Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln
Publisher: Penguin
Published: 2/12/2009
When Barack Obama was asked which book he could not live without in the White House, his answer was instant: Team of Rivals. This monumental and brilliant work has given Obama the model for his presidency, showing how Abraham Lincoln saved America by appointing his fiercest rival to key cabinet positions. As well as a thrilling piece of narrative history, it's an inspiring study of one of the greatest leaders the world has ever seen.

Book Summary - Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Key Insights

The Republican Party was born in the Spring of 1860.  Four men vied for the Presidential nomination of this new political entity. After winning the Republican nomination and then the election to become the 16th President of the United States, Lincoln assembled the most remarkable cabinet ever seen. He knew the difficulties ahead and built a powerhouse around him, astonishingly made up of the very three men who ran against him in the primaries. Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin is a 900-page in-depth exploration into the formation and interaction of these adversaries-turned-allies.

Key Points

Meet the Team

The most likely candidate to win the Republican nomination was New York Governor William H. Seward who had the strongest presence and reputation. He was progressive, supporting African-American rights. Ohio Governor Salmon P. Chase was deemed the second-best candidate and was also anti-slavery. Presidential hopeful Edward Bates came from a prominent family in Maryland while wood-chopping Abraham Lincoln was the dark horse. Having left politics after serving just one term in Congress in 1840, Lincoln was not predicted to win against his more practiced opponents, but Lincoln’s genius shined as he outmaneuvered all three.

As he prepared to take office in 1861, Lincoln broke ground by making William Seward Secretary of State, Salmon Chase, Treasury Secretary, and Edward Bates, Attorney General. Seward, initially humiliated by his defeat, stepped up to become one of Lincoln’s closest supporters and confidants. It is said that Lincoln spent more time with Seward in the first year of his term than anyone else, his own family included. Notably, Chase had a difficult assignment with the Treasury Department as he undertook the challenge of financing the Civil War while the government was deeply in debt.

Emancipation Ambitions

The cabinet was divided by Lincoln’s intention to free the slaves. While preserving the Union was Lincoln’s central priority, he agreed that slavery was “amoral, a social and a political wrong.” He also wanted to benefit from the manpower that freed slaves would bring to the war effort. As both a moral and “military necessity,” Lincoln asserted emancipation as both an objective and a solution.

Bates was a stout supporter, believing it would shorten the war. Seward worried that it would lead to further anarchy in the South, but his loyalty to Lincoln prevented him from publicly criticizing the proclamation. Chase, who had been the strongest opponent of slavery, recommended an approach that was more gradual. In the book, Goodwin suggests this was probably because he still held his own presidential ambitions and felt this could be more of a liability than a help to his agenda.

When the Emancipation Proclamation was made official, it led to the formation of a regiment of 180,000 black soldiers.

The Cabinet Under Attack

The mortifying defeat in Fredericksburg had antislavery Republican Congressmen up in arms, wanting change. Knowing they couldn’t attack the President, they put their sights on Seward, incorrectly believing he was the one actually driving the war. To this end, a “Committee of Nine” was formed to assert a no-confidence vote against Seward. Chase was publicly cornered by Lincoln for his role in perpetuating this division, which had likely been driven by his jealousy of Seward’s close relationship with the President. The senators abruptly ended their pursuit when they recognized Chase’s duplicity. Dishonored, Chase submitted a resignation, but Lincoln refused to accept it, knowing he needed both Seward and Chase’s abilities. In fact, Lincoln ultimately rejected three different attempts by Chase to resign. Holding together this cabinet of rivals long enough to win the Civil War has been an unsung achievement of President Lincoln, until Goodwin’s book detailed these struggles behind the war.

