October 29, 2008

Team of Rivals

I just finished Team of Rivals - The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. It is a great picture of the man and the times.

The "Team of Rivals" which would be Lincoln's cabinet included the three major competitors for the Republican nomination in 1960 - William Seward, Salmon Chase and Edward Bates. The beginning of the book (after a brief leap forward to the day of the Republican convention) follows the early private and public lives of the four candidates.

Lincoln was far and away the least known of the four. He had a pretty spotty political career up to that point. He had served 8 years in the state legislature from 1832 - 1842 and 2 years as a US Congressman 1847-1849. Within two weeks of being in Congress, he questioned the validity of our war with Mexico. It is likely that led to his unsuccessful bid for re-election.

He was politically outmaneuvered for the Senate race in 1854 and pulled his name for the good of the party even though he had garnered the most votes. He was gracious in defeat. Both the winner and the orchestrator of the defeat would help him in later campaigns. Not harboring bitterness and looking at the big picture would mark mark his life and presidency. As he said in his second inaugural address, "With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right."

Lincoln's inexperience relative to the others worked in his favor in 1860. In the campaign for the presidential nomination, the other three candidates had created a number of enemies in their time in the public eye. Lincoln stayed in the background and was strategic in his pursuit of office this time around. When he won the election, he offered cabinet positions to the three other candidates. He filled other positions in the cabinet with people from other parties, both to provide balance and to help unite fractured parties.

The south was on its way to secession as Lincoln took office. His presidency would be marked by balancing different factions in the country and in his party. He was not the loudest advocate for the end of slavery, though it was very important to him. He thought that bringing the Union back together was the primary goal of the war and his presidency. He was often slow to move as he tried to predict (or prepare) the countries readiness to accept change, but he never wavered in his pursuit of the greatest good. He presented the Emancipation Proclomation when it had the best chance to garner support, though it had been written for some time.

His cabinet, at least initially, was fractious. Differing beliefs, ambitions and ego sizes led to clashes and fights for power. It wasn't long though before they came to understand Lincoln's wisdom and they came to respect him immensely. "His avoidance of extremes...(was) the natural consequence of an equable nature and a mental constitution that is never off balance."

He was a brilliant man, and the perfect man for the time. The book does a wonderful job of telling the history, giving insight into Lincoln and his contemporaries, and confirming how fortunate we were to have him as a president.

Five stars, two thumbs up.

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