As I noted earlier this week, the supposed brilliance of the so-called “team of rivals” idea was pretty much all in Doris Kearns Goodwins’ head.
Today, Historian James Oakes picks up on theme and notes that Lincoln’s idea wasn’t all that original:
[T]here was nothing new in what Lincoln did. By tradition, presidents-elect reserved a cabinet position, often secretary of state, for the leading rival in their party. John Quincy Adams inaugurated the practice by appointing one of his presidential rivals, Henry Clay, to that post. It was a controversial move in 1824; enemies of Adams denounced the appointment as a corrupt bargain.
By the 1850s, the practice had become a tradition. In that decade, Presidents Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan installed in their cabinets men who had been major rivals for their party’s nomination. Daniel Webster, who lost the Whig Party nod in 1848, became Fillmore’s secretary of state. William Marcy, after failing to win the 1852 Democratic nomination, took the same position in Pierce’s cabinet. Lewis Cass, the Democratic nominee in 1848 and a man whose presidential dreams never diminished, was appointed Buchanan’s secretary of state in 1857. These were not notably successful administrations. Most historians agree that Pierce and Buchanan rank among the worst presidents in American history. There was nothing particularly unusual, or even impressive, when Lincoln followed this well-established practice.
And Oakes goes on to note, as the previous article did, that Lincoln’s cabinet was far from harmonious and often worked at cross purposes. Quite honestly, I think it’s only the fact that Lincoln took control of most of the day-to-day operational matters that his Cabinet Secretaries should’ve been handling that saved the entire Administration, and likely the Union, from descending into chaos.
Oakes also gets the prize for quote of the day on this subject:
There is little doubt that Abraham Lincoln was a great president. But not much of what made him great can be discerned in his appointment of a contentious, envious and often dysfunctional collection of prima donnas to his cabinet.