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The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

A-TeamRivalsLincoln was never expected to win his bid for the presidency. Three other men, each considered far more qualified than the hick lawyer from Illinois, also vied for the Republican nomination in 1860. But after getting his party’s and the country’s nod, Lincoln again surprised the nation by inviting his three sour rivals to join his Cabinet. Thus, William Seward (Secretary of State), Salmon P. Chase (Secretary of the Treasury), and Edward Bates (Attorney General) became the unlikely cornerstones of Lincoln’s beleaguered administration. Pulitzer-Prize winner Goodwin reinvigorates well-trodden ground with a fresh perspective on this revered chief executive’s tenure, deftly illustrating Honest Abe’s brilliant statesmanship as he enlisted his bitter opponents’ talents to preserve the Union.
Simon & Schuster. 916 pages. $35. ISBN: 0684824906

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"The Lincoln who emerges from Goodwin’s Team of Rivals—a brilliantly conceived and well-written tour de force of a historical narrative—is a cunning pragmatist bursting with raw ambition and Machiavellian guile. … At its core, Team of Rivals is the long-overdue rehabilitation of Seward’s forgotten legacy." Douglas Brinkley

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"In this immense and immensely readable work, Ms. Goodwin uncovers how Lincoln’s unusual combination of forgiving human spirit and savvy political instincts converted his enemies into (mostly) loyal friends and advisors. … Thanks to voluminous letters and diaries, William Seward and Salmon Chase … are the most vividly portrayed cabinet members in Team of Rivals." Randy Dotinga

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"Team of Rivals is particularly valuable because it makes clear that this president, who is sometimes thought to have been above politics, was actually a master politician. … Ms. Goodwin tells his inspiring story with exceptional skill, and among all the books about Lincoln, this one is not to be missed." Philip Seib

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Ms. Goodwin’s affection for Lincoln bursts forth on every page. But in this lovingly rendered and masterfully fashioned book, her storytelling gifts are most on display when she tracks the satellites around the presidency." Jay Winik

St. Petersburg Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"As Goodwin argues so convincingly, Lincoln’s uncommon gifts for reading people and for persuading them make him the Republican president with the greatest claim to the title ‘uniter, not a divider.’ [A] well-timed book." Bill Duryea

New York Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The result is a book that gives us a portrait of Lincoln as a virtuosic politician and managerial genius—a sort of visionary C.E.O. … For readers expecting a straightforward biography, Ms. Goodwin’s decision to focus the book on the president’s relationships with rivals-turned-colleagues makes for a somewhat vexing start." Michiko Kakutani

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 2 of 5 Stars
"Goodwin and company have little new to tell us and stick to the standard fare. Most of the familiar Lincoln stories are here—from the suggestion from a young girl that he grow a beard to his attitude about Ulysses Grant’s drinking. … Yes, Abraham Lincoln was a great president, but we didn’t need 754 pages of well-tracked ground to remind us." Bob Hoover

Critical Summary

Critics generally agree that Goodwin’s 10-year project on Honest Abe paid off. Many lauded the well-rounded, intimate, and admiring portrait she paints of our 16th president by weaving some good old-fashioned storytelling with the hard facts. Abe’s cabinet members, Seward in particular, also receive their due. Despite the more than 100 pages of footnotes that chronicle Goodwin’s impressive primary research, a few critics found the book redundant, its first third difficult to read, and Lincoln’s stand on race nearly ignored. Overall, however, most reviewers found Team of Rivals remarkably resonant today, given the young Lincoln’s brash attacks on President Polk, who he claimed pushed the country into the needless Mexican War. For an inside look at Abe’s political genius, Goodwin’s work is a good place to start.

Supplemental Reading

Lincoln | David Herbert Donald (1995): The first choice for a grand, modern, and detailed biography of Lincoln.