The Greatest President There Ever Was

Abraham Lincoln is touted as the ‘greatest President there ever was’. His ability to inspire, political genius, and the strength in his vision had the ability to change the course of a country’s history. 

Team of Rivals (2005) by Doris K. Goodwin, is a closer look into his life, how he led the country into greatness by keeping the northern front united, putting an end to slavery, and winning the Civil War.

A Uniquely Ambitious Man

Abraham Lincoln’s early childhood years were splattered with hardships. Born on 12th February 1809, young Lincoln’s father Thomas Lincoln made him work at a tender young age. He would split and chop down trees, plough fields and dig wells. Yet he had an innate desire to learn, read, write, and educate himself. His father would even burn Lincoln’s books so that he wouldn’t get distracted from his work.

It was, however, due to his loving his mother Nancy Hanks Lincoln that he did eventually learned to read and write. While not much is known about Nancy Hanks, she was a strong woman and died when Lincoln was only 9 years old, of dairy poisoning. Her death strained the relationship between Lincoln and his father. 

As tragedy kept rearing its ugly face, a few years later, Lincoln’s sister Sarah Lincoln, died due to childbirth. His first love Ann Rutledge died in 1835, possibly of typhoid. Undeterred, and encouraged by his stepmother, Sarah Bush Lincoln, Lincoln continued to follow his ambitions.

His stepmother saw his potential for greatness and encouraged him further. In April 1837, Lincoln relocated to Springfield, Illinois to start his career in law.

Team of Rivals (2005) by Doris K. Goodwin
Team of Rivals (2005) by Doris K. Goodwin

Turbulent Political Scenario

Lincoln was soon elected to the Illinois House of Representatives in 1834. The decades of the 1840s and 1850s saw the emergence of slavery as a major political issue. As the physical territory of the United States expanded to the west, a clear divide between the ‘free’ northern states and ‘enslaved’ southern states emerged, whether the newly created states of California and New Mexico should allow slavery or not.

Another political point of dispute was the Fugitive Slave Law, a controversial subject that needed escaped slaves to re-join with their masters, even though they had escaped to a ‘free state’.

To diffuse emerging tensions, in 1850, The Compromise of 1850 was passed. It surmised that California was to be a slave-free state; the Fugitive Slave Law would be strengthened. While any comforting effect of the compromise was only temporary, debates started once again in Nebraska and Kansas.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed. It allowed territories to themselves decide whether slavery would be allowed. The Act rescinded a previous statute wherein slavery would not be allowed north of Missouri.

These events were primary to propelling Lincoln’s political career, as he became more active in fighting against slavery, leading to the creation of the Republican Party in 1854.

The Whigs and the Democrats, the two important political parties at that time, were at odds on the issue of slavery and all those against slavery joined as Republicans.

Salmon Chase, the Ohio statesman, became the first Governor of the Republican Party, as he was one of the most vociferous voices against slavery. As the Whigs split, Lincoln, along with William Henry Seward, New York Senator, and Edward Bates, a St. Louis Statesman, joined the Republican Party. Being the prominent leaders, these were the rival candidates who would stand for the 1860 Presidential Elections.

An Underdog In The Party

As compared to the stalwarts in the party, Lincoln had so far had, a very brief and modest political career. He was not the top choice as compared to William Henry Seward, who was a well-established politician. Seward’s exuberant personality matched his career choice, and his enthralling speeches made national news.  

Secondly, Salmon Chase, the next contender was the trailblazer of the campaign against slavery. He had made himself a name in high-profile cases by defending slaves from the Fugitive Slave Law. Despite losing several of these cases, his claim that ‘the law was unconstitutional’ would, later on, serve as the foundation of the Republican Party.

The third candidate in the running, Edward Bates, was a senior in the Party. At the age of 66, he was an 1812 war veteran and had an established law career to boot. He was also one of those who was an advocate for mending the north-south divide and had drafted the state constitution of Missouri.

