Doris Kearns Goodwin, the accomplished biographer of 20th-century presidents, has found a way to put the political “genius”–to use her term–back at the center of the story of this great 19th-century president. In her extraordinary new book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, she does this by embedding Lincoln in a nest of other politicians. She not only tells Lincoln’s story, but also interweaves it with the story of the three other top candidates for the Republican nomination in 1860, whom Lincoln, in a striking act of self-confidence and magnanimity, took into his cabinet. They are, first, William Seward, who had been expected to win the Republican nomination and who went on to become secretary of state and Lincoln’s closest adviser and friend (Goodwin, whose research and book notes are formidable, makes good use of the thousands of letters exchanged between Seward and his abolitionist wife Frances home in Auburn); second, the righteous, able, but egocentric abolitionist Salmon Chase who, although itching to be president, served well as Lincoln’s secretary of the treasury (Goodwin also makes good use of the letters between Chase and his lovely and devoted daughter Kate, who became an ambitious Washington hostess and rival to Mary Lincoln); and finally, the least known of the four, the uxorious Edward Bates, the Missouri conservative who became Lincoln’s attorney general and furnishes this story with some domestic bliss and a “charming diary.”

The popular image of the legendary figure Abraham Lincoln is afflicted with an ahistorical and unpolitical perfectionism, both among those who celebrate him and those who, in disillusioned rebound from the myth, debunk him. The task of a serious writer addressing a general audience is to cut through this and show a real human being making decisions within the limits of a particular time and place and in a distinct role. Goodwin’s device proves to be a particularly effective way of doing that, not by general historical description but by parallel biography. These “rivals” provide benchmarks by which Lincoln’s responses to events may be measured.

Goodwin gives a particularly strong account of the contest for the Republican nomination in 1860. Lincoln did not win solely by luck, he won also by political shrewdness and by careful cultivation of a reputation as the ablest spokesman for the center of the Republican Party. Meanwhile the other three were each making characteristic costly errors: Seward overconfident, Chase self-deceiving, Bates unsure of his touch. Before Lincoln was perceived to be a candidate for the nomination, he skillfully concealed his cautious, growing hopes; deflected explicit support while speaking with “well-modulated enthusiasm” about other candidates; encouraged his representative to press the selection of Chicago as the site for the convention (since his name was not yet prominently mentioned, that city could be presented as a neutral site); and quietly encouraged delegates to regard him as their second choice should their first falter.

And he accepted an invitation to speak to the “Mental Culture” of New York at Cooper’s Union. Political “genius” includes not only skillful maneuvering in the world of power, but also effective performance in the world of ideas. Lincoln gave an essential boost to his candidacy by giving an incomparable expression to the core positions of the new Republican Party.

Once the story moves onto the Lincoln administration, Goodwin brings in the other members of the cabinet–especially the able, irascible Edwin Stanton–and the book becomes what we have not had for more than a half century: a good book about Lincoln and his cabinet. Lincoln’s shrewd management of this disparate cabinet was also part of the larger politics because the members–especially Seward and Chase–were potent symbols to the public of broadly differing political positions. All Lincoln biographies give an account of the episode in December of 1862 when congressional radicals (privately encouraged by Seward’s personal and ideological rival, Chase) tried to get Seward, the leading symbol of conservative views, dismissed from the cabinet. Yet, Lincoln deftly orchestrated a series of meetings to expose Chase’s duplicity and extract from him a resignation letter parallel to that from Seward–so that he could then reject both letters at once, keep them both aboard, and his cabinet in ideological balance. This famous affair is an important story in all Lincoln biographies; in this book, it has an added dimension because the reader has been told the life story not only of Lincoln but also those of Seward and Chase.

Goodwin’s device of multiple biography provides that extra richness to the other big events of the Lincoln presidency: When Lincoln asks the cabinet’s appraisal of the Emancipation Proclamation, the varied responses make a stronger impression than they might in a straight Lincoln biography: Bates the conservative surprisingly positive; Chase the radical surprisingly reserved; Seward, Chase’s ideological opponent, surprisingly close to him on this issue.

