Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

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Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A biography of President Lincoln and his 'rivals', the three men who challenged him for the 1860 Republican nomination and worked with him in government.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 928 Date: February 2009
Publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 978-0141043722

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This hefty tome, the cover tells us, is 'the book that inspired Barack Obama'. For what it's worth, Obama's name appears no less than nine times on the cover and spine, while Lincoln's appears only six, and that of the author a mere two.

Having got that out of the way, this is probably as full an account of American politics during the American Civil War and the years which led up to it as you will find anywhere. The story opens at 18 May 1860, the day when the Republican Party nominated its candidate for president. We then step back in time to the early lives of Lincoln and his 'rivals', namely New York senator William Seward, Ohio senator Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates, all 'members of a restless generation'. The three latter were born into more comfortable circumstances and all had a better education than Lincoln, and the formative years and experiences of all are followed. Hardly anybody, it seems, expected Lincoln, the 'prairie lawyer' and one-term congressman, to punch his way above the rest, least of all the press, who dismissed him as 'a fourth-rate lecturer, who cannot speak good grammar'. Good fortune played its part, as did the dedicated support of people who knew that appearances did not count for everything.

The Civil War is only mentioned briefly, and then merely in political context through the eyes of Lincoln and his team. He made Seward his secretary of state, Chase his supreme justice of the Supreme Court, and Bates his attorney-general. Much is also made of his dealing with the secretaries of war Simon Cameron and Edwin Stanton, and his secretary of the navy Gideon Welles. All these men, it appears, had considered themselves Lincoln's intellectual superiors, but he proved not only a passionate opponent of slavery but also a shrewd political operator, to overcome their reservations and mould them into a formidable governmental team. Appointing his fiercest rivals to key cabinet positions proved a wise move. The final weeks, and the horrific news of Lincoln's assassination in April 1865, are dealt with movingly in personal as well as political terms, and a brief epilogue on the presidency of his successor, Andrew Johnson, finishes the story neatly. The book is illustrated with two sections of plates and several maps.

This volume is in fact several biographies within one. On a personal level, I will admit to having required something of a crash course in US history of the time in order to understand the picture better. I can't help feeling whether a rather more concise volume that concentrated less on the details of the rivals, and focused more on Lincoln himself, might have had greater appeal. Still, six literary prizes, endorsements from Jeremy Paxman and Robert Harris, and sales to date of over one million, surely answer that one sufficiently. For the dedicated? Perhaps, but not exclusively.

Our thanks to Penguin for sending a copy to Bookbag.

For more on American history, you might also like to try The American Future: A History by Simon Schama, or the same with a strong biographical element, Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years by David Talbot.

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Buy Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin at


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