By: JAMES M. MCPHERSON
MORE books about Abraham Lincoln line the shelves of libraries than about any other American. Can there be anything new to sayabout our 16th president? Surprisingly, the answer is yes. Having previously offered fresh insights into Lyndon Johnson, the Kennedy’s and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Doris Kearns Goodwin has written an elegant, incisive study of Lincoln and leading members of his cabinet that will appeal to experts as well as to those whose knowledge of Lincoln is an amalgam of high school history and popular mythology.
“Team of Rivals” (an apt but uninspiring title) opens in May 1860 with four men awaiting news from the national convention of the Republican Party in Chicago. Thousands of sup-porters were gathered in Auburn, N.Y., where a cannon was primed to fire a salute to the expected nomination of Senator William Henry Seward for president. In Columbus, Ohio, Gov. Salmon P. Chase hoped that if Seward faltered, the mantle would fall on his shoulders. In St. Louis, 66-year-old Edward Bates, a judge who still called himself a Whig, hoped the convention might turn to him as the only candidate who could carry the conservative free states, whose electoral votes were necessary for a Republican victory. In Springfield, Ill., a former one-term congressman who had been twice defeated for election to the Senate waited with resigned expectation that his long-shot candidacy would be flattened by the Seward steamroller.
Although her readers presumably know who won the nomination, Goodwin leaves them in suspense for almost 250 pages as she chronicles the personal stories and political careers of these four men. The unifying theme is the growing sectional polarization over the issues of slavery and its expansion. But each story follows a separate track until they begin to converge with the death of the Whig Party and the birth of the Republican Party in the mid-1850’s.
Having served four years as governor of New York and nearly 12 as a senator, Seward emerged as the leader of the new party after 1856, when it fell just short of electing a president on a platform of restricting the expansion of slavery. Next to Seward in prominence was Chase, who had organized the Free Soil Party in 1848, became its first senator in 1849 and represented the cutting edge of the Republican antislavery ideology.
In contrast, Lincoln’s career languished in relative obscurity before 1858. In Goodwin’s telling, however, his story gradually and subtly takes precedence. His famous debates with Stephen A. Douglas in 1858 gave him national exposure, though Douglas won re-election to the Senate. Lincoln’s Cooper Union address in New York and his subsequent tour of New England in early 1860 increased his visibility. Although some newspapers still spelled his first name “Abram,” Lincoln appealed to a growing number of Republicans as the strongest potential nominee. Less radical than Chase and more firmly antislavery than Bates, he seemed the one most likely to carry the Lower Northern states of Pennsylvania, Indiana and Illinois that the Republicans had lost in 1856, without alienating the antislavery Northern tier states from New England to Minnesota. Although Lincoln’s “house divided” speech in 1858 was as uncompromising as Seward’s “irrepressible conflict” address that same year, Seward, as well as Chase, had a more radical reputation than Lincoln. But because they had been in public life much longer than Lincoln, they had also made more enemies.