Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2005) — Review

© 2013 Peter Free


15 January 2013



What makes Team of Rivals exceptional — is exactly what one well respected reviewer rejected


My comments are brief because there are highly competent reviews of this book everywhere.  But there are a handful of aspects that I think are too often overlooked.


Let me introduce these by tackling reviewer Jason L. S. Raia’s understandable criticism of the book, which he posted at



Goodwin has made a significant contribution to the already voluminous collection of Lincoln and Civil War studies. Impeccably researched, there are near 150 pages of notes, referring often to previously unknown primary resources.


Though many will buy this monstrosity of a book because of all the buzz, the truth is, few will finish.


Goodwin is no David McCullough; she is not a storyteller. She is an historian, and her writing is often stilted and overwhelming to the reader, two of the traditional hallmarks of historical writing.

One last complaint. Goodwin dedicates too much time and too much ink to her favorite tangents: Kate Chase and Mary Todd Lincoln.


She could have significantly slimmed down this tome by removing the repetitious accounts of the Washington social scene during the war. Instead, Goodwin could have made a second contribution to the literature by writing a book on Kate Chase, Mary Todd Lincoln, and the women of the Civil War.


© 2013 Jason L. S. Raia, Great research, tough to finish, (04 August 2006) (paragraph split)



Let’s flip Mr. Raia’s criticism on its head


I mean no disrespect to Mr. Raia.  His insightful criticisms are very probably accurate for the majority of people.


But, in my view, one of the strengths of Team of Rivals is its focus on the extended families of the principles, which often equally helpfully traipses on to people far outside that immediate circle.  These jaunts illuminate the times in a way that no other writing technique could do.


Goodwin’s scope includes brief vignettes that briefly illustrate even children’s characters and doings.  These give the book a true to life flavor that is too often absent in historical writing.


Specifically, and contrary to Mr. Raia’s criticism, I was glad to learn how inordinately important the highly gifted Kate Chase was to her (often detestable) father, Salmon P. Chase.  And I much preferred her character and life struggle to his.  That she died in poverty and unhappiness was saddening.  She deserved better.


Similarly, I was pleased to notice that Mary Lincoln was not just the mental case that she is often portrayed to have been.  Her intentionally unpublicized visits to care for wounded soldiers in Washington, D.C. hospitals, for example, was something I had not known.  (Despite having been trained as an historian and having read a lot about the Civil War era.)


A series of similar examples, including accounts of Mrs. Lincoln’s importance to the social scene, had me admiring the First Lady — who had the misfortune of struggling with obvious mental illness throughout most of her life.


In fact, of the people covered by the volume, Mary Lincoln’s life was arguably assaulted by the highest volume of serial sorrows.  Unlike Mr. Raia, I think her triumphs and her woes belong.  Who, after all, would buy a separate book about the Mrs. Lincoln, whom everyone thinks they can easily dismiss as a loon?  By incorporating her into Team of Rivals, Goodwin elevates Mrs. Lincoln to her deserved rank in history.


In sum, Team of Rivals makes it clear just how important women were to American history, even in an era in which they were not allowed to directly control events.  That is something that most Civil War era history does not let us in on.



An example of the book’s vital breadth and depth


Goodwin spends a great deal of time on Secretary of State, Henry Seward, and Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton.  Characteristically, she tells the story by interjecting exact quotations from each — and from witnesses about each.


What preeminently struck me, thanks to Mrs. Goodwin’s depth of scope, was the towering administrative determination and pinnacle-level competence that the often abrasive Edwin Stanton contributed to the war effort.  Without him, it is arguably unlikely that the Union would have been preserved.


Though author Goodwin proves that President Lincoln, alone, was the organizing and directing political and moral genius behind all aspects of the Civil War era effort — she also proves that the Union’s success could not have been achieved, without vital contributions from his cabinet of often feuding and gifted rivals.


It is a remarkable story on many levels.



Going deeper — Goodwin’s human touch


I quarrel, too, with Mr. Raia’s characterization that Goodwin is not an especially good story teller.


I found myself unable to put the book down.  Goodwin managed to make me care about the dozens of people she wrote about.  It would be an insensitive reader, who does not vicariously experience the inescapable sadnesses that haunted virtually every one of the many families depicted.


Pertinent here is Goodwin’s frank depiction the high child mortality rate that characterized the century. The emotional impact of losing these children would be lacking, had not Goodwin taken the time to introduce us to vignettes characterizing the many young people who died.


Team of Rivals’ epilogue briefly traces the distressing events that haunted many of these prominent leaders even at the end of their lives.


One is left experiencing Lincolnesque melancholy — and the compensating realization that courage and hope are products of determined soul.


These qualities are those in which Abraham Lincoln shone most brightly.  And why his legacy remains powerfully motivating, even today.  He was, ultimately, a spiritual leader.  As such, President Lincoln is one of the most remarkable figures in human history.



The moral? — Team of Rivals is a magnificent piece of historical research and writing


A+ by any reasonable standard.


That said, I do accept that Mr. Raia’s judgment, regarding the book’s appeal for the majority of readers, is probably more accurate than mine.