Saturday, February 21, 2009

On Abe & "Team of Rivals"

Often lately I think I should get a PhD in history. I do love it and I know I couldn't dream of a full time job in the US, there are some overseas. I wrote to my historian friend about seeing Doris Kearns Goodwin and buying her Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.
Here's his response
Perhaps if I agreed with the Team of Rivals thesis more.... Over the first seven decades under the Constitution, the president was viewed as only incrementally more important than the cabinet officers; not until Jackson fired everyone except the Postmaster for dissing Peggy Eaton was the precedent clear that they were "his" cabinet officers. As a result, there were many "teams of rivals" before Lincoln, particularly in appointments of past rivals to the Secretary of State position. Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun, all at least equivalent to William Seward, let alone Hillary Clinton, had each done service running foreign relations, as had future presidents Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, J.Q. Adams, Van Buren, and Buchanan. What changed under Lincoln, I think, was that, under the pressure of the unprecedented crisis, the presidency gained in decision-making leverage, which in retrospect made his willingness to include past rivals in the cabinet seem a more self-confident commitment to power-sharing than it would have at the time. Also, there were special circumstances in 1860-61 that need to be taken into consideration.

Above all, the 1860 election had been only the second presidential sweepstakes in which Lincoln's party had contested, and the first in which, it was widely recognized as the Democrats splintered, it was likely to win, with the result that almost all Republican politicians of any consequence, including those like Seward who had ducked in 1856 to avoid being labeled losers, had thrown their hats in the ring. The most obvious exception, Charles Sumner, was only gradually returning to his official duties after his beating by Preston Brooks. As a result, Lincoln would have had to scrape the bottom of the barrel to find competent cabinet officers who had not been rivals in 1860. And even then, some of the choices, like Cameron, turned out pretty bad. But I'm not trying to turn you aside from her book, only to note that David Donald's biography may still be the best place to start with Lincoln, and the two-volume Library of America collectionof his writings remains the most fulfilling reading experience.
He has a doctorate from Harvard by the way.

I find the arguments in history so intriguing.

I now have a lot more books on Lincoln on my reading list. All must wait till after China.

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