By Dr Andrew Kania
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln is the title of a Pulitzer Prize-winning work by Doris Kearns Goodwin.
Published in 2005, Goodwin’s work would later be used as the basis for the acclaimed 2012 motion picture, Lincoln.
Where it would be fair to say that the motion picture is far more widely known now than the book; it would also be well within the mark to say that the book has a lot more to instruct the audience than the film, due primarily to the limitation of time constraints.
The film, Lincoln, highlights the last few months of Abraham Lincoln’s life and office as President of the United States.
In particular the motion picture concentrates on the machinations as to how Abraham Lincoln was able to bring to fruition the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, a change that outlawed slavery.
Yet alternately, Goodwins’ thesis cuts deeper than any one particular event in Lincoln’s tenure of office, but is a study of how this man, despised by many of his cabinet colleagues, was able to gain their respect and lead a Team of Rivals, and nation, out from the very precipice of defeat to a glorious, and bloody victory; not only against slavery, but also to bring together once more the United States of America, a political entity ripped apart by Civil War.
Doris Kearns Goodwin’s text is essentially a comparative study of four men’s lives: Abraham Lincoln (1809 – 1865), who won the 1860 Presidential election; and the three men who Lincoln subsequently appointed to his Cabinet, the very men who had stood against him in the race for President; all highly capable and ambitious men, and subsequently: his Secretary State, William Seward (1801–1872); his Attorney General, Edward Bates (1793–1869), and his Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon Chase (1808–1873).
Disappointingly, we are not introduced to any of these three rivals in any worthy fashion in Lincoln, something that detracts immensely from the potential power of the story that needed to be told.
What makes Team of Rivals such a compelling read is how Lincoln’s style of leadership is so vastly different to what we see now on our nation’s political scene.
The contest for the Presidency in 1860 was electrically charged not only with the normal competition for high public office, but more so because of the looming expectancy that a civil war was soon to take place.
The men who ran against Lincoln had credentials that, on face value, seemed to far outweigh those of the lawyer from Springfield, Illinois.
In fact, Seward was considered to be the front-runner, a man so confident of securing the Presidency, that in the months preceding the canvassing for nomination of the Republican ticket, he had taken leave to go on a Grand Tour of Europe.
Seward would discover soon enough that Lincoln, although a rustic in manner, speech and general demeanour, was a man only too acutely aware of political shaping and maneuvering.
As Goodwin writes: “Lincoln understood that the greatest challenge for a leader in a democratic society is to educate public opinion.”
Thus, instead of basking in the warm light of a presumed victory, Lincoln sought to win hearts and minds.
He did this not by kissing babies, or by making false and shallow promises, but by revealing himself to be a man of the people; not just a politician seeking votes – but a man, honest, self-deprecating and authentic, a man willing to work for them, and for their fractured nation.
Goodwin would comment that in listening to a speech made by Lincoln, the people would be of the mind that they were listening to their very selves thinking out aloud.
Lincoln won his ‘rivals’ respect over time. Seward who was publically shamed by his loss to Lincoln, and privately crushed, in humility accepted Lincoln’s offer to be Secretary of State. Seward, crest-fallen, offered his services for the good of the nation.
In time, Lincoln would spend nearly every evening at Seward’s home, laughing and telling stories – the two men would become the best of friends, and Seward would eventually concede that the right man had won the election. History would also record the indebtedness of the United States to Seward.
The Secretary of War, Stanton, another of the cabinet who had had initial reservations about Lincoln, and who was irritated by Lincoln’s gift as a raconteur, (especially when things were serious), would not doubt at Lincoln’s death, that he, Stanton, had walked beside rare greatness.
It was Stanton who at the head of Lincoln’s death-bed commented when Lincoln breathed his last: “Now he belongs to the ages.”
But what can the present and leadership of our nation learn from Lincoln? It is obvious enough that we have no shortage of politicians who believe that they have the ability to lead our nation. But to lead a nation does not mean that one has to have the highest office in the land.
Lincoln understood that those who ran against him were men of great talent. He also understood that these men were disaffected, and that they believed that they could do as good a job or better than he in the role of President.
That is why Lincoln appointed such individuals to positions beside him in the Cabinet. Instead of cutting them away from him, so as to protect himself from any future threat Lincoln embraced his ‘rivals’.
As John Nicolay, Lincoln’s personal assistant would later explain: “[Lincoln’s] “first decision was one of great courage and self-reliance.” Each of his rivals was “sure to feel that the wrong man had been nominated.” A less confident man might have surrounded himself with personal supporters who would never question his authority.”
Lincoln was a great leader, because he was aware that to lead one had to bring out the best in those that you lead; one had to put these individuals in a position to make them shine, even if it meant that to do so, your own light seemed to flicker the less brighter.
Goodwin continues: “Later, Joseph Medill of the Chicago Tribune asked Lincoln why he had chosen a cabinet comprised of enemies and opponents.
He particularly questioned the president’s selection of the three men who had been his chief rivals for the Republican nomination, each of whom was still smarting from the loss. Lincoln’s answer was simple, straightforward, and shrewd.
“We needed the strongest men of the party in the Cabinet. We needed to hold our own people together. I had looked the party over and concluded that these were the very strongest men. Then I had no right to deprive the country of their services.”
How many of our present leaders, and not just those in politics, would be able to offer such words of magnanimity? Lincoln would not have won the war without his Team of Rivals.
His greatness lay, in part, in his self-confidence, that he did not feel threatened by the talents of others – but felt empowered by their presence.
A weak person seeks to destroy a ‘rival’ because of their goodness or talent; and thus being so, the ‘whole’ loses.
How much do we lose in our nation today, because our leaders are too weak?
Christ showed us on the very night that he was betrayed, what it means to lead. He knelt on the ground, and taking the foot of the man he had appointed to lead His Church, washed the feet of Peter.
Here was God, washing the foot of an individual who had described himself as a sinful man (cf. Luke 5: 8).
None of us is perfect. Even the great Saints have, so-often, been those who have recovered from great sin.
If Christ has shown us the way of servant leadership, why can we not also seek to draw out the best in others, by encouraging them to be so?
Perhaps our encouragement may not go appreciated; perhaps we may need to move ourselves from out of the spotlight for a time – but God has made humanity as a patch-work quilt, and none of us is so great of talent that we can better others in everything.
Our skills, combined in their best fashion, will achieve the maximum; for the converse, unbridled self-interest detracts from any ultimate purpose.
This being so, why not look into the eyes of others, not so as to see the reflection of ourselves in their eyes – but to understand that in these eyes there is somebody to be understood, and someone to be valued, and a higher purpose to be garnered by so doing.