"TEAM of RIVALS"

Salmon Chase knew he had a silly name, and he was embarrassed by it, because he thought himself destined to be president of the United States.

He considered changing his name and came up with "Spencer de Chaucey," which, if possible, was worse than Salmon Chase. That says a good deal about why Chase never got to be president, despite his tremendous intellectual gifts, self-discipline and high moral sensibility. He had a tone-deaf awkwardness around his fellow men.

That's one of the tidbits I learned in "Team of Rivals," Doris Kearns Goodwin's latest book, a narrative about Abraham Lincoln and four key members of his presidential cabinet he assembled in 1861, three of whom had been his rivals in seeking the Republican nomination just a few months before.

Most of the book's first third consists of the entwined parallel political biographies of Lincoln, Chase and William Seward. Edwin Stanton enters the book later, and by a different route. Edward Bates' appearance is patchy, since he spent most of the crucial pre-war years in cheerful domestic retirement with his wife and 17 children until the crisis of 1860 lured him back into politics.

Their stories are the stories of the times; political men of the North and border states who gravitate from the center into the radical Republican party under the pressure of a fracturing national political system.

The most memorable of them, after Lincoln, is Seward, the consumate, charming New York politician, with his own Karl Rove-like figure in Thurlow Weed to do the dirty work while Seward kept his hands, mostly, clean.

The 1860 Republican nomination was supposed to be his coronation. But he had made too many enemies on his ascent to the throne. Chase, too, expected the nomination as a just reward for a lifetime of devotion to the causes that formed the Republican platform. In this clash of titans, Lincoln played the game of being the modest candidate who would be every delegate's second choice. Then he waited for the plot to spin out.

It was a masterful bit of politics, relying on a little luck, a little chicanery, and the sort of back-room deal-making that drained out of American life in the late 20th century. It is sobering to realize that under the current primary system, a Lincoln never would stand a chance of being nominated, much less elected.

Chase and Seward had burning ambitions to be president, while Lincoln had an ambition to be great among his fellow men.

The best quality of this book is the wealth of material Goodwin gathers on the lives of the four cabinet members, most of which will be new even to readers roughly familiar with 19th century American history. This richness renders the long blanks in Lincoln's history all the more stark. There's little new here on Lincoln himself, because the thin file that exists on his background has been hashed and re-hashed for decades.

After the imbroglio of the wild 1860 election, however, the book settles down into a conventional history of the Northern government during the Civil War. The "rivals" become less important, except as mirrors to reflect Lincoln as he grapples with the war.

Still, it's like seeing a familiar scene from a different perspective. There is a well-known daguerreotype of Lincoln's inaugural, taken from out in the crowd, looking up the Capitol steps. This book feels like seeing the same scene from the seats behind the new president, looking out past his shoulders.

Goodwin's starry-eyed Lincoln biography grows whiggish. If some crisis erupts and Lincoln does nothing, then his masterly inactivity proves his genius. If some crisis erupts and he makes a sudden change, then the bold stroke proves his genius.

Goodwin swallows whole Lincoln's assertion that he read instinctively the temper of the Northern people, and took no step, however necessary, before he felt the public was mentally prepared for it. This, too, of course, she considers evidence of his genius.

But as it is impossible to rewind the tape of history and do it another way, no one, including Goodwin, knows if Lincoln was right or not. Certainly the violent explosion of resistance to the military draft suggests Lincoln sometimes read the people poorly. But that whole affair is passed over in a few paragraphs in Goodwin's book, even though conscription was as contentious in 1862 as emancipation, to which Goodwin devotes many pages.

Very well; republics need secular saints, and long ago we decided Lincoln was to be one of ours. Centuries before that, the historians of Athens and Rome larded their chronicles with palpable fables to give the people objects of national veneration. At least with a purely fictional Numa or Theseus, you don't have the embarrassment of explaining the awkward things he really did.

