LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
"Team of Rivals" is the title of a new biography of Abraham Lincoln and the men who helped him preserve the Union written by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. The book begins with a four-part biography tracing the lives and careers of Abraham Lincoln, William Henry Seward of New York who was Lincoln's Secretary of State, Salmon Chase of Ohio who was Treasury secretary and then chief justice, and Edward Bates of Missouri who was attorney general in the first Lincoln Cabinet. All four men were rivals for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860, the year that Lincoln won. Doris Kearns Goodwin joins us from member station WHYY in Philadelphia. She's on a book tour.
Ms. DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN (Author, "Team of Rivals"): Thank you. I'm glad to be with you.
WERTHEIMER: First of all, why write about the team, weaving together the history, the letters, the diaries of all four men, not just Lincoln?
Ms. GOODWIN: I knew that if I approached him flat, it would be very hard to come up with some sort of new angle. And as I started reading about these other guys, I realized that they, unlike Lincoln, had kept diaries and wrote thousands of letters, and they had insights into Lincoln that hadn't been used in a lot of the Lincoln biographies. So it gave me a comfort in a certain sense that maybe I could have a different angle on this most written about character.
WERTHEIMER: Now the other three men you write about were far better off financially at least in their childhoods. They were better educated, had better opportunities. As young men, they made happier marriages than he did. All of them seemed to have a brighter future than Lincoln did.
Ms. GOODWIN: Absolutely. In fact, that's what so interested me. Even though we know about Lincoln's log cabin, reading by candlelight at night, to just put it comparatively against the other guys, it makes you realize how more extraordinary it is that he was able to eventually be the one who won that Republican nomination. They were Phi Beta Kappa. They had read law with prominent people. They were surrounded by books when they grew up and somehow he was able to not only come up to them but to equal them in learning in the deepest sense of learning.
WERTHEIMER: The account of the nomination and Lincoln's election and waiting for the results and all that is fascinating in the book, but I'm going to fast forward here to the transition. He brought all three of his rivals into the Cabinet, plus later, Edwin Stanton, another brilliant man who had no very good opinion of Lincoln. Why did he do that? Why did he bring his opponents in, instead of reaching out for good and trusted friends, as presidents usually do, or for cronies even?
Ms. GOODWIN: Well, I think there were two reasons. One was the positive reason. He told somebody, `These are the strongest men in the country, the country is in a perilous state. I cannot deprive the country of their talents.' But I think he also knew that his own fledgling Republican Party was really scattering in terms of opinions. There were radicals, there were old Whigs, there were Democrats, there were conservatives, there were Liberty Party people. And these Cabinet guys represented various strands on that political spectrum. So he figured, `If I can get them to somehow agree within and if I have face-to-face time with them within, maybe I'll be able to control this coalition outside. So, again, it was one of those things where he was doing the right thing, but it was also politically very smart.
WERTHEIMER: He ultimately convinced most of them that in fact he should have been president instead of them, but he never convinced Salmon Chase.
Ms. GOODWIN: That is for sure. Chase is one of the most ambitious men that I think I've read about in history. And throughout Lincoln's term, even as he stayed a secretary of the Treasury, he would say terrible things about him, try to mobilize the radical community against him and did indeed try to run against him in 1864. Then the amazing thing, however, is that there's a vacancy on the Supreme Court after Lincoln's won that second nomination. And everyone comes and suggests various people, but Lincoln said, `No, I'm putting Chase on the court.' And they say, `How can you do that? He's said such terrible things about you.' `I know meaner things he said about me than anyone,' he said. `I'd rather swallow a chair than put him on this court. But he will be the best man for the emancipated slaves, and that's what's important as chief justice.' And it truly--he turned out to be that.
WERTHEIMER: I guess if we reason back from the result, the Union was preserved so this team of rivals was a success. It seems so impossible to me, given our current poisonous atmosphere among political rivals, that something like this could work. But, of course, then the country was literally torn apart.
Ms. GOODWIN: And maybe it seemed that the kind of divisions that were within the Cabinet were not as extreme as they would seem today. But could you imagine if we heard various Cabinet members today, as these guys did, talking about each other--`unmitigated scoundrel, liar, thief.' One of them wouldn't even go to the War Department, Blair, because he hated Stanton so much. But you're probably right because the larger country is falling apart and hundreds of thousands of people are dying. This might have seemed mild.
