An Extraordinary President and His Remarkable Cabinet
An interview with Doris Kearns Goodwin about Lincoln's Team of Rivals
Spring 2006, Vol. 38, No. 1
By Ellen Fried
In 1860, prairie lawyer and former one-term congressman Abraham Lincoln stunned the country by prevailing over three prominent rivals—William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates—to win the Republican nomination for President. Perhaps equally surprising was what Lincoln did after being elected President: He appointed all three rivals to his cabinet—Seward as secretary of state, Chase as secretary of the treasury, and Bates as attorney general.
In Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Doris Kearns Goodwin explores the extraordinary array of personal qualities that allowed Lincoln first to appoint, then to win over, men who had previously opposed him, and reveals how Lincoln's bold and brilliant actions helped him steer the country through its darkest days.
Goodwin won the Pulitzer Prize in history for No Ordinary Time, which examines Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the home front during World War II. She is also the author of Wait Till Next Year, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, and Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream.
How did you come up with the idea for this book?
It took a while. Initially, all I knew was that I wanted to learn about Lincoln and the Civil War. When you choose a topic for a book, you have to choose someone or something that you want to live with for a long, long time.
At first, I started down a path that didn't work out. I wanted to look at the relationship between Abe and Mary Lincoln, as I had done with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in No Ordinary Time. But whereas Eleanor could carry half of the public side of the story during World War II, Mary could not do that for the Civil War.
As I did more research, I discovered that Lincoln was spending more time with his cabinet members than with Mary. He and his cabinet members not only worked together; they also socialized together. In some ways he was more married to them than he was to Mary. I began to realize that they were really important figures in Lincoln's life—emotionally as well as politically.
When I discovered that they had started as Lincoln's rivals, I realized that was a story I wanted to explore.
How did you begin investigating that story?
Initially, I was worried about researching the 19th century. For earlier books, I had done a lot of interviewing, but for the 1800s, you can't go back and talk to anyone.
But then I discovered something even more valuable—a treasure trove of letters and diaries. It turned out that all of the cabinet members were incredible letter writers. For example, there were about 5,000 letters from Seward's family alone. Chase and Bates both kept diaries over the course of decades. All of this material allowed me to look over the shoulders of my subjects and hear them talk about their daily activities and feelings. It was even better than conducting interviews because these people were recording their impressions right as events were unfolding, instead of trying to recall them 30 years after the fact.
The writings were fabulous for making the cabinet members come alive. And they also included vivid impressions of Lincoln.
What pieces of the story did you find at the National Archives?
I drew on the National Archives for official records, such as reports of Civil War battles and documents pertaining to court-martial cases. There was one court-martial case that produced a fight within Lincoln's cabinet. I also used census records—for example, to find out how long Bates kept slaves.
Census records also helped me determine where people were at various times, which was important to the story. In No Ordinary Time, I included a map of the second floor of the White House, because so much of the action took place there. In Team of Rivals, Washington, D.C., as a whole is the place of action. So I included a map showing the city during the Civil War. I wanted to show where Seward's house was in relation to the White House—Lincoln would walk over there late at night and would put his feet up and relax with Seward. Bates had a house that was further away, and he used to feel that he wasn't as close to Lincoln personally because he didn't live nearby.
How did the research for Team of Rivals differ from the research for No Ordinary Time?
For No Ordinary Time, I had one main destination: NARA's Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, where 90 percent of my documentary research took place.
A major source at the Roosevelt Library was a log that the White House usher kept of the comings and goings of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt. He recorded everything—when they awakened, who they met at what time, and so on.
Because I'm trying to recreate the daily life of the people I'm writing about, that source was so important. It became the organizing tool for the book. Once I knew what Eleanor and Franklin had done each day, I could fit other material around that.
For Team of Rivals, the documentary evidence was all over, in a number of libraries and historical societies. So I had a lot more places to go. But as with No Ordinary Time, the result was to uncover a sequence of events. I drew up chronologies of the day-to-day activities of each of the main characters and then examined how all the chronologies intersected.
When you're writing narrative history, you have to let the events unfold one after another. You have to imagine that you know only what the participants knew at that time and that you have no idea how the story is going to end. You have to carry the reader along from moment to moment.
I'm a huge believer in chronology.
What made Lincoln believe he should fill his cabinet with rivals?
His explanation at the time was that these were the strongest men in the country. He declared that at a time of peril, the country needed to have the strongest men, and that he couldn't deprive it of those talents.
At the same time, Lincoln was facing a Republican Party that was very young and whose members had come from a variety of other parties. They were former Whigs, former Democrats. By putting his rivals in his cabinet, he had access to a wide range of opinions, which he realized would sharpen his own thinking. It also gave him a way of keeping all those conflicting opinions together. If he didn't have a unified group fighting against the South, the fight would be impossible to sustain. So having all those opinions in his cabinet not only helped him; it helped the country as well.
It was very like Lincoln: He was taking the long view, but he was also thinking of himself, and both of those things came together.
But it took an enormous amount of self-confidence. What he did was unprecedented at that time. The idea was that you should appoint people who think the way you do.
How did Lincoln win the respect of his rivals?
A set of emotional strengths was the foundation of Lincoln's political genius. He understood that human relations are at the core of politics and that if you deal with people in the right manner, you are going to be able to work effectively with them. The qualities we associate with human greatness—such as sensitivity, empathy, compassion, kindness, honesty—are also keys to political success.
When something went well, Lincoln always shared the credit. When something went wrong, he shouldered his share of the blame. When he himself made a mistake, he acknowledged it immediately. He made time for each of his cabinet members, so that they all felt they had access to him. He treated them all respectfully and fairly.
And he kept their spirits up. We think of Lincoln as being melancholy, but he actually had a remarkable sense of humor and was a terrific storyteller. He relaxed his colleagues and cheered them up.
In the end, these people came not only to respect Lincoln, but also to love him. Seward, who started as Lincoln's biggest rival, ultimately wrote to his wife, "The President is the best of us." It's a wonderful arc of the story, that Lincoln and Seward became such good friends. The development of their relationship was very emotional for me to watch.
What new insights do we gain by viewing Lincoln alongside his colleagues?
For me, some of the biggest insights were into Lincoln's personality. I had no idea how vibrant he was going to turn out to be.
Another insight was into how much farther he had to travel to get to a place of leadership. His cabinet members came from privileged backgrounds. They went to college. Lincoln had to struggle for everything and had to teach himself virtually everything, including law.
And another was into the nature of his ambition, which was different from that of his rivals. Chase, for example, simply wanted position and power. He wanted to be President for the sake of being President; he needed that office to feel complete. Lincoln's ambition was both larger and more interesting. He wanted to accomplish something that would stand the test of time.
Lincoln was never certain that there was an afterlife. But he believed that you could live on if you lived in the memory of others—that your immortality came from your reputation.
Team of Rivals is about how Lincoln interacted with others, and what emerges from the research is a vivid picture of those people's impressions of him. The beginning of the reputation that made it into history comes from the people who knew Lincoln and wrote about him. They really provided the first draft of his reputation.