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Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

By Doris Kearns Goodwin.

The book begins with an excellent scene setting chapter in Springfield Illinois, May 1860. And charts the day Abraham Lincoln found out he was to be nominated the Republican parties presidential nominee. Goodwin uses the first chapter to introduce us to Lincoln and the ‘team of rivals’ that would go on to make up Lincolns cabinet after his successful presidential campaign. The book then takes us through the lives of William Seward, Abe Lincoln, Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates from their origins through their political and professional lives right up to the time they became the most important and influential  men in the U.S. government during the American Civil War.

Goodwin holds your interest through every page, but the real epic stuff starts with the beginning of the war. The cabinet and the whole of the Republican party were from a generation who’s forefathers had kicked the British out with their monarchy and their other useless flummery years ago, and were involved in the creation of a country with liberty for all (even though as we know this hasn't happened, these blokes really believed in the ideal). Many of the party were radicals who demanded instant emancipation for slaves, and others were more conservative and believed in a gradual change. In the middle of all the infighting is AL, who from humble origins as a farmer’s son became, what could be argued strongly and seems from this book undoubtable, the greatest statesman and expert in political tactical diplomacy America has ever seen.

Goodwin has taken a huge topic and era (Lincolns life, cabinet, and the civil war), thoroughly researched it and made it into an absorbing and entertaining book. It really impressed me how she has constructed the narrative through direct quotes from letters between Lincoln and other cabinet members and military brass like General Sherman and General Grant as well as letters from many others who were a part of this huge story. Until I read this I didn’t realize how vast in lives lost and geography the civil war was. The battles of Knoxville, Cold Harbour, Gettysburg, and Vicksburg (to name a few) are all detailed in these pages. I suppose something as divisive as slavery that classes human beings as property was bound to cause a bit of a big kerfuffle, but this was fucking biblical. Thousands of acres of cotton burning, whole towns on both the Confederate and Union sides being torched and huge loss of life. An estimated 400,000 killed out of a population of 21 million.

The writer breaths life into all of the main players in this history book, and has detailed their personalities through her research as well as a writer would with a fictional character. Above them all though is Abraham Lincoln. The gangly, humorous, magnanimous, forward thinking great orator of these years which shaped the future of America. This book for me is both remarkable in what it has depicted and in the impact it had on me as a reader. A great book. I will leave it to one of Abe’s peers to sum up:

“I have no doubt that in history Lincoln will be the conspicuous figure of the war. He was incontestably the greatest man I ever knew”
(General Ulysses Grant, Military Commander of the Union Army)

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