As 2005 comes to a close, we naturally take stock of the usual political battles between the Democratic minority and the Republican majority. Now imagine this: in the first few months of 2006, the Democratic Party joins forces with the Green, Libertarian, Reform, Peace and Freedom, and Natural Law Parties. In November, this political party with a new, most likely funny name gains seats in Congress. In 2008, the funny name party wins the presidential election.
Such political upheaval may seem implausible in the 21st century, but in the middle of the nineteenth century, without the aid of email, that is exactly what happened. As Doris Kearns Goodwin describes in her new book, Team of Rivals, within the span of a few years, abolitionists join with the Whig, Liberty, and Free Soil parties to form the Republican Party. Shortly thereafter, they win the presidency, and immediately following, half the country violently rebels against the first Republican administration. Not since the Revolutionary War have the wheels of government turned so quickly.
In Team of Rivals, Goodwin paints in exquisite detail an extraordinary moment in American history. Her gift for revealing each morsel of information in an engaging, almost novelistic writing style is precious to a reader hungry for knowledge regarding the personal and political truths of Abraham Lincoln. Goodwin draws heavily on the personal papers of Lincoln’s cabinet members to uncover his deep-seated political and moral views regarding slavery. This section of the book, covering Lincoln’s election and the first half of the Civil war, is by far the most surprising part of the narrative.
Lincoln, future composer and legal executor of the Emancipation Proclamation, does not win the 1860 Republican presidential nomination by voicing abolitionist views. In fact, unlike some of his rival candidates competing for the nomination, Lincoln refuses to call for emancipation in any form. The Republican Party is sharply divided on the slavery issue. Abolitionists make up only a small minority. Indeed, there are conservative Republicans who call for retention of the status quo – an acknowledgement that slavery is a constitutional right with individual states left to regulate as they choose.
Lincoln takes the temperature of public opinion and espouses views he feels the majority of Americans hold in 1860. He promotes a limitation on the spread of slavery to new states and territories, but does not advocate freedom for the slaves in the Southern states, fearing that the threat of total emancipation will break up the Union. In a surprise victory, his centrist views win him the Republican nomination.
Of course, a month after he is elected president with no Southern state’s electoral votes, centrality no longer matters. The Southern states secede from the Union, and the Civil war begins.
Lincoln quickly appoints political rivals and enemies to his cabinet. Salmon Chase, his Secretary of the Treasury, attempts to run against him for the 1864 Republican presidential nomination. Once Lincoln secures the nomination for himself, he appoints Chase to the Supreme Court. Such maneuvering keeps the Union strong during wartime.
It is in this uncertain climate that Lincoln begins to listen to staunch abolitionists like Chase, who push constantly for emancipation. Lincoln wants to preserve the republic at all costs. This means that he must also preserve the Constitution, which legalizes and regulates slavery. Unfortunately, the Confederate army benefits from slave labor. Slaves work as “teamsters, cooks, and hospital attendants, so soldiers were free to fight in the fields.” Thus, Lincoln comes to the “conclusion that it was a military necessity absolutely essential for the salvation of the Union, that we must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued.”
He ultimately overrides the constitution when it looks like the North might lose. In yet another wise move, Lincoln announces the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, but does not sign it until January 1863. Although Northerners on the whole want blacks to be free, they are still very fearful of interacting with black people as “equals.” By delaying the proclamation a few months, Lincoln gives Northerners time to get used to the idea.
Goodwin asserts that Lincoln’s political genius comes from his innate compassion — his ability to make Americans feel understood and welcomed in his company. She emphasizes his unique talents as a storyteller, how he keeps friends entertained well into the night with humorous anecdotes, and suggests that he is a type of nineteenth-century stand-up comedian.
While some historians describe Lincoln as a man ahead of his time, Goodwin, through his friends and associates, brings to life a man immersed in his time. She does not flinch in her determination to depict Lincoln as he really is, a man devoted to the presidency, consistently responding to the will and temperament of the American people. Many present-day Republicans speak of a strict interpretation of the Constitution. Lincoln, the first and perhaps greatest Republican, did not interpret the Constitution. He lived it.