Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin tells the story of the presidential election of 1860 and the four men who were contenders for the office. Abraham Lincoln was the dark horse, the least known among the four candidates. Thus, as he awaited the Republican Party’s decision about their candidate, the usually calm Lincoln, “With an outside chance to secure the Republican nomination for the highest office of the land... was unable to focus on his work.” After several rounds of voting, Lincoln secured the nomination.
The book tells the story leading up to this unlikely win, as well as Lincoln’s treatment of his rivals upon securing the office of president of the United States. In describing Lincoln, Goodwin notes his well-documented depression and writes, “To be sure, Lincoln was a melancholy man.” Even his melancholy served to Lincoln’s advantage, in Goodwin’s view. She writes,
“Lincoln’s early intimacy with tragic loss reinforced a melancholy temperament. Yet his familiarity with pain and personal disappointment imbued him with a strength and understanding of human frailty unavailable to a man of Seward’s buoyant disposition. Moreover, Lincoln, unlike the brooding Chase, possessed a life-affirming humor and a profound resilience that lightened his despair and fortified his will.”
The other candidates were far more seasoned and experienced than Lincoln. Goodwin writes of Lincoln’s mistake in first coming to Washington as a freshman congressman. He introduced a resolution calling on President Polk to inform the House "whether the particular spot of soil on which the blood of our citizens was so shed" belonged to Mexico or to the United States.” According to Goodwin, the newspapers began to use “the derisive nickname “spotty Lincoln.” However, Lincoln eventually proved to be a fast learner.
Goodwin writes that “Neither Seward nor Chase nor Bates seriously considered Lincoln an obstacle to their great ambition.” Nevertheless, there were many similarities among the candidates. They all shared the "can-do" spirit that characterized the American ethos at the time. The author writes that:
“For many ambitious young men in the nineteenth century, politics proved the chosen arena for advancement. Politics attracted Bates in Missouri, Seward in upstate New York, Lincoln in Illinois, and Chase in Ohio.”
Goodwin notes that this ambition:
“propelled thousands of young men to break away from the small towns and limited opportunities their fathers had known. These ambitious youngsters ventured forth to test their luck in new careers as merchants, manufacturers, teachers, and lawyers. In the process, hundreds of new towns and cities were born, and with the rapid expansion of roads, bridges, and canals, a modern market economy emerged.
Bates traveled farthest... Chase made the arduous journey from New Hampshire to Cincinnati, Ohio, a burgeoning city recently carved from a forest rich with wild game. Seward left his family in eastern New York for the growing city of Auburn in the western part of the state. Lincoln traveled from Kentucky to Indiana, and then on to Illinois...”
Moreover, all but one candidate, Seward, experienced personal loss at an early age. "Chase was only eight when he lost his father. Bates was eleven. Both of their lives, like Lincoln’s, were molded by loss,” writes Goodwin. The overwhelming similarity among them was each candidate’s stance against slavery. The anti-slavery views of the four candidates are a major subject of the book.
Goodwin describes each of the four men. Seward was the front runner. Having been elected to the office of governor of New York and also having served for almost twelve years as senator, his reputation extended well beyond his home state of New York. Chase, a widower, was also...
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well-known, although not as much as Seward.
Of the four, Lincoln was the least known, and his career had not been as successful to that point. In fact, he “faced obstacles unimaginable to the other candidates for the Republican nomination,” according to Goodwin. Specifically,
“In sharp contrast to the comfortable lifestyle the Seward family enjoyed, and the secure early childhoods of Chase and Bates before their fathers died, Lincoln’s road to success was longer, more tortuous, and far less likely.”
Yet Goodwin illustrates Lincoln’s powerful ambition to improve himself and succeed with the story of the Reaper Case. When Lincoln was a lawyer, an invitation to assist in an important case was rescinded, and Lincoln turned this into a life lesson. The legal team shut him out, but he nevertheless attended the trial and recognized their greater strategic and oratorical abilities. His determination to improve himself through self-teaching—something that characterized Lincoln throughout his life—led him to study massive numbers of books and improve.
His famous debates with Stephen A. Douglas are discussed in the book as well. Lincoln argued against the “Nebraska Law,” and these debates in 1858 elevated his reputation nationally, although Douglas won the election.
Lincoln’s appeal to voters was that Seward and the deeply religious, almost puritanical Chase had reputations for being more radical than Lincoln. Lincoln also appeared to be more anti-slavery than Bates. Thus, Lincoln won the nomination on the party’s third ballot, much to the surprise of the other three men.
Upon attaining the office of president, Lincoln surprisingly appointed all three of his former political rivals to cabinet positions. Importantly, throughout his career, Lincoln did not spurn former rivals, preferring to make them friends rather than foes. Goodwin writes of Lincoln's grace in victory, relative to his rivals:
“Seward by neglecting at the height of his success his old friend Horace Greeley, and Chase by not understanding the lingering resentments that followed in the wake of his 1849 Senate victory—Lincoln, in defeat, gained friends...”
Lincoln named Seward Secretary of State, Chase Secretary of the Treasury, and Bates Attorney General. Thus, these men formed Lincoln’s titular "team of rivals." The country was in turmoil, as the southern states had decided to secede to become the Confederate States of America. Thus, when asked about these decisions, Lincoln responded,
"We needed the strongest men of the party in the cabinet… These were the very strongest men. Then I had no right to deprive the country of their services."
When Seward openly opposed the new president, Lincoln took the political approach to get his way, but in such a way as to not insult Seward. He spoke with Seward personally, rather than sending a written memo.
Seward began to respect Lincoln and wrote that "The president is the best of us." Lincoln and Seward eventually became close, as did Bates and Lincoln. However, Chase never overcame his resentment that Lincoln had won the candidacy and presidency.
Goodwin discusses Lincoln’s success in winning his former rivals over and working with them to steer the country through a perilous time. Lincoln won the respects of his former rivals by demonstrating his commitment to the country's best interests. Moreover, as Goodwin notes throughout the book, Lincoln was always able to rise above personal insults, as he did in the Reaper Case. Specifically, Stanton openly spurned him and mocked him behind his back. Yet years later Lincoln made Stanton his Secretary of War.