catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 48, Num 2 :: 2008.12.15 — 2009.03.15


Team of Rivals

It has been well said that education in the truest sense requires that the student confront models of character, genius, and moral courage—qualities which can kindle his or her imagination and shape the student’s mind and heart and soul. Without such models—so goes the argument—the student has nothing to which to aspire except his own limited experience and resources. A biography of the caliber of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s new study of Lincoln could serve as a basis for a study of, say, some weeks in a history course, or an after-school book club, or, perhaps, a special project for students perceptive enough to know the limitations of the electronic distractions so readily available. A careful study of this book will give such a student a great advantage in his comprehension of American history, the inescapable moral consequences of such evils as slavery, complexities of human nature and the motives which prompt people’s actions, the art of leadership, the gift of listening and understanding how others approach a given situation, the enormous power of the gift of rhetoric, the indispensable role of faith, and the spirit of magnanimity, which brings out the best  even in one’s inveterate opponents and turns them into  allies.

Who were the rivals of the title? They were William Henry Seward, Salmon Portland Chase, and Edward Bates. Each one enjoyed the privilege of birth and education and had distinguished himself in a variety of settings. And now, in 1860, each one was poised to reap the fruits of reputation and achievement; each one was assured by his supporters that he would win the nomination of the Republican Party and go on to win the presidency. Each one made extensive preparations for celebrating that victory as the news of his success would make its way to him from Chicago. No one took the fourth candidate seriously—a person of low birth, of very little formal education, a self-taught backwoodsman, a circuit-riding country lawyer with a reputation for folksy humor and story-telling. True, Lincoln had made himself known in places like Brooklyn where he had spoken—with rhetorical effectiveness—about slavery and other matters. And a few were aware of his careful planning and the loyalty of many friends. Still, what chance had he when pitted against the cosmopolitan, sophisticated experienced men who were aspiring to the highest office of the United States? Seward was so confident, in fact, that he took an extended tour of Europe in the final months before the convention.

Goodwin divides her book into two parts. Part I—the first eleven chapters—focuses on that political convention in Chicago in 1860. She gives us extensive introductions to each of the players and explains why each one, on the basis of the constituencies he had aligned and the positions he had taken, could confidently expect to win the contest. After providing some flashback into key events and developments in the previous decade, she takes us to the convention hall, in her chapter “Showdown in Chicago,” where the balloting was to be played out.

Goodwin describes in abundant detail what went wrong for the three contenders. New alliances came into play, compromises were reached, old hostilities were aired, “safe” states became negotiable, loyalties shifted, positions on issues changed. After the second ballot, the race had narrowed to Lincoln and Seward. After the third ballot, Lincoln was shy only l.5 votes of victory. Ohio switched four votes from Chase to Lincoln—and the die was cast. A unanimous vote followed. The three rivals were shocked, humiliated, irritated. Seward was devastated, Bates more philosophical. The fireworks prepared for the celebrations went unlit, the refreshments went uneaten, the prepared speeches were not delivered as the news was delivered to each of them by horse and telegraph. 

Goodwin’s book is about Lincoln, but we learn about him through his team of rivals. The book reminds one of a four-part musical staff—in some ways, in fact, like a symphony, as the relationships among these four people swirled and eddied in response to the grave issues facing the nation. For Lincoln astonished everyone by appointing each of his defeated rivals to his cabinet. He knew the risks—the risks that any of his appointees could sabotage his agenda, could destroy him through spreading gossip, through disloyalty, through taking credit for achievements not their own, through a continuance of their personal ambitions. Chase, in fact, worked behind the president’s back to unseat him in the 1864 election and thwarted him many times. A lesser person would have dismissed Chase very early. Lincoln, however, proceeded on the assumption that these well-reputed men were among the most qualified and that, therefore, the nation deserved to have their services. Finally, in the case of Chase, Lincoln had no choice but to accept the last of his many offers to resign. But even now he did not abandon this rival. He now made him Chief Justice of the Supreme Court!

With great skill Goodwin narrates the tumultuous events of Lincoln’s all-too brief presidency—one full term and a year of his second. The day of reckoning for the slavery issue had finally become due. Hardly a village, or family in both the North and the South, remained unaffected by the issue of slavery and the war which finally settled the matter. In his Second Inaugural Address Lincoln spoke these very searing words—“terrible words” someone has called them: “Fondly do we hope, fervently, do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled up by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ’The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” (What comes next, of course, is the phrase “With malice towards none….”) All the contention centering on slavery, the seemingly interminable war, the incompetent generals, the devastating defeats on the battlefield, the infighting in his administration, his domestic problems, tragic deaths in the family, threats from abroad ¾ these  all wound up on the president’s shoulders. 

Goodwin entitles Part II of her book “Master Among Men.” Through compelling narrative she demonstrates how each of the three rivals, though initially embittered and not above rancor, eventually came to acknowledge Lincoln’s superiority. Even Chase, though less than loyal, paid tribute to Lincoln’s undeniable gifts, especially his sense of fairness and patience. Goodwin goes on to explore, with great narrative skill, other expressions of Lincoln’s spirit of magnanimity. For example, he would often take on himself the blame for some failure that was really attributable to others. When he had before him a pile of warrants for the execution of army deserters, he would strain to find some way to pardon them. His oratory appealed to people’s “better angels” and called for compassion. He was not vindictive. With all his rhetorical fervor he pleaded for generosity rather than punishment towards the fallen South. When he visited the troops   which he did at least a dozen times   they would robustly demonstrate their loyalty and respect. The secret of his sterling virtues was his ability to place himself inside the mind of another and try to see how the world looked to that person. Through this art he developed a superb sense of timing. He held off issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, for example, until the mood of the country was right   and until the Union had achieved a notable victory. 

Team of Rivals, make us all walk taller to be living in a nation which produced a man of such stature   acknowledged by nations all over the world to be, indeed, “A Master of Men.” History would have been different but for the mind of a deranged assassin. One needs a stern make-up to reach the end of the book without a tearful eye.  

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