WERTHEIMER: So the team of rivals worked, do you think?
Ms. GOODWIN: It absolutely worked. I mean, interestingly, each one of them did become historically very good at their jobs. Secretary of State, it was said that Seward helped us to avoid war with England. Secretary of Treasury Chase kept the North afloat when the South had much more trouble keeping its bond and its economics understructure going. The attorney general did a very good job. Stanton is considered one of the great war secretaries of all time. Now the fact that they couldn't get along with each other, as long as they could get along with Lincoln, who made sure to spend as much special time with each of them so they wouldn't feel jealous, then it absolutely worked.
WERTHEIMER: Lincoln and Seward were very close after about the first year of the first term, and they continued to be close as long as Lincoln lived. You describe in some uncomfortable detail the death of Lincoln, also the attack on Seward which happened at the same time.
Ms. GOODWIN: There was a real intimate relationship that developed between those two; indeed, such an intimate relationship that when Seward was nearly killed himself with a Bowie knife, cutting his entire cheek off, they didn't want to tell him that Lincoln had died. They were afraid the shock would make him die, as well, but he knew it. He knew that Lincoln would have been the first person to see him after his near massacre that night. He saw a flag at half mast, great tears came down his cheeks, saying, `I know my president is dead. My friend, my captain, is dead.'
WERTHEIMER: Now I wanted to ask you about the writing of this book. Three years ago, when The Weekly Standard wrote a story about your book about the Kennedys and the Fitzgeralds, which included the revelation that portions of the text came directly from the work of another scholar, Lynn McTaggart, you settled that case with her years before that. But then, eventually, you just withdrew the book, and then you had the whole storm of public opinion to deal with, which I gather cost you something.
Ms. GOODWIN: Well, sure. And you accept that that's going to be a part of the price you pay for being a public figure. But I acknowledged the error at the time. The book was corrected in exactly the form that the author asked me to do it. But then when it came to the public attention again three years ago, there was some criticism about the form of correction, so I decided to just withdraw the book until I could rethink whether or not it needed another edition or not. But the interesting thing is, you know, when you go through something like that, the best thing you can do is what I'd like to think Lincoln did time and again. You acknowledge that you made a mistake, you make sure that you work as hard as I have on this book, to make sure that everything is checked and double-checked, and I'm absolutely certain it is, and you get through it.
WERTHEIMER: You spent 10 years on this book on Lincoln, and you indicate that, obviously, he was a skillful politician but he was eloquent. He made brilliant speeches. He told folksy stories. He was funny. He was a reading man but he was, obviously, a talking man.
Ms. GOODWIN: Was he ever a talking man. I don't think I had fully absorbed how critical his gift for storytelling was in his political rise. And his stories were hilarious.
WERTHEIMER: You want to tell one?
Ms. GOODWIN: Lincoln used to tell this story of the Revolutionary War hero, Ethan Allen going over to Britain after the war was won. And the British people were still smarting over their loss, so they decided to humiliate him by putting a picture of General George Washington in the outhouse where he would have to see it. He went in the outhouse, and he came out smiling. And they said, `Well, didn't you see George Washington there?' `Yes,' he said. `Well, what did you think?' `Well,' he said, `I think there's nothing to make an Englishman (censored) faster than the sight of General George Washington. Perfect place for him.'
WERTHEIMER: Thank you very much for coming in.
Ms. GOODWIN: Oh, I appreciate it, Linda, very much myself.
WERTHEIMER: Doris Kearns Goodwin's book is called "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln." To hear more of our interview, go to npr.org.
You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
In her latest book, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin explores how Lincoln's extraordinary political acumen helped him overcome the obstacles of his presidency.
In her latest book, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin explores how Lincoln's extraordinary political acumen helped him overcome the obstacles of his presidency. Goodwin talks with Linda Wertheimer about the book.
Excerpt from Chapter One: Four Men Waiting
On May 18, 1860, the day when the Republican Party would nominate its candidate for president, Abraham Lincoln was up early. As he climbed the stairs to his plainly furnished law office on the west side of the public square in Springfield, Illinois, breakfast was being served at the 130-room Chenery House on Fourth Street. Fresh butter, flour, lard, and eggs were being put out for sale at the City Grocery Store on North Sixth Street. And in the morning newspaper, the proprietors at Smith, Wickersham & Company had announced the arrival of a large spring stock of silks, calicos, ginghams, and linens, along with a new supply of the latest styles of hosiery and gloves.
