"Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture" — Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln isn't your ordinary Civil War history book. At more than 700 pages of text and 100+ of notes, the paperback that RadRob recommended and lent me was an anvil in my backpack for a few weeks as I read it during subway commutes. It's fascinating and well-written. The basic thesis: Lincoln was wise enough to build his Cabinet out of the politicians who fought him for the 1860 Presidential nomination, smart enough to (mostly) keep them from stabbing one another, and leader enough to harness their diverse managerial talents to win the war, save the nation, and eliminate slavery.
Goodwin's exposition is generally chronological and focuses on the main contenders for the Republican ticket during the crucial pre-war election: William Seward, Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates, who respectively became Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, and Attorney General. Goodwin's portrait of Lincoln is glowing. From Chapter 2:
What Lincoln lacked in preparation and guidance, he made up for with his daunting concentration, phenomenal memory, acute reasoning faculties, and interpretive penetration. Though untutored in the sciences and the classics, he was able to read and reread his books until he understood them fully. "Get the books, and read and study them," he told a law student seeking advice in 1855. It did not matter, he continued, whether the reading be done in a small town or a large city, by oneself or in the company of others, "the books, and your capacity for understanding them, are just the same in all places ... Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed, is more important than any other one thing."
As Goodwin describes it, a big part of Lincoln's strength was his ability to let go of the past, forgive those who wronged him, never hold grudges, and turn former enemies into his allies. He also practiced a personal idea-capture technique that's most appealing, as described in Chapter 20 in the context of an 1863 public letter he wrote on a wartime civil liberties controversy:
... "Often an idea about it would occur to me which seemed to have force and make perfect answer to some of the things that were said and written about my actions," he later told a visitor. "I never let one of these ideas escape me, but wrote it on a scrap of paper." Now he would have to cobble those scraps into a cogent argument that the American public would accept.
After reading Doris Goodwin's exposition the tragic necessity of the Civil War now makes a lot more sense to me. My eyes were also opened to a considerable amount of local (Washington DC area) history that I never suspected, including fascinating events that took place on the Blair estate here in Silver Spring, Maryland. The forthcoming movie, which focuses only on the final four months of Lincoln's life, may or may not be worthwhile; this book definitely is.