With such stalwarts vying for candidature, Lincoln’s modest career placed him quite low in the ranks for consideration for nomination. This point is more elaborately explained in Team of Rivals.

The Big Surprise

Lincoln’s career was slowly building momentum within the party as the big stalwarts were resting on their laurels. The legendary Lincoln-Douglas debate of 1858 gave Lincoln his first national exposure. Despite losing to Douglas, Lincoln won the popular vote. His speeches at the debate were later published and studied as part of debate classses for years to come.

Lincoln was campaigning in the north, in the New England states, making eloquent speeches and perfectly laying out the agenda of the party through captivating campaigns. His clear stance against slavery and consistency in belief showed that he was willing to work to resolve the issues of the southern states.

While Lincoln was making friends at every campaign, Chase and Seward were not even campaigning. They were overconfident. Seward even went for a European tour in 1859 instead of campaigning, and Chase was of the opinion that he deserved the nomination for all the work he had already done.

As for Bates, his indecisiveness with his stance on slavery, preference to discuss issues such as economy rather than slavery, and even stating that others were using the issue of slavery to propel their political careers was the last nail in the coffin. The Republican Party members were not happy with his comments.

All these factors were the reason for Lincoln winning the nomination at the Republican Convention of 1860 – a big surprise to all his rivals.

A Balanced Cabinet – A Team Of Rivals

Lincoln’s political genius was perhaps evident in his presidential victory in 1860. However, it was the selection of his heads of administration that is the true testimony of his political intelligence.

He used a simple strategy: to choose those who were best qualified for the role, rather than thinking whether they belonged to the group of Democrats or Whigs. Hence, he first turned to his election rivals – Seward, Chase and Bates. In Lincoln’s administration, Seward made Secretary of State, Bates bagged the position of Attorney General, and Chase became the Head of Treasury. Apart from these prominent positions, he chose to have a good mix of politicians for other important positions. 

Some of his unique mixes included former Democrat Simon Cameron as Secretary of War to represent the state of Pennsylvania, and as Postmaster General, he appointed Montgomery Blair from Kentucky (whose family had held a powerful place in the Democratic Party).

His choices were indeed surprising, as any President would prefer to choose allies who would be supportive of his decisions. Instead, he chose people from diverse backgrounds who wouldn’t hesitate to voice their opinions and diverse perspectives clearly. This is what the author Doris Kearns Goodwin calls a “Team of Rivals”

He believed that his choice of representatives would help in uniting the north and the south. However, the situation rapidly deteriorated following the Great Secession Winter. South Caroline had decided to secede from the Union, citing the election of a ‘Black Republican’ as the tipping point, a move that was soon followed by Florida, Alabama, Texas, Mississippi, Georgia, and Louisiana. 

The Onset Of The Civil War

Lincoln was inaugurated as a President on 4th March 1861. The newspapers were already calling him the ‘first President of the Northern Confederacy’. While it wasn’t an ideal start, Lincoln was ready for all challenges that headed his way.

The very next day of his inauguration, Lincoln got a letter informing him that Fort Sumter in South Carolina was about to be captured by the Southern Confederates and that supplies had been cut off. Lincoln had a choice to make. Should he send reinforcements, which would agitate the situation further, or give up the fort, which would be perceived as weakness?

Though it was a time of quick decision-making, Lincoln did not act in haste. He called his cabinet for opinions. Initially, only Seward had reservations about sending reinforcements to Fort Sumter. Unfortunately, though Lincoln tried to send reinforcements, conflicting orders went out and the plan went bad. 

In an attempt to salvage the plan, new messages were sent out. However, the Confederates had intercepted the message and attacked the fort even before the new reinforcements reached. Lincoln lost the fort on 13th April and took full responsibility for the failure.

The loss of Fort Sumter led to the secession of North Carolina, Virginia, Arkansas, and Tennessee from the Union. The United States was at the brink of a Civil War, and the first blood was spilt when a regiment was attacked in Baltimore on 19th April 1861. 