Lessons in Leadership

Generously scattered throughout Team of Rivals are examples of skillful leadership. Some of the admirable qualities that Lincoln displayed include:


  • Compassion- Lincoln’s ability to overlook offenses is witnessed on multiple occasions, from his refusal to accept Chase’s resignations despite his treachery to his longsuffering patience with rebellious Generals.
  • Humility- Plans for reinforcements were intercepted by the Confederates leading to the attack and surrender of Fort Sumter. Lincoln assumed full responsibility for this debacle, which is just one example of his willingness to admit fault. His magnanimous nature was a well-known characteristic, respected and appreciated by those who worked under the President.
  • Prudence- No decision or public stance was made until Lincoln was certain the approach was correct. He has often been criticized for being slow to get on the bandwagon against slavery, however, once he made up his mind, Lincoln was staunch in his determination, which was a cornerstone of his success.
  • Coping Skills- The weight of such a bloody, costly, and lengthy war that hurt the United States on all sides was perhaps one of the greatest weights any U.S. President has had to bear. Added to that was the tragic death of his son. Through all this, Lincoln demonstrated healthy ways to deal with trauma including the distraction of the theater and conversations with close confidantes which allowed him to vent and even find humor in the calamities.
  • Open-Mindedness- The very selection of such a group of rivals reveals Lincoln’s understanding that skilled opponents when brought together, can make for good company. He was willing to hear opposing viewpoints and loved debate. The experience of iron sharpening brought on by opposition was welcomed.
  • Commitment- While Lincoln invited discussion and pushback, he also stayed committed to the positions he took. The cabinet he led was dynamic and strong, but Lincoln never led by proxy, and his Team of Rivals knew that it was Lincoln who was ultimately in charge.
  • Empathy- Although strong and dedicated to the war and its cause, Lincoln showed sympathy and sorrow for the suffering of others. His speeches were both bold but also compassionate, causing his constituents to bond with him as they listened to his stories and illustrations.


Finding the Right Generals

It took time for Lincoln to find the right generals to win the war. Initially, General George McClellan was good at organizing the army but consistently overestimated the size of the Confederates, claiming there were twice as many troops as actually existed. This caused him to frequently stall and ask for more troops when he was instructed to attack.

When the North held off Lee at Gettysburg and then took Vicksburg, the Union Army seized control of the Mississippi River. Following this victory, it was with relief and gratitude that Lincoln promoted Ulysses S. Grant to Commanding General. He finally had a man he could trust.

Amendment #13

To fortify the Emancipation Proclamation and communicate the impending end of slavery as well as the war to the South, Lincoln pushed for a Constitutional Amendment. In January 1865, Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment, outlawing slavery and involuntary servitude. At the same time, Lincoln made Chase his new Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, assuring the court would protect African-American rights.

Only Military Victory

Initially, Lincoln hoped peace could be made with the South, but the rise of the concept called “compensated emancipation” (i.e. payment to slaveholders) and its ensuing cabinet dispute caused him to realize that only military victory could bring the war to an end. With the strategy and skill of General Grant and General Sherman simultaneously pressing on the South, Lee soon agreed to surrender in Appomattox, Virginia April 9th at the courthouse.

The Chance Lincoln Never Got

With the victory, Lincoln intended to be generous to the Confederacy. His plans were to reconcile the South, still embracing them as family members of the Union. He gave a passionate speech from the Whitehouse shortly after Lee’s surrender, expressing his desire to heal the nation and see the Southern states quickly return to the Union.

As history records, Lincoln never got that chance. John Wilkes Booth was appalled by Lincoln’s success in freeing the African-Americans as well as the idea of them receiving citizenship, so he hatched plans to kill Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson as well as Secretary of State Sewell.  On April 14, 1865, Booth succeeded in shooting Lincoln at the infamous Washington Theater. Less well known, Lewis Powell, a co-conspirator, entered Seward’s home and stabbed him in the head and neck repeatedly. The metal that had been used to repair Seward’s jaw after a carriage accident a few days before probably saved his life. George Atzerodt, the third conspirator, lost his nerve and didn’t fulfill his planned attack of Johnson.

The Main Takeaway: Lincoln’s Brilliance

Throughout Team of Rivals, Goodwin details the mastermind of Lincoln as he rose to the challenges of overseeing a costly and complicated war while balancing strife at home. Despite tensions within his cabinet, along with the myriad of Union factions surrounding him, Lincoln adeptly held all of these together. In the process, he capitalized on the skills and talents of the best men available until he found the generals who could get the job done and end the Civil War.

About the Author

Doris Kearns Goodwin is a renowned presidential historian, public speaker and Pulitzer Prize-winning, New York Times #1 best-selling author. She earned a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Government from Harvard University, where she went on to become a professor teaching Government as well as a course on the American Presidency.


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