What I’m Reading – 5/4 – Team of Rivals

Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin

There are few figures in American history larger than Lincoln. And the bigger the figure, the more the space they occupy in our consciousness feels like myth rather than history.

Team of Rivals is the first book I’ve read about Lincoln as an adult. And there was much about his story that felt new.

For example, I don’t remember knowing how much of a long shot he was to obtain the Republican nomination in the first place. On the first ballot at the Republican convention in 1860, Lincoln was 4th in the voting. Lincoln distinguished himself only as everyone’s second choice. And then only after longstanding party rivalries tainted the candidacies of William Seward and Salmon Chase did he receive enough support to gain the nomination.

I also don’t remember knowing how obscure Lincoln was as a national figure leading up to his election as president. National media was generally unaware of whether his name was Abraham or Abram when he was nominated.

And I didn’t know that his assassination was a part of a broader conspiracy to kill the president, the vice president, and the secretary of state. The person responsible for killing the vice president decided against it last minute, and the assassination of the secretary of state (William Seward) was unsuccessful – though Seward and his son were both wounded on the same day Lincoln was assassinated.

Goodwin portrays Lincoln as a kind and disarming person. I don’t know why, but that struck me as novel, too. Kindness isn’t a trait that I associate with powerful people. But in contemporary letters, the word kind appears regularly in his peers’ descriptions of him. And, in reading the book, that appears to have surprised his rivals as much as it did me. Indeed, it seems that he used his kindness as a political skill to deflect attacks from his rivals.

And that strikes me as about as extraordinary and useful a skill as a person could have.