Team of Rivals

by Doris Kearns Goodwin

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Innateness of Ambition

In Team of Rivals, author Doris Kearns Goodwin describes the ambition characters of the four men who were contenders for the office of the presidency of the United States in the election of 1860: New York senator William H. Seward, Ohio governor Salmon P. Chase, Missouri elder statesman Edward Bates, and Abraham Lincoln. Goodwin’s narrative reveals that each of these men possessed an innate quality of ambition that was evident from childhood.

These men were ambitious and seemed to know that they were destined to achieve high-profile statuses. They reveal their ambitions and desire to earn more than financial wealth early in their lives. Goodwin specifically uses Lincoln as an example of the type of ambition that propelled these men to seek the office of the presidency was ingrained early in life:

As a young man, Lincoln worried that the “field of glory” had been harvested by the founding fathers, that nothing had been left for his generation but modest ambitions.

Ambition drove these men to make sacrifices. When Bates won a seat in congress in 1826, he was still almost a newlywed, having been married for only three years. Goodwin notes that “his pleasure in the victory was dimmed by the necessity of leaving home and hearth. Even short absences from Julia proved painful for him,” Goodwin writes. Nevertheless, he—like the other men in the book—made the sacrifice.

Seward is another example of the youthful drive to achieve goals at personal sacrifice. He realized that his university studies would place him in the company of “all the eminent philosophers, scholars, and statesmen of the country.” Thus, he made a pact with his roommate:

[They rose] at three o’clock in the morning, cooked and spread our own meals, washed our own dishes, and spent the whole time which we could save from prayers and recitations, and the table, in severe study, in which we unreservedly and constantly aided each other.

Goodwin notes that for many, politics was one of the likeliest avenues to get ahead at that time. She 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.”

Each one had achieved some level of political office well before the presidential election. Seward was elected to the office of governor of New York and also served for almost twelve years as senator. Chase had attained the governorship in Ohio, Bates represented Missouri in the United States House of Representatives and Lincoln had served in congress. Yet, possibly because of sheer ambition or because of how passionate each one was about the cause of anti-slavery, they each decided to try for the highest office in the nation.

The Drive for Self-Betterment

Lincoln demonstrated a strong ability to motivate himself to succeed, and this drive for success entailed a determination to improve himself at every opportunity. In many cases, such opportunities arose in the wake of failure. Goodwin illustrates his powerful ambition to improve himself and to succeed with the story of the Reaper Case. After being invited to assist in the case, the other members of the legal team subsequently shut him out. Nevertheless, Lincoln attended the trial and recognized their skillful legal strategy and oration. He determined to improve himself through self-teaching, and indeed Lincoln remained an autodidact throughout his life.

Lincoln is not the only one who strove for self-improvement. Goodwin describes Chase in a similar way:

Following Benjamin Franklin’s advice for continual self-improvement, he founded a popular...

(This entire section contains 1316 words.)

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lecture series in Cincinnati, joined a temperance society, undertook the massive project of collecting Ohio’s scattered statutes into three published volumes, tried his hand at poetry, and wrote numerous articles for publication in various magazines.

Indeed, each of the four figures Goodwin discusses in some way embodies the American ethos of self-improvement, of “pulling oneself up by the bootstraps,” as the old expression has it.

The Impact of Abolition on American Politics

In mid-nineteenth-century American politics, slavery was the largest issue. Goodwin discusses how the four men vying for the 1860 presidency—Lincoln, Seward, Chase, and Bates—were united in their anti-slavery sentiments. Goodwin writes that “all four studied law, became distinguished orators, entered politics, and opposed the spread of slavery.”

Some of the men had grown up in families that owned slaves and came to recognize from firsthand experience that slavery must be abolished. For example, Seward's father owned slaves. He sent their children to school with Seward, and Seward wondered why “no other black children went there.”

Moreover, as slavery became a greater issue in American politics, it set the stage for these men to achieve national recognition and repute. According to the author, in the 1850s

The rising intensity of the slavery issue and the threatening dissolution of the nation itself provided Lincoln and his colleagues with an opportunity to save and improve the democracy.

Goodwin writes that for Lincoln in particular the growing debate about slavery led to his growing reputation on a national level. Goodwin writes:

The story of Lincoln’s rise to power was inextricably linked to the increasing intensity of the antislavery cause. Public feeling on the slavery issue had become so flammable that Lincoln’s seven debates with Douglas were carried in newspapers across the land, proving the prairie lawyer from Springfield more than a match for the most likely Democratic nominee for the presidency.

Goodwin also believes that without the Civil War, "Lincoln still would have been a good man, but most likely would never have been publicly recognized as a great man."

Patriotism Over Personal Interests

Despite his ambitions, Lincoln was consistently able to put his own interests aside to advance the greater good. Evidence of this quality can be seen from early in his political career. Lincoln grew angry when Crittendon threw his support behind Douglas, Lincoln’s political rival.

Two days later, still feeling the sting of his defeat, Lincoln wrote Crittenden. He suppressed his justifiable resentment, exhibiting as he had with Greeley, and earlier with Trumbull and Judd, a magnanimity rare in the world of politics.

In another illustration of his ability to put self-interest aside, Lincoln stepped out of the race against Trumbull when he recognized that remaining a candidate could jeopardize the abolitionist cause. Goodwin writes:

Unwilling to sacrifice all the hard work of the antislavery coalition, Lincoln advised his floor manager, Stephen Logan, to drop him for Trumbull. Logan refused at first, protesting the injustice of the candidate with the much larger vote giving in to the candidate with the smaller vote. Lincoln was adamant, insisting that... “the [anti-slavery] cause in this case is to be preferred to men.”

Lincoln even came to Trumbull’s victory party "with a smile on his face and a warm handshake for the victor."

Following his election to the presidency, Lincoln’s actions regarding his former rivals afterwards as president of the United States show his ability to put the country’s needs ahead of his own feelings. His former rivals were all anti-slavery proponents. Lincoln worked with them to steer the country through a perilous time. Lincoln was primarily committed to goals that he believed were in the country's best interests. Lincoln appointed all three men to a cabinet position. He named Seward Secretary of State, Chase Secretary of the Treasury and Bates Attorney General. Altogether, these men formed Lincoln’s “team of rivals.” The country was in turmoil in the wake of the South’s secession and formation of the Confederate States of America. When asked about his decision to hire his former rivals to respond to this turmoil, 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.