Last Updated on January 27, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1478
Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, was elected in 1860, defeating a field of Republican rivals for the party nomination and then three candidates in the general election. By 1860, the sectional crisis between the free states in the north and the slave states in the south had reached such a pitch that the presidential election had exceptionally high stakes. Lincoln first came to national attention during his unsuccessful bid for a senate seat in Illinois in 1858. During that election he challenged his Democratic opponent, renowned orator Stephen Douglas, to a series of debates. Despite losing the election, he caught the public eye for his rhetorical skill. During the nomination process in 1860 Lincoln’s breakthrough came when he gave a speech at Cooper Union laying out the legal argument for the regulation of slavery.
Upon this legal ground he based his pledge to oppose the expansion of slavery into the territories of the west. This moderate position assured that Lincoln was few delegates' first choice for the nomination. Abolitionist candidates like William H. Seward and Salmon P. Chase represented more radical Republicans, who favored total and immediate emancipation. Conservative Republicans, represented by Edward Bates, were more concerned about preserving the Union. Like Lincoln, they opposed the extension of slavery but did not seek to antagonize the South and emphasized questions of immigration and tariffs. Each of these candidates faced opposition from other wings of the party and so during the nominating convention, votes swung from Seward and Chase to Lincoln. With the Democratic Party essentially split into three wings, Lincoln won the general election with 40% of the popular vote.
The books title, Team of Rivals, stems from the fact that Lincoln filled his cabinet with many of his opponents from the nomination fight. Seward became Secretary of State, Chase became Secretary of the Treasury, and Bates became Attorney General. While having political rivals in important posts did help appease the various wings of his fractious party, Lincoln also sought to strengthen his presidency by harnessing the talent and counsel of these men. The downside of this approach was that Lincoln had to contend with ambitious officers who questioned his judgement and sought to supplant him in the future. According to author Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lincoln was successful because “he had a set of emotional strengths that today we might call emotional intelligence. So when all sorts of rivalries sprung up with these guys, and when they got hurt with one another… he was somehow able to be in the center of that storm… So what he essentially did is what a great politician does, which is to understand that human relationships are at the core of political success.”
William H. Seward
Seward was a US Senator and former Governor of New York as well as the presumptive nominee going into the 1860 Republican Convention. Seward was eight years older than Lincoln and had a longer and more distinguished career in politics. Seward was intelligent and ambitious and possessed great political instincts but often lacked Lincoln’s tact and moderation. This accounts for his loss of the nomination. For example, many Southern Democrats respected him personally but his stance on slavery—that conflict is inevitable and the United States must either choose slavery or freedom—alienated him from conservatives. His 1859 “Irrepressible Conflict” speech was considered by some as responsible for inspiring John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. Events may have proven Seward to be correct but his fatalistic position struck conservative Republicans as precluding the possibility of preserving the Union while stemming the spread of slavery.
While initially disappointed about losing the nomination, Seward did accept the role of Secretary of State. At first he tried to block Chase’s appointment, but after that failed, Seward settled into a role as Lincoln’s “enforcer.” He attempted to broker a compromise with the Southern States at Lincoln’s behest and then with the outbreak of war, he devoted himself to winning the war and ending slavery. He came to respect Lincoln’s judgment and political abilities and, unlike Chase, was able to put his duty ahead of his personal ambitions. One of his most significant achievements was keeping Europe from intervening in the conflict. In 1865 he also became one of the leaders of the drive to pass the 13th Amendment, masterminding the ground game that garnered the necessary votes. In both endeavors, one can see how Seward tended to initially oppose Lincoln’s initiatives and then devote himself to their success. For example, he opposed the Emancipation Proclamation until he learned that this was the very measure needed to ensure England did not intervene.
Salmon P. Chase
Chase was the former governor of Ohio and the preferred candidate of the most radical Republicans in 1860. He ultimately lost because his opposition to protective tariffs alienated conservatives and his history of collaborating with Democrats made too many enemies among former Whigs. Chase was more idealistic, religious, and egotistical than the gruff and worldly Seward. As such, he always had an eye on his political future in everything he did. His private ambition was to supplant Lincoln for the 1864 Republican nomination. As Secretary of the Treasury he made important contributions to the war effort. He was able to procure the necessary funding for the war by issuing greenback notes unbacked by gold and by partnering with Jay Cooke & Company to sell $500 million in war bonds. True to form, however, Chase had his portrait added to the first demand notes so that people would know what he looked like. By 1864 the war was on firm financial ground and Lincoln, tired of Chase’s political maneuvering, accepted his resignation and then appointed him Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. This appointment was greatly supported by radicals, as Chase replaced Roger B. Taney, the pro-slavery Chief Justice who had issued the Dred Scott decision. Chase’s constant companion and confidante was his daughter, Kate, who was considered one of the great beauties of the Washington social scene.
Bates came to national attention during his time in the House as a Representative from Missouri. He was a “Free Soiler,” who opposed the extension of slavery into new territories—the same position staked out by Lincoln. However, Bates also was briefly a member of the Know Nothing party, notorious for its hardline stance on immigration. Combined with his background from a pro-slavery border state, he lost out to Lincoln, who, as a Westerner, was acceptable to Northerners and Southerners alike. Bates accepted the position of Attorney General and for a time had Lincoln’s ear, but as he increasingly found himself in opposition to the radical Republicans, who were rising in stature as the war went on, he came to feel irrelevant. He resigned in 1864.
Mary Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s wife and the First Lady, was eccentric, opinionated, and unstable. Descended from a wealthy Kentucky family of slaveholders, she was suspected of Confederate sympathies by radical republicans, who even investigated her financial accounts under suspicion of corruption. Despite this, she was fiercely loyal of her husband’s reputation, turning her back on relatives who joined the Confederacy. She detested men she viewed as his greatest rivals, namely Seward and Thaddeus Stevens. After her son Willy died in 1862, she became mentally unstable, descending into inconsolable grief and even employing mediums to communicate with her dead son. She opposed the decision of Robert, her oldest son, to serve in the Civil War, causing friction between Abraham and Robert.
Perhaps the most radical of the Republicans, Stevens was an inflexible, deeply principled political warrior who favored not only the abolition of slavery but also the full legal equality of African Americans, an extreme position in 19th century America. While he would later lead the effort to remove Andrew Johnson from office after Lincoln’s assassination, Stevens learned to publicly moderate his positions in order to achieve the ratification of the 13th Amendment.
Candidate for the 1860 Republican nomination as senator from Pennsylvania, Cameron served as Lincoln’s first Secretary of War until he was relieved under suspicion of corruption.
Edwin M. Stanton
Secretary of War after Cameron, Stanton was cautious, irritable, and vindictive. A radical Republican, he led the effort to hang the conspirators of John Wilkes Booth, including Mary Surrat, who merely owned the boarding house where the conspirators met.
Lincoln’s oldest child and his only child to survive adolescence, Robert attended Harvard University but wished to drop out to join the Union Army. Robert and his father had a difficult relationship, made all the more so by his mother’s insistence that he not be allowed to join. Lincoln eventually relented, allowing Robert to serve as an aide to General Grant.
Ulysses S. Grant
Commanding Union general by 1865, General Ulysses S. Grant employed a strategy of total war to grind down the Confederate armies.