Who's the Boss?

President Lincoln with members of his cabinet and Gen. Winfield Scott
President Lincoln with members of his cabinet and Gen. Winfield Scott (Library Of Congress)

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Reviewed by Allen C. Guelzo
Sunday, November 6, 2005

TEAM OF RIVALS

The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

By Doris Kearns Goodwin

Simon & Schuster. 916 pp. $35

The Constitution makes no provision for a president's cabinet. After all, no one in the Constitutional Convention in 1787 ever thought the office of the president would require much more than secretarial help. If there was to be a council of state or an assembly of sage heads in the new republic, the Framers expected that it could be found in the Senate. But the Senate, as George Washington discovered, was too political and fractious a body to play that role. And the men he had invited to serve as his executive secretaries -- Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Henry Knox -- were of such extraordinary abilities that by the end of Washington's first administration, a "cabinet" of advisers and administrators with wide latitude to execute presidential policy was already emerging.

This did not mean that the president's cabinet acquired any predictable shape. Cabinets have been recruited by wildly different rules, from the purest cronyism (under Andrew Jackson) to the purest impartiality (under John Quincy Adams, who tried to construct a cabinet that included some of his deadliest political opponents). Sometimes cabinet secretaries have been submissive messengers of the president's will; sometimes they have used their independent political power to subvert his policies. Not even the size of the cabinet has remained stable. Washington had a cabinet of four (if we include his attorney general); John Adams added a fifth, the secretary of the navy, in 1798. George W. Bush has 15 cabinet posts, along with four other cabinet-rank executive positions. To date, almost no serious critical literature exists to give it all coherence.

Which means that the task the popular historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has set for herself in writing the history of Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet in Team of Rivals is neither easy nor immediately attractive. But this immense, finely boned book is no dull administrative or bureaucratic history; rather, it is a story of personalities -- a messianic drama, if you will -- in which Lincoln must increase and the others must decrease.

By the time Lincoln became president, cabinet-making had reached the point where cabinet members threatened to overshadow the president who had nominated them. The weak-kneed presidents of the 1850s -- Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan -- were routinely upstaged or subverted by their secretaries of war and state. And Lincoln did not look at first like any great improvement. He had earned a leading place in Republican Party politics in Illinois and snatched some fleeting national attention by challenging the mighty Stephen Douglas for the Senate in 1858 -- and almost winning the Democrat's seat. But Lincoln enjoyed nothing like the stature of New York's William H. Seward, Ohio's Salmon P. Chase (the John McCain of mid-century Republicanism), Pennsylvania's Simon Cameron or Missouri's Edward Bates. Yet obscurity cut both ways: Seward, Chase and the others had spent so long in the political limelight that each had acquired a legion of unforgiving enemies. Lincoln, at least, had offended none, and so the nomination swung to him. But once elected, he had to come to terms with the damaged egos of the party's jilted, and there was no guarantee that they would defer to this little known circuit lawyer from the prairies. Losing the nomination humiliated Seward, and Chase writhed with ambition for the presidency. These were exactly the sort of advisers whom Lincoln, as an executive-branch novice, would have been well advised to keep far away from Washington. Instead, he offered the State Department to Seward, the War Department to Cameron and the Treasury to Chase, knowing that (in the days before the creation of a professional civil service) he was also handing them the keys to the federal patronage system and the opportunity to build rival political empires of their own.

Lincoln did this partly because he had no real choice. He was painfully aware of his outsider status in Washington, and with no close political allies of national stature, he had no one else to whom he could turn to give his administration political ballast. Partly, Lincoln was guided by his long association with the Whig Party. The Whigs split and disintegrated as a national political party in the mid-1850s, and Lincoln had gone over to the new Republican Party in 1856. But his old political habits retained their hold on him, including the lofty Whig assertion that they were above partisanship -- statesmen rather than party hacks, dedicated to promoting national unity rather than special interests. It was entirely consistent with Lincoln's old Whig instincts to create "an administration of all the talents" (to borrow an old parliamentary phrase), even if the people he invited into it could be expected to stab him in the back.

But Lincoln's selection of a cabinet of rivals was also an expression of a shrewdness that few people could appreciate in 1861. Keeping Seward and Chase within his administration gave him more opportunities to control them and fewer opportunities for them to create political mischief. It also guaranteed that, in any controversy, he could count on Seward and Chase to back-stab each other, allowing him to emerge afterward as the all-powerful settler of disputes. And to improve his chances for command by limiting their ability to roil the political waters, Lincoln added two of his loyalists, Montgomery Blair as postmaster general and Gideon Welles as secretary of the Navy, to serve as his bulldogs if any of the others grew uppity. Seward, Chase or Bates might have uncorked this plan by simply refusing Lincoln's initial proffer of a cabinet post. But the president had correctly guessed that none of them could bring himself to refuse even secondhand prestige. From that moment, Goodwin observes, Lincoln had them in his power, and he never let them go. "He is managing this war, the draft, foreign relations, and planning a reconstruction of the Union, all at once," marveled Lincoln's secretary, John Hay, in 1863. "I never knew with what tyrannous authority he rules the Cabinet, till now. The most important things he decides and there is no cavil."

Team of Rivals tells the story of Lincoln's prudent political management as a highly personal tale, not a political or bureaucratic one. Goodwin's Seward is primarily the wounded but ultimately resilient politico who becomes Lincoln's cheerleader, rather than the manager of a vast network of diplomatic personnel and paperwork. Goodwin's Chase is the envious, holier-than-thou puritan whose passion for recognition and affirmation reduces everyone, including his daughter Kate, to a cipher for his own advancement; the book gives us very little about Chase's superb management of the Treasury. These are not novel interpretations, but the portraits are drawn in spacious detail and with great skill. In this respect, Team of Rivals is a strictly conventional sort of narrative that does not press much beyond the horizons set in 1946 by Burton J. Hendrick's classic Lincoln's War Cabinet . But good narrative in American history is what we lack, and Goodwin's narrative powers are great.

Like Seward and Hay, Goodwin comes to the close of Team of Rivals amazed and delighted to find "that Abraham Lincoln would emerge the undisputed captain of this most unusual cabinet" and thereby "prove to others a most unexpected greatness." Those who had known Lincoln before would have nodded appreciatively. Leonard Swett, who rode the Illinois circuit courts with Lincoln in the old days, once remarked that "beneath a smooth surface of candor and an apparent declaration of all his thoughts and feelings, he exercised the most exalted tact and the wisest discrimination. He handled and moved men remotely as we do pieces upon a chessboard." That "tact" saved the Union. It also mastered his cabinet. Team of Rivals will move readers to wonder whether the former might have been easier than the latter. ?

Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College and a two-time winner of the Lincoln Prize for "Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President" and "Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America."


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