The Republicans had chosen to meet in Chicago. A new convention hall called the "Wigwam" had been constructed for the occasion. The first ballot was not due to be called until 10 a.m. and Lincoln, although patient by nature, was visibly "nervous, fidgety, and intensely excited." With an outside chance to secure the Republican nomination for the highest office of the land, he was unable to focus on his work. Even under ordinary circumstances many would have found concentration difficult in the untidy office Lincoln shared with his younger partner, William Herndon. Two worktables, piled high with papers and correspondence, formed a T in the center of the room. Additional documents and letters spilled out from the drawers and pigeonholes of an outmoded secretary in the corner. When he needed a particular piece of correspondence, Lincoln had to rifle through disorderly stacks of paper, rummaging, as a last resort, in the lining of his old plug hat, where he often put stray letters or notes.
Restlessly descending to the street, he passed the state capitol building, set back from the road, and the open lot where he played handball with his friends, and climbed a short set of stairs to the office of the Illinois State Journal, the local Republican newspaper. The editorial room on the second floor, with a central large wood-burning stove, was a gathering place for the exchange of news and gossip.
He wandered over to the telegraph office on the north side of the square to see if any new dispatches had come in. There were few outward signs that this was a day of special moment and expectation in the history of Springfield, scant record of any celebration or festivity planned should Lincoln, long their fellow townsman, actually secure the nomination. That he had garnered the support of the Illinois delegation at the state convention at Decatur earlier that month was widely understood to be a "complimentary" gesture. Yet if there were no firm plans to celebrate his dark horse bid, Lincoln knew well the ardor of his staunch circle of friends already at work on his behalf on the floor of the Wigwam.
The hands of the town clock on the steeple of the Baptist church on Adams Street must have seemed not to move. When Lincoln learned that his longtime friend James Conkling had returned unexpectedly from the convention the previous evening, he walked over to Conkling's office above Chatterton's jewelry store. Told that his friend was expected within the hour, he returned to his own quarters, intending to come back as soon as Conkling arrived.
Lincoln's shock of black hair, brown furrowed face, and deep-set eyes made him look older than his fifty-one years. He was a familiar figure to almost everyone in Springfield, as was his singular way of walking, which gave the impression that his long, gaunt frame needed oiling. He plodded forward in an awkward manner, hands hanging at his sides or folded behind his back. His step had no spring, his partner William Herndon recalled. He lifted his whole foot at once rather than lifting from the toes and then thrust the whole foot down on the ground rather than landing on his heel. "His legs," another observer noted, "seemed to drag from the knees down, like those of a laborer going home after a hard day's work."
His features, even supporters conceded, were not such "as belong to a handsome man." In repose, his face was "so overspread with sadness," the reporter Horace White noted, that it seemed as if "Shakespeare's melancholy Jacques had been translated from the forest of Arden to the capital of Illinois." Yet, when Lincoln began to speak, White observed, "this expression of sorrow dropped from him instantly. His face lighted up with a winning smile, and where I had a moment before seen only leaden sorrow I now beheld keen intelligence, genuine kindness of heart, and the promise of true friendship." If his appearance seemed somewhat odd, what captivated admirers, another contemporary observed, was "his winning manner, his ready good humor, and his unaffected kindness and gentleness." Five minutes in his presence, and "you cease to think that he is either homely or awkward."
Springfield had been Lincoln's home for nearly a quarter of a century. He had arrived in the young city to practice law at twenty-eight years old, riding into town, his great friend Joshua Speed recalled, "on a borrowed horse, with no earthly property save a pair of saddle-bags containing a few clothes." The city had grown rapidly, particularly after 1839, when it became the capital of Illinois. By 1860, Springfield boasted nearly ten thousand residents, though its business district, designed to accommodate the expanding population that arrived in town when the legislature was in session, housed thousands more. Ten hotels radiated from the public square where the capitol building stood. In addition, there were multiple saloons and restaurants, seven newspapers, three billiard halls, dozens of retail stores, three military armories, and two railroad depots.
