, it was his character.  “Washington was a typical American, Napoleon was a typical Frenchman, but Lincoln was a humanitarian as broad as the world.” His letters and speeches, especially his Second Inaurural Address, established that he was also a poet.