Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Team of Rivals

By Shawn Healy
After years of procrastination, my honeymoon offered ample opportunity to tackle Doris Kearns Goodwin's monstrous assemblage (757 pages) on the Lincoln Administration, aptly titled Team of Rivals. I first encountered Goodwin as an undergrad when I was assigned Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. If unencumbered access characterized this breakthrough book, her latest biographical foray is punctuated by her thorough attention to previous scholarship on the four men central to the plot: Edward Bates, Salmon P. Chase, Abraham Lincoln, and William H. Seward.

Each of these four men had a claim upon the 1860 Republican nomination for President, with Chase and Seward representing the more liberal elements of the fledgling party, and Bates the conservative counterpart. Lincoln positioned himself firmly at the center of a party bent on halting the expansion of slavery in new territories and states, and lucked into having the convention in his home state (the Wigwam in Chicago). As the multiple ballot process proceeded, the nomination turned into a two-man tug-of-war between Seward and Lincoln, with Honest Abe ultimately prevailing.

Lincoln wasted little time reuniting the party as it entered perhaps the most polarized election in history, calling upon his former rivals to campaign on his behalf. Upon victory, he quickly brought these very capable men into his administration, appointing Seward Secretary of State, Chase to Secretary of Treasury, and Bates as Attorney General. Over time, Seward and Lincoln would grow incredibly close, as the railsplitting prarie lawyer won the respect and admiration of the distinguished New York statesman. Bates and Lincoln enjoyed an amicable, if distant relationship, while Chase remained a conniving rival until Lincoln finally called his fourth bluff by accepting his resignation letter. The former Ohio Senator and Governor thought he rightfully deserved the 1860 nomination and continually plotted his course to steal it back four years later.

Throughout, Lincoln understand each man's strategic importance in his governing coalition and immense political talents they brought to the table. More than anything, Goodwin's portrait is one of remarkable leadership where the president placed his ego aside and massaged those of his inferiors. He refused to react rashly to adversity, assumed responsibility for all of his administration's actions, and patiently poked these men to lead the nation through its most trying chapter.

It should be said that Bates is little more than a bit player in Goodwin's narrative, and that Edwin Stanton, a Democrat, assumes the Secretary of War position in Lincoln's cabinet after Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania proved inadequate, and plays a central role in the plot from this point forward. Seward and Chase serve as perfect foils for the positives and pitfalls of Lincoln's approach to leadership. While Seward served ably and honorably, Chase sought to undermine his Commander-in-Chief at seemingly every juncture.

Paralllels to the Obama Administration proliferated last winter as he assembled his own leadership team. By absorbing former presidential rivals Joe Biden (VP), Hillary Clinton (Secretary of State), and Tom Vilsack (Secretary of Agriculture) into his adminitration, Obama, like Lincoln, tended to the wounds of the nomination process and unified his Democratic Party. The contingent would have been larger had Bill Richardson survived the pay-to-play allegations that surfaced in New Mexico. Obama also extended a hand to his rival Republicans, retaining Bush's Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, and appointing retiring Congressman Ray LaHood as Secretary of Transportation.

Obama's verdict is years forthcoming, but early returns point to mixed success. His first 100 days were enormously productive, but he ran into a rough patch this summer. Biden has taken the administration off message at many junctures, yet Clinton came on board and vigorously pursued Obama's foreign policy goals. It remains to be seen if she and others still harbor presidential ambitions, particularly if things continue to go south for the rookie president. Moreover, Obama's outreach to Republicans has failed to deliver the bipartisanship he vigorously touted throughout last year's campaign. Floor votes in Congress have been intensely polarized, and compromise remains elusive as they tackle health care reform, climate change, and before long, deficit reduction.

Goodwin showed us the benefits of presidents who surround themselves with talented rivals who question authority and enable coalition building. Lincoln's ultimate success was as much a tribute to his own leadership ability as it is to his cabinet's collective wisdom and experience. As his once express-driven agenda is crippled by congressional opponents, organized interests, and declining public opinion, Obama would be wise to heed both variables in this complicated equation.


Post a Comment

<< Home


Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Subscribe to
Posts [Atom]

About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at