A Man in It

Lincoln’s Lieutenants


Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Simon and Schuster, 916 pp., $30

One of the better old books on Lincoln, from 1946, was Lincoln’s War Cabinet, by Burton J. Hendrick. That volume praised the way Lincoln corralled a team of people reluctant to work with him and with each other, kept them in harness—alternately cajoling, yielding, coercing—and made them a single tool of government in a scattered time. Lincoln’s first masterstroke was deftly to quash an attempt of the favored candidate in the 1860 election, William Henry Seward, to effect a silent coup before the inauguration. Seward’s Karl Rove, Thurlow Weed, went to Springfield after the election and let the improbable Republican victor know: a) that he needed Seward as his secretary of state if he were to hold the party (and the nation) together; but b) that Seward would demand a cabinet he could work with, one made up almost entirely of former Democrats; and, therefore, c) that if Seward did not get his way, he would refuse Lincoln’s offer at State and cripple the presidency from its outset. Lincoln remained enigmatic in Springfield while Seward schemed in Washington, and when the latter threatened to refuse office, the former let him dangle for a while, lest Seward “take the first trick.” Lincoln did need Seward, but only if his ambition could be tempered and turned to useful purpose in a subordinate role. It was a preview of the psychodrama that would be played out with most members of his cabinet.

Lincoln asked for such trouble, before managing it, when he appointed his chief rivals for the presidency to the top posts in his government. Doris Kearns Goodwin says that this shows Lincoln’s supreme self-confidence. He knew he could outmaneuver the best maneuverers available, and he knew that he must do so if he were to retain in his friable coalition all the factions of the recently formed Republican Party. Goodwin takes Hendrick’s basic scheme to an ambitious new level by telling the whole life story of each major figure Lincoln brought into his government. The result is a group biography of the sort that has recently become popular (examples are The Immortal Dinner by Penelope Hughes-Hallett, The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand, and The Lunar Men by Jenny Uglow).

Goodwin begins with Lincoln’s three rivals for the Republican nomination in 1860: Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates. All three were, by almost any normal measure, better qualified than Lincoln, with more education, wider political experience, deeper family and regional connections. He’d had a slower start than they’d had, rose against tougher obstacles, and was an outsider as well as a long shot in the chaotic nominating convention that took place in Chicago. That is why Seward thought he could manipulate the bumpkin, be his power behind the throne. Goodwin describes the tact with which Lincoln took these men who looked down on him into partnership, won their grudging respect, and finally elicited from them admiration and even love. The Republican Party was a new and unstable combination of inchoate movements— the Conscience Democrats, the Compromised Democrats, the Whigs, the Nativists, the Free-Soilers, the Liberty Party. Lincoln felt he had to grapple all these fragments close to him, fiddling them into some sort of workable combination. It was like doing acrobatic leaps along the backs of ill-sorted teams of horses.

We more often read of Lincoln’s trouble with his fractious generals and how he fumbled their management. He seemed slow to recognize the inadequacies of man after man, especially of the flashy but gun-shy George McClellan. But Goodwin shows that even here he was playing members of his cabinet against each other, since most of them had favorites in the military, reflecting their own regional or ideological bases. Lincoln played out the reins of this man, pulled in the reins of that one. He used strategic silences, subversive humor, and the subtle tickling of vanities or ambitions to keep them all in line. He lost none of them, despite their frequent lunges to break free of him.

Goodwin nudges the story of each man forward in chronological order, showing how Lincoln first crossed paths with his later associates, or how their future relations were foreshadowed at each stage of the men’s careers. Perhaps the most telling strand in this interwoven tale concerns the anti-slavery Quaker who turned into a ruthless war secretary, Edwin Stanton. Lincoln met him in 1855 in an encounter that a lesser man would have recalled with embarrassment or resentment. Lincoln had been elated by a breakthrough case in his law career, a patent claim against the powerful McCormick Reaper company. The lawyer bringing the case against McCormick, Philadelphia patent specialist George Harding, recruited Lincoln as his associate to argue Illinois law, since the trial was scheduled for Chicago. But when the venue was changed to Cincinnati,
Harding dropped Lincoln without informing him of the move. He turned instead to Stanton, a brilliant Ohio lawyer.

Lincoln, thinking himself still part of the team, carefully worked up his arguments and took them to Cincinnati, where he was snubbed by Harding. Stanton, who did not know who Lincoln was, asked Harding, “Why did you bring that damned long-armed ape here?” Instead of storming off in indignation, Lincoln attended the trial as a humble auditor and was stunned by the professional savvy of Stanton, on a level that he had not achieved himself or witnessed in any other. He returned home with a new benchmark for his own work.