Here in Springfield, in the Edwards mansion on the hill, Lincoln had courted and married "the belle of the town," young Mary Todd, who had come to live with her married sister, Elizabeth, wife of Ninian Edwards, the well-to-do son of the former governor of Illinois. Raised in a prominent Lexington, Kentucky, family, Mary had received an education far superior to most girls her age. For four years she had studied languages and literature in an exclusive boarding school and then spent two additional years in what was considered graduate study. The story is told of Lincoln's first meeting with Mary at a festive party. Captivated by her lively manner, intelligent face, clear blue eyes, and dimpled smile, Lincoln reportedly said, "I want to dance with you in the worst way." And, Mary laughingly told her cousin later that night, "he certainly did." In Springfield, all their children were born, and one was buried. In that spring of 1860, Mary was forty-two, Robert sixteen, William nine, and Thomas seven. Edward, the second son, had died at the age of three.
Their home, described at the time as a modest "two-story frame house, having a wide hall running through the centre, with parlors on both sides," stood close to the street and boasted few trees and no garden. "The adornments were few, but chastely appropriate," one contemporary observer noted. In the center hall stood "the customary little table with a white marble top," on which were arranged flowers, a silver-plated ice-water pitcher, and family photographs. Along the walls were positioned some chairs and a sofa. "Everything," a journalist observed, "tended to represent the home of a man who has battled hard with the fortunes of life, and whose hard experience had taught him to enjoy whatever of success belongs to him, rather in solid substance than in showy display."
During his years in Springfield, Lincoln had forged an unusually loyal circle of friends. They had worked with him in the state legislature, helped him in his campaigns for Congress and the Senate, and now, at this very moment, were guiding his efforts at the Chicago convention, "moving heaven & Earth," they assured him, in an attempt to secure him the nomination. These steadfast companions included David Davis, the Circuit Court judge for the Eighth District, whose three-hundred-pound body was matched by "a big brain and a big heart"; Norman Judd, an attorney for the railroads and chairman of the Illinois Republican state central committee; Leonard Swett, a lawyer from Bloomington who believed he knew Lincoln "as intimately as I have ever known any man in my life"; and Stephen Logan, Lincoln's law partner for three years in the early forties.
Many of these friendships had been forged during the shared experience of the "circuit," the eight weeks each spring and fall when Lincoln and his fellow lawyers journeyed together throughout the state. They shared rooms and sometimes beds in dusty village inns and taverns, spending long evenings gathered together around a blazing fire. The economics of the legal profession in sparsely populated Illinois were such that lawyers had to move about the state in the company of the circuit judge, trying thousands of small cases in order to make a living. The arrival of the traveling bar brought life and vitality to the county seats, fellow rider Henry Whitney recalled. Villagers congregated on the courthouse steps. When the court sessions were complete, everyone would gather in the local tavern from dusk to dawn, sharing drinks, stories, and good cheer.
In these convivial settings, Lincoln was invariably the center of attention. No one could equal his never-ending stream of stories nor his ability to reproduce them with such contagious mirth. As his winding tales became more famous, crowds of villagers awaited his arrival at every stop for the chance to hear a master storyteller. Everywhere he went, he won devoted followers, friendships that later emboldened his quest for office. Political life in these years, the historian Robert Wiebe has observed, "broke down into clusters of men who were bound together by mutual trust." And no political circle was more loyally bound than the band of compatriots working for Lincoln in Chicago.
The prospects for his candidacy had taken wing in 1858 after his brilliant campaign against the formidable Democratic leader, Stephen Douglas, in a dramatic senate race in Illinois that had attracted national attention. Though Douglas had won a narrow victory, Lincoln managed to unite the disparate elements of his state's fledgling Republican Party -- that curious amalgamation of former Whigs, antislavery Democrats, nativists, foreigners, radicals, and conservatives. In the mid-1850s, the Republican Party had come together in state after state in the North with the common goal of preventing the spread of slavery to the territories. "Of strange, discordant, and even, hostile elements," Lincoln proudly claimed, "we gathered from the four winds, and formed and fought the battle through." The story of Lincoln's rise to power was inextricably linked to the increasing intensity of the antislavery cause. Public feeling on the slavery issue had become so flammable that Lincoln's seven debates with Douglas were carried in newspapers across the land, proving the prairie lawyer from Springfield more than a match for the most likely Democratic nominee for the presidency.
