Fascinating

This is my review of Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

I was sorry to finish this engrossing study of the self-educated "prairie lawyer" who, despite a poverty-stricken childhood and youth spent in manual labour, which saddled him with the nickname "the rail-splitter" in later life, managed not only to win the 1860 presidency against much more experienced and illustrious rivals, but to persuade them to work in his cabinet.

The author may view Lincoln through somewhat rose-tinted spectacles – his homely anecdotes for every occasion must have been irritating at times, his tardiness in sacking the preposterous waste of space, General McClellan must have cost many lives and considerable resources, and his inducement of northern Democrats to "swing the vote" in favour of the emancipation of slaves amounted to bribery -even if for a noble cause.

Yet, this seems like nitpicking against the tide of evidence for Lincoln's greatness. He combined unusual integrity, courage, resilience, patience, and a lack of personal vanity and pettiness which made him "above" displays of malice, or the bearing of grudges. In addition to a gift for clear and simple communication, aided by a sharp wit, he applied logic and pragmatism to every situation before making a decision, and all these factors combined to give a distinctive management style which must have been unusual for his day – quite laid-back, egalitarian, consultative and delegating, avoiding a blame culture – although he saw it as his duty ultimately to make the crucial decisions himself.

His rivals are also developed as complex characters – such as the urbane, sociable Seward who was so complacent about winning the presidency that he went off on a long holiday in Europe instead of campaigning, or the pompous Salmon Chase – who disliked his fishy name, but at least wasn't called "Philander" like his sadistic uncle – who obsessively machinated to get elected in '64, unable to appreciate his lack of popularity, yet had a genuine concern to abolish slavery, and was one of the first to welcome the former slave Douglass into his home.

The book really "took off" for me in the chapters on the origin and progress of the Civil War. Although triggered by the issue of slavery – which the southern states wished to retain, and extend to the developing western regions, the ostensible reason was to maintain the unity of the young Republic, which had to prove to the world the value and viability of "true" democracy.

Although the repetition of some details helps the reader to keep track, this would be unnecessary if Goodwin had undertaken a final editing to make the text more concise and streamlined. A list of key characters, time-line of main events, and clearer maps placed at the front for easy reference would have helped. However, these defects apply to most serious history books and biographies, and overall I recommend this as very informative and more gripping than many historical novels.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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