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How Lincoln Chose His Cabinet Based on Their Strengths—Even Were They Opponents

Although a hefty read at 916 pages, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” is not scholarly. Yet the size of this prize-winning book conveys the weight of Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet choices, as well as the strategic mind that eventually garnered his rivals’ respect.

On the eve of the Civil War, the 16th president, who seemingly came out of obscurity to win the election over much more seasoned contenders, “made the unprecedented decision to incorporate his eminent rivals into his political family, the cabinet,” wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin. Lincoln’s choices of 1860 Republican nominees—New York Sen. William H. Seward, Ohio Gov. Salmon P. Chase, and Missouri judge and “distinguished elder statesman” Edward Bates for the coveted positions of secretary of state, secretary of the treasury, and attorney general, respectively—“was evidence of a profound self-confidence and a first indication of what would prove to others a most unexpected greatness,” wrote Goodwin in the book’s introduction.

“Team of Rivals” is in-depth but not tedious. Part 1 of the two-part book delves into the lives of the “Four Men Waiting,” as the first chapter is titled. It examines each of the rivals: their upbringings, ambitions, careers, and families. Each viewed Lincoln differently during the hotly contested Republican nomination race at the Chicago convention in June 1860. Some contenders originally treated Lincoln with contempt; others viewed him with indifference.

Although “Team of Rivals” focuses primarily on three main Republican opposers, the book also explores Lincoln’s choices of former Democrats for decisive roles, including Edwin M. Stanton, who changed from rival to a “closest friend and advisor.” These adversaries also figure conspicuously in the book.

Lincoln could have surrounded himself with “yes” men; instead, he recognized individual strengths of opponents and navigated them on the chessboard that was the Civil War and the Union’s deliverance.

“The powerful competitors who had initially disdained Lincoln became colleagues who helped him steer the country through its darkest days,” writes Goodwin. That is the plot of “Team of Rivals,” a political drama with its setting a war, with a president who made such monumental cabinet selections that he was immortalized by the 19th-century poet Walt Whitman in the book’s epigraph as “great as any, any age.”

“Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by Doris Kearns Goodwin (Simon and Schuster, 2006).

This article was originally published in American Essence magazine. 

Deena C. Bouknight

A 30-plus-year writer-journalist, Deena C. Bouknight works from her Western North Carolina mountain cottage and has contributed articles on food culture, travel, people, and more to local, regional, national, and international publications. She has written three novels, including the only historical fiction about the East Coast’s worst earthquake. Her website is

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