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The “Team Of Rivals” — Not Much Of A Team, But Definitely Rivals

by @ 3:23 pm on November 18, 2008. Filed under History, Politics

Lincoln historian Matthew Pinsker notes that the so-called “Team of Rivals” didn’t work out so well in practice:

People love Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book on the Lincoln presidency, “Team of Rivals.” More important, for this moment in American history, Barack Obama loves it. The book is certainly fun to read, but its claim that Abraham Lincoln revealed his “political genius” through the management of his wartime Cabinet deserves a harder look, especially now that it seems to be offering a template for the new administration.

“Lincoln basically pulled in all the people who had been running against him into his Cabinet,” is the way Obama has summarized Goodwin’s thesis, adding, “Whatever personal feelings there were, the issue was how can we get this country through this time of crisis.”

That’s true enough, but the problem is, it didn’t work that well for Lincoln. There were painful trade-offs with the “team of rivals” approach that are never fully addressed in the book, or by others that offer happy-sounding descriptions of the Lincoln presidency.


Consider this inconvenient truth: Out of the four leading vote-getters for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination whom Lincoln placed on his original team, three left during his first term — one in disgrace, one in defiance and one in disgust.

Simon Cameron was the disgraced rival, Lincoln’s failed first secretary of War. Goodwin essentially erased him from her group biography, not mentioning him in the book’s first 200 pages, even though he placed third, after Seward and Lincoln, on the first Republican presidential ballot. Cameron proved so corrupt and inept that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives censured him after he was removed from office in 1862.

Chase was the defiant rival. As Goodwin acknowledges, the Treasury chief never reconciled himself to Lincoln’s victory, continuously angling to replace him. Lincoln put up with this aggravation until he secured renomination and then dumped his brilliant but arrogant subordinate because, in his words, their “mutual embarrassment” was no longer sustainable.

Atty. Gen. Edward Bates was the disgusted rival. The elder statesman — 67 when he was appointed — never felt at home in the Lincoln Cabinet and played only a marginal role in shaping policy. He resigned late in the first term. His diary reflects deep discontent with what he considered the relentless political maneuvering of his Cabinet peers and even the president.

Of the original four members of the so-called “Team of Rivals” it was only William Seward who remained in the Cabinet, and by Lincoln’s side, throughout the remainder of his term.

It’s also important to note that Lincoln was staffing his Administration during a truly unique time in American history. The nation was, quite literally, coming apart at the seams and there was some wisdom in creating an Administration represented all segments of the country. In fact, that was partly Lincoln’s logic in apppointing Democrats such as Edwin Stanton (who replaced Simon Cameron as Secretary of War less than a year into the Lincoln Administration) and his second-term Vice-President Andrew Johnson, who was one of the few Southern Democrats not to side with the Confederacy.

Even there, though, Lincoln didn’t necessarily do a good job picking people. As Secretary of War, Stanton repeatedly tried to expand the authority of his office far beyond its intended purview. The only reason Lincoln never fired him was because he knew Stanton was an effective administrator of the most important department in the entire Administration. As for Johnson, well, he was apparently intoxicated at his own Inauguration, and mismanged the years after Lincoln’s assassination in a manner that had lasting implications for American history.

So, the simplistic version of history — that Abraham Lincoln brought his rivals into the Cabinet and together they saved the Union — simply isn’t true:

Over the years, it has become easy to forget that hard edge and the once bad times that nearly destroyed a president. Lincoln’s Cabinet was no team. His rivals proved to be uneven as subordinates. Some were capable despite their personal disloyalty, yet others were simply disastrous.

Lincoln was a political genius, but his model for Cabinet-building should stand more as a cautionary tale than as a leadership manual.

The fact of the matter is that, on more than one ocassion, it seemed highly likely that the Lincoln Administration would end in utter failure.  The fact that it didn’t is as much a testament to good fortune as it is to the skill of the Sixteenth President of the United States.

H/T: The Crossed Pond

One Response to “The “Team Of Rivals” — Not Much Of A Team, But Definitely Rivals”

  1. [...] As I noted earlier this week, the supposed brilliance of the so-called “team of rivals” idea was pretty much all in Do… [...]

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