When, as president, Lincoln had to dismiss his corrupt secretary of war Simon Cameron (gently sending him off as minister to Russia), he turned to Stanton, who had in the interim served as President Buchanan’s attorney general. Stanton, an early partisan of General McClellan, still thought Lincoln an imbecile, but he soon realized his error. Lincoln backed up Stanton, who became one of his fiercest defenders. A congressman who solicited Lincoln’s support for a project took the president’s recommendation of it to Stanton, but Stanton said that if Lincoln wanted that he was a damned fool. The congressman could not wait to tell Lincoln what had happened.

“Did Stanton say I was a damned fool?” Lincoln asked. “He did, sir,” the congressman replied, “and repeated it.” Smiling, the president remarked: “If Stanton said I was a damned fool, then I must be one, for he is nearly always right, and generally says what he means. I will step over and see him.”

The president and his secretary of war, both of them backing Grant by the war’s end, became intimate collaborators and mutual admirers. Lincoln’s son Robert reported that “for more than ten days after my father’s death in Washington, he [Stanton] called every morning on me in my room, and spent the first few minutes of his visits weeping without saying a word.”

A similar progression is traced in another strand of the story. The most subversive member of the cabinet, but also one of the most effective, was the fanatical Salmon P. Chase, the secretary of the treasury charged with financing the costly war. (Chase is the man who put “IN GOD WE TRUST” on our money; he also tried to slip other references to God into government documents). Chase tried to oust Seward from the state department, circulating rumors that the cabinet was dysfunctional. Lincoln called a cabinet meeting, with congressional allies of Chase attending, to see Chase back down from those claims in the presence of other members. Seward had submitted his resignation in protest at Chase’s maneuvers, but Lincoln made it necessary for Chase to resign as well, and then rejected both resignations. Chase continued to make trouble. Still convinced that he should have won the nomination in 1860, he plotted to win it 1864, replacing Lincoln. When others asked Lincoln why he put up with this insubordinate behavior, he calmed their outrage with a story, one of his favorite devices.

Chase’s incessant presidential ambitions reminded him of the time when he was “plowing corn on a Kentucky farm” with a lazy horse that suddenly sped forward energetically to “the end of the furrow.” Upon reaching the horse, he discovered “an enormous chin-fly fastened upon him, and knocked him off,” not wanting “the old horse bitten in that way.” His companion said that it was a mistake to knock it off, for “that’s all that made him go.”

If ambition kept Chase hard at work financing the war, Lincoln was willing to pay that price for a necessity. Chase ended up campaigning energetically for Lincoln in 1864.

Lincoln’s forbearance with others could seem almost saintly. When his wife gorged on expensive clothes and furnishings and tried to coerce officials into hiding her expenditures in governmental budgets, Lincoln humored her, as he did her trafficking with spiritualists to communicate with her dead son (though he did not believe in the afterlife). Goodwin points out, however, that Mary Todd Lincoln went without publicity to visit wounded soldiers, and stuck by her husband against all comers.

Lincoln’s ability to win over foes can be seen in an exchange with Benjamin Butler, whom he promoted to brigadier general despite Butler’s opposition to him. Butler wrote:

I will accept the commission, but there is one thing I must say to you, as we don’t know each other: That as a Democrat I opposed your election, and did all I could for your opponent; but I shall do no political act, and loyally support your administration as long as I hold your commission; and when I find an act that I cannot support I shall bring the commission back at once, and return it to you.

Lincoln responded:

That is frank, that is fair. But I want to add one thing: When you see me doing anything that for the good of the country ought not to be done, come and tell me so, and why you think so, and then perhaps you won’t have any chance to resign your commission.

Lincoln deplored personal vindictiveness as a waste of valuable energy and good will. Those around him thought him too quick to pardon soldiers convicted of crimes. His own attitude came in remarks to one military hothead he let off:

No man resolved to make the most of himself, can spare time for personal contention. Still less can he afford to take all the consequences, including the vitiating of his temper, and the loss of self-control. Yield larger things to which you can show no more than equal right; and yield lesser ones, though clearly your own. Better give your path to a dog, than be bitten by him in contesting for the right. Even killing the dog would not cure the bite.