Such as Lincoln's appalling transgressions of basic American rights and separations, in the name of presidential war powers. There come points where even a staunch apologist like Goodwin can't justify what was done in the North. Then she turns to the shabby lawyer's trick of abusing the plaintiffs. Everyone opposed to the administration is a traitor, or a drunk, or both.

Southerners, needless, to say, come off uniformly evil in this book, a grossly deformed race of "slaveocrats." All Constitutional scruples by Southern men are swept aside, and all their words and deeds written off as the product of a love of slavery. Calhoun and Taney are mere cardboard characters; Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens, Lincoln's one-time friend, barely raises his head. The murderous John Brown here is a mere "abolitionist," more muddled in his tactics than wrong in his aims, while it's the Southern reaction to him that is "zealous."

Still, there are revelations. I have spent much of the past five years researching and writing on the woefully understudied topic of slavery in the Northern states, but not until I read this book did I realize that Seward himself was raised in a New York slaveowning family.

Goodwin also is excellent in writing on the role of wives (and in some cases daughters or others who stood in as surrogates) in political life.

She deals ably with the topic of the warmth of male friendships in "an era when close male friendships, accompanied by open expressions of affection and passion, were familiar and socially acceptable."

How amusing that the Victorians can shock us prudish modern folk with the image of American men sharing beds, walking arm-in-arm, and writing frankly to one another of love and jealousy. Overheated modern imaginations conjure up rumors of homosexuality out of this material (James Buchanan is a frequent target), and if Goodwin had been so inclined she could have called her book "Team of Lovers" and probably convinced a great many gullible readers.

Instead, she dismisses all this nonsense and sanely quotes a modern historian of the period, to the effect that this "preoccupation with elemental sex" reveals more about us and our times than about them and theirs.

Goodwin is a competent prose stylist. If she never writes a line that sticks in the memory, she never writes the sort of grammatical train wreck sentences historians seem prone to producing.

Yet through all her black-and-white vision of the Civil War, Goodwin's Lincoln emerges from this book with his famous mercy for Southerners intact. And it is Chase, the least attractive figure in the book, who is the most strident abolitionist. Had she thought more about that, Goodwin might even have made a better book than this one, though this one is good enough.

INDEX - AUTHOR



Online Work

The SCIOLIST

ONLINE ETYMOLOGY DICTIONARY

SLAVERY in the NORTH

CIVIL WAR and AFTER

Cold War Nightmares
We grew up thinking there was a pretty good chance, maybe 50:50 or worse, that the whole world was going to go up in a nuclear fireball holocaust some day in the near future, without any warning to any of us.

Missing Pieces
Rounded like a cream-colored cast-iron bank-safe, deep and delicious. I sometimes forget they didn't have it till the end.

Allure Earth Day
Environmentalists often share with creationists the utterly unscientific view that the world was set spinning in one complete, harmonious form.

Under the Grass
Memorial Day began not in one place but in many. Hilltop cemeteries across the North, behind old stone churches and meetings, with long views across the farms.

Lincoln on Dissent
The Great Emancipator shows his political skill, in a way Bush and Cheney can only envy and never hope to match, in pulling the rug out from under the Democratic opposition.

Founders
Their political theory may have been wanting, their views on race certainly were deplorable by modern standards, but neither were they sitting passively at home in June 1776.

Our George
George Washington was the steady hand on the tiller when we set sail as a nation.

'Washington's Crossing'
Hessian prisoners were so well treated that, once they had got over the shock of it, they could be sent from one holding place to the next without an armed escort.

Heroes
Not all of them are soldiers, but the new war sweeps up more than soldiers in its causes. And all believed in something.

Democracy
To understand the founders of American democracy, you have to stand where the founders stood, and then look back, from there, at the past they knew.

February 28, 2006 Douglas Harper Moe: "Say, what's a good word for scrutiny?" Shemp: "uh ... SCRUTINY!"