I just completed the book this month. Took longer than I had thought to finish it, NOT because it lacked interest – just because I had too many distractions over the past six months.
Its a magnificent book. Very well written, and with the focus right where it should be – on the individuals who played major roles in Lincoln’s administration. The book is actually an exercise in multiple biography and it works extremely well.
In 1860, there were four candidates for the Republican nomination for President. The front-runner, who everyone expected would be nominated, was Senator Seward from New York. Also in the running was Governor Chase from Ohio, Judge Bates from Missouri, and a relatively unknown lawyer from Illinois, who had served a single term in Congress fourteen years before – Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln was nominated on the 3rd ballot at the Republican convention of 1860 and went on to win the presidency. Then he did something extraordinary. He appointed all three of the men who had been his rivals to his cabinet. Senator Seward became his Secretary of State. His other cabinet appointments were made with what seemed to his friends as a careless disregard for his own political fortunes.
Goodwin shows how Lincoln suceeded in managing his “team of rivals,” when everyone expected him to be a weak president who would be dominated by the stronger, more experienced politicians he had appointed.
Perhaps the most startling appointment Lincoln made was Edwin Stanton to be Secretary of War after scandal forced his first Secretary of War to resign. Stanton was a high-powered Washington attorney who had served briefly in the Buchannon administration. More significantly, he had been the lead attorney on a famous patent case (the McCormick reaper case) in 1855. Lincoln had been retained as a local attorney when it looked like the case would be tried in Illinois, but when venue was changed to Ohio, Stanton contemptuously dismissed Lincoln from the defense team and then snubbed him. Any attorney other than Lincoln would have held a grudge for life. But Lincoln set aside any resentment he might have harbored and appointed Stanton as his Secretary of War – and over time the two became friends and Stanton completely reversed his opinion of Lincoln.
Goodwin also does an excellent job of explaining the political context, intent, and effect of the Emancipation Proclamation. The Emancipation Proclamation is usually either elevated to a status alongside the Declaration of Indpendence and the Constitution (if your sympathies are with the Union) or dismissed as a crude and calculated political ploy that freed not a single slave because it was simply a public relations trick (if your sympathies are with the South). Goodwin explains at length Lincoln’s reasoning for the details of the Proclamation and the timing of its signing. It WAS designed for a political purpose – Lincoln hoped it might persuade at least some of the Confederate states to return to the Union. But, it was also a consistent extension of Lincoln’s evolving policy to deal with the issue of slavery.
Goodwin’s book is excellent biography (not just Lincoln, but also Seward, Chase, Bates, and Stanton) with its focus and tone on the human and personal dimensions of Lincoln’s presidency. Its also a study in political wisdom. Lincoln’s magnanimity is what eventually led to his nomination and election as president – and successful conduct of the war. Finally, it is a study in management principles with applications even now to how leaders should choose key lieutenants and manage them.
Director, Schaeffer Study Center