Furthermore, in an age when speech-making prowess was central to political success, when the spoken word filled the air "from sun-up til sun-down," Lincoln's stirring oratory had earned the admiration of a far-flung audience who had either heard him speak or read his speeches in the paper. As his reputation grew, the invitations to speak multiplied. In the year before the convention, he had appeared before tens of thousands of people in Ohio, Iowa, Indiana, Wisconsin, Kentucky, New York, and New England. The pinnacle of his success was reached at Cooper Union in New York, where, on the evening of February 27, 1860, before a zealous crowd of more than fifteen hundred people, Lincoln delivered what the New York Tribune called "one of the happiest and most convincing political arguments ever made in this City" in defense of Republican principles and the need to confine slavery to the places where it already existed. "The vast assemblage frequently rang with cheers and shouts of applause, which were prolonged and intensified at the close. No man ever before made such an impression on his first appeal to a New-York audience."
Lincoln's success in the East bolstered his supporters at home. On May 10, the fired-up Republican state convention at Decatur nominated him for president, labeling him "the Rail Candidate for President" after two fence rails he had supposedly split in his youth were ceremoniously carried into the hall. The following week, the powerful Chicago Press and Tribune formally endorsed Lincoln, arguing that his moderate politics represented the thinking of most people, that he would come into the contest "with no clogs, no embarrassment," an "honest man" who represented all the "fundamentals of Republicanism," with "due respect for the rights of the South."
Still, Lincoln clearly understood that he was "new in the field," that outside of Illinois he was not "the first choice of a very great many." His only political experience on the national level consisted of two failed Senate races and a single term in Congress that had come to an end nearly a dozen years earlier. By contrast, the three other contenders for the nomination were household names in Republican circles. William Henry Seward had been a celebrated senator from New York for more than a decade and governor of his state for two terms before he went to Washington. Ohio's Salmon P. Chase, too, had been both senator and governor, and had played a central role in the formation of the national Republican Party. Edward Bates was a widely respected elder statesman, a delegate to the convention that had framed the Missouri Constitution, and a former congressman whose opinions on national matters were still widely sought.
Recognizing that Seward held a commanding lead at the start, followed by Chase and Bates, Lincoln's strategy was to give offense to no one. He wanted to leave the delegates "in a mood to come to us, if they shall be compelled to give up their first love." This was clearly understood by Lincoln's team in Chicago and by all the delegates whom Judge Davis had commandeered to join the fight. "We are laboring to make you the second choice of all the Delegations we can, where we can't make you first choice," Scott County delegate Nathan Knapp told Lincoln when he first arrived in Chicago. "Keep a good nerve," Knapp advised, "be not surprised at any result -- but I tell you that your chances are not the worst...brace your nerves for any result." Knapp's message was followed by one from Davis himself on the second day of the convention. "Am very hopeful," he warned Lincoln, but "dont be Excited."
The warnings were unnecessary -- Lincoln was, above all, a realist who fully understood that he faced an uphill climb against his better-known rivals. Anxious to get a clearer picture of the situation, he headed back to Conkling's office, hoping that his old friend had returned. This time he was not disappointed. As Conkling later told the story, Lincoln stretched himself upon an old settee that stood by the front window, "his head on a cushion and his feet over the end," while Conkling related all he had seen and heard in the previous two days before leaving the Wigwam. Conkling told Lincoln that Seward was in trouble, that he had enemies not only in other states but at home in New York. If Seward was not nominated on the first ballot, Conkling predicted, Lincoln would be the nominee.
Lincoln replied that "he hardly thought this could be possible and that in case Mr. Seward was not nominated on the first ballot, it was his judgment that Mr. Chase of Ohio or Mr. Bates of Missouri would be the nominee." Conkling disagreed, citing reasons why each of those two candidates would have difficulty securing the nomination. Assessing the situation with his characteristic clearheadedness, Lincoln could not fail to perceive some truth in what his friend was saying; yet having tasted so many disappointments, he saw no benefit in letting his hopes run wild. "Well, Conkling," he said slowly, pulling his long frame up from the settee, "I believe I will go back to my office and practice law."
From Team of Rivals, copyright Doris Kearns Goodwin. Reprinted with permission by the publisher.