The deeper one gets into this huge book, the more rewarding the method becomes. Knitting together these multiple stories, and making the result into an eminently readable composition, is an impressive work of writerly management.

Of what did Lincoln’s “political genius” consist? Timing, certainly, but a sense of political timing draws on much more: an understanding of human nature in general and in particular; an accurate reading, not distorted by ego, ideology, or illusion. Each of the other three chief characters had defects in these regards that make Lincoln’s distinction clearer.

Lincoln did commit some deeds that fit the negative stereotype of a “politician”–but from necessity and for a worthy purpose. Under the threat of the dismemberment of the Union, Lincoln condoned (even if he did not institute) the arrest of state legislators, police commissioners, a police chief, and a mayor; he suspended habeas corpus and declined to honor an order by the chief justice of the Supreme Court; he sent troops to occupy a state not in rebellion; he acquiesced in the division of an existing state on the thinnest of rationalizations; and he surreptitiously sent arms to sympathetic civilians in a state not in rebellion. These and like acts are dreadful precedents for later chief executives, but they were justified in their own time by the unique necessity of the Civil War.

During the January 1865 effort to persuade the last few Democrats to switch votes in order to pass the 13th amendment abolishing slavery–an effort in which the political president played a larger role than in any other congressional action during his presidency–there came a devastating rumor, ruinous to the chances of passage, that Southern commissioners were headed for Washington to sue for peace. When the manager of the amendment appealed to the president, Honest Abe responded with this statement: “So far as I know there are no peace commissioners in the City, or likely to be in it.” In fact, there were commissioners on the way to confer with him, not headed for “the City” but for Fortress Monroe. Before they arrived the peace rumor evaporated and the amendment passed.

But being a political genius does not mean just shrewdness of maneuver and a willingness to do what you have to do. Lincoln’s more distinctive qualities have in the larger sense a “political” significance, too. Goodwin emphasizes Lincoln’s empathy throughout her book, and she shows that in the longer run his magnanimity and largeness of spirit had positive political results. There were figures throughout his career against whom he might have held a grudge but did not, and who would later become supporters. Edward Baker, whose followers circulated negative rumors about Lincoln’s religion in a congressional contest; Norman Judd, John Palmer, and the other Democrats who prevented Lincoln from being chosen senator in 1855; Schuyler Colfax from Indiana and Horace Greeley and others back East who presumed to tell Illinois Republicans in 1858 (when Lincoln was their candidate) to roll over and let Democrat Douglas win; Salmon Chase encouraged an effort to obtain for himself the Republican nomination in Lincoln’s place in 1864, and who while serving in Lincoln’s cabinet undercut him. Lincoln nevertheless appointed Chase chief justice. Above all, there was Edwin Stanton who had contemptuously dismissed “that long armed gorilla” in a law case in 1855, and continued to demean Lincoln as president. Still, Lincoln appointed Stanton secretary of war. This could be said to be “politics,” too–the politics of a winning generosity.

When the story reaches the terrible days of the assassination, the original cast has shrunk almost to the central two: the now dying president and the badly wounded Seward, stabbed in his home, in a separate attack, by one of Booth’s fellow conspirators, Lewis Powell. (Seward’s son, Fred, and two others were also wounded in the attack.) Lincoln and Seward, who had had at the start the sharpest rivalry, had become not only close collaborators but also warm friends. And Seward, lying in bed recovering from his own wounds, knew what it meant when he looked out the window and saw a flag at half mast.

William Lee Miller, a Scholar in Ethics and Institutions at the Miller Center, was formerly the Director of the Program in Political and Social Thought at the University of Virginia.

William Lee Miller, a Scholar in Ethics and Institutions at the Miller Center, was formerly the Director of the Program in Political and Social Thought at the University of Virginia.