Lincoln lived by that advice, which delivered him from pettiness and from the childish vanities that politicians (and writers) succumb to. Over and over as I read this book I was reminded of Aristotle’s ideal, rarely realized, of the “lofty-minded” man (megalopsychos), who holds the middle between extremes of arrogance and self-abnegation—a man so sufficient to himself that he feels no need either to boast or to grovel. This did not mean that Lincoln shied from a fight when he thought one necessary. Goodwin does not tell the story of his response to opponents in the 1858 Senate election who planned to bring in ringers from other districts to vote for the Democrats. He wrote to one ally, Norman Judd, on September 13: “Is ‘Long John’ at hand? His genius should be employed on this question.” He was referring to John Wentworth, the six-foot-six mayor of Chicago who knew how to use his police for intimidating foes. (Wentworth was one of the very few men who towered over Lincoln). Judd received an even more urgent message from Lincoln on October 20:

When there is a known body of these voters, could not a true man of the “detective” class be introduced among them in disguise, who could at the nick of time control their votes? Think this over. It would be a great thing, when this trick is attempted upon us, to have the saddle come up on the other horse. (Emphasis added)

Goodwin describes his later willingness to use tough political tactics when the stakes were great. Fearing that the vote for the Thirteenth Amendment would fail in Congress by two votes, Lincoln let his lieutenants know that he would use every form of pressure on the two men—patronage, favorite projects promoted or quashed, electoral support or punishment—to get the measure passed. He instructed them:

I am President of the United States, clothed with great power. The abolition of slavery by constitutional provision settles the fate, for all coming time, not only of the millions now in bondage, but of unborn millions to come—a measure of such importance that those two votes must be procured. I leave it to you to determine how it shall be done; but remember that I am President of the United States, clothed with immense power, and I expect you to procure those votes. (Emphasis in the original)

And of course Lincoln stood by the fierce tactics of generals like Grant and Sherman to bring the war to a successful conclusion. He especially admired the bulldog tenacity of Grant. When a man expressed some doubts about Grant’s being able to succeed against Lee, Lincoln said: “The question reminds of me of a little anecdote about the automaton chess player, which many years ago astonished the world by its skill in that game. After a while the automaton was challenged by a celebrated player, who, to his great chagrin, was beaten twice by the machine. At the end of the second game, the player, significantly pointing his finger at the automaton, exclaimed in a very decided tone, ‘There’s a man in it.’” When Lincoln looked at Grant’s campaign, he saw that there was a man in it.

What gave Lincoln his extraordinary gift for sizing men up, appealing to their better angels, blunting their destructive tendencies? Historians often see their own qualities in their subjects. Within bounds, that is a helpful tendency. It may alert them to things that others overlook. Goodwin’s work has always been strongest where she empathized with her subjects. Not surprisingly, then, she finds a special talent for empathy in Lincoln, evident in his sense of others’ suffering, even other animals’ suffering, his reluctance to condemn, his ability to win over critics by understanding their point of view. He has even suffered in some recent treatments because he tried to see the tragedy of slaveholding through slaveholders’ eyes as well as through the slaves’ eyes. Goodwin finds these traits near the center of Lincoln’s success as a politician.

She notes that all her earlier work was about contemporary presidents. It seems to have equipped her for traveling into the past. The Lincoln she finds there was as much a master of theater as John Kennedy, but profounder in his mind. As manipulative as Lyndon Johnson, without the egomania. As much the political geometrician as Richard Nixon, without the paranoia. As good at empathy as Ronald Reagan, but not only on the surface. As much concerned with moral law as George W. Bush, without fundamentalist absurdities. Lincoln combined driving ambition with selflessness, a ruthlessness about means without meanness about the ends. He could be embarrassingly self-conscious, especially with women, yet he could distance himself from embroilments with the magic of humor. He was warm on the surface, elusive below it. He was genuine, yet he was not accessible even to those close to him—his wife, his law partner, his secretaries. He was relaxed when he needed to be, but intensely disciplined and self-corrective.

Massive political virtue irks some people, as we see in the case of George Washington. Pericles is reported as saying in his Funeral Oration at Athens: “The petty man resents as overstatement any praise that goes beyond what he feels capable of. Praise of others can be borne only so long as it describes what any hearer feels he might do himself, while resentment leads to disbelief of anything beyond that.” Thus many people seek for a hidden Lincoln, one guarding secrets. We have had the Oedipal Lincoln, the gay Lincoln, the racist Lincoln, the depressive Lincoln, the misogynist Lincoln, the emotional cripple, the Constitution-bender. Goodwin finds her Lincoln hiding in plain view. He is Lincoln the politician, but one whose political shrewdness ends up being indistinguishable from wisdom. She has written a wonderful book. There is a man in it.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Garry Wills is professor of history emeritus at Northwestern University, and the author of Lincoln at Gettysburg and, most recently, Verdi's Shakespeare.


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