Lincoln realised that the Union was not as good with uniform, weapons, and horses, and were unprepared for war. He then urged Cameron and Chase to get the military in shape.

Keeping The North United

A conflict was now inevitable. However, Lincoln saw a chance in the midst to unite the people of the north. In his address to the Congress on 4th July 1861, he made it clear that the fight was about keeping the very idea of democracy alive, and not just against slavery.

On the 21st of July 1861, the First Battle of Bull Run took place in Virginia. The battle was fierce, and could almost be heard within the city of Washington DC. However, the Union was no match for the valour of Confederate General Thomas J. Jackson. 

General George McClellan was put in charge to rally the Union troops. However, his continuous overestimation of the Confederate army, and his claims that there were twice the men in the army than there actually were, led to stalling, and he refused to march on the orders. The stalling resulted in their loss in the Second Battle of Bull Run in Richmond and caused 10,000 casualties. This was a clear indicator to Lincoln that he needed to make changes in his cabinet first.

His Department of War was rampant with corruption and the head of the department, Cameron had no idea that his associates were pocketing and wasting large amounts of public funds. Lincoln chose former Democrat and US Attorney General, Edwin Stanton to replace Cameron. It was time for drastic measures.

The Emancipation Proclamation And The Shift in The War

Lincoln knew that the confederates were using slaves in the war. Whether the Union should recruit black soldiers in the army or not was being debated for months.

In July 1862, Lincoln introduced the Emancipation Proclamation – an executive order that would allow him to circumvent Congress. In one move, he slammed down the Fugitive Slave Law and freed about 3 million to 4 million slaves in the United States, making them eligible to enlist in the army.

At this point, Seward alerted Lincoln against making the proclamation as the proposal would seem as last effort and affect the already low morale in the Union Army. Lincoln heeded the General’s advice and waited till the Union was victorious.

Lincoln got his opportunity at end of the Battle of Antietam. In September 1862, Confederate General Robert E. Lee, marched into Union territory, forcing General McClellan to take immediate measures. A fierce battle ensued and the Confederate army retreated. However, McClellan stalled once again giving the Confederates time to regroup. The stalling was the General’s last action, and Lincoln relieved him of his duties as Stanton declared McClellan a traitor.

The win at Antietam, was, however, just what the Union needed. At the start of 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation was announced, as the Union saw more victories. 

On the western front at Mississippi, General Ulysses S. Grant had divided the Confederates and claimed the Mississippi River. His victory at the Battle of Gettysburg marked the shift of the war in favour of the Union. Lincoln had found his general as Grant proved to be a formidable asset in war.

Re-election, Victory, And A Disappointment

After Lincoln’s Emancipation proclamation, 180,000 black soldiers formed a regiment. More than 50,000 casualties had taken place at Gettysburg in addition to many others. Lincoln’s re-election seemed a distant dream.

In September 1863, at Chickamauga, the battle resulted in the Confederates losing 18,000 soldiers whereas the Union lost 16,000. Though the battle was lost, the Union held on to the city of Chattanooga. Stanton saw the advantage in time and in an emergency cabinet session, proposed to reinforce the city with 20,000 soldiers.

With cooperation from the Department of Railroad, Stanton carried out his plan within 7 days before the Confederates could regroup. Lincoln then put General Grant in charge. One of the fastest deployments in military history, Stanton’s plan proved to be a success and the Union drove the confederates out of Tennessee.

At the same time, the Democrats were planning a misguided coop to overthrow Lincoln, not knowing that Lincoln’s plans were actually heading towards victory. The Democrats were proposing ‘peace at any cost’ with the South with General McClellan at the helm.

However, 3 days after the Democrats’ announcement, General William T. Sherman of the Union, won the battle in Atlanta, and the Navy captured the confederate port of Mobile Bay. These victories sealed the fate of Lincoln’s re-election and thwarted the Democrats’ plans of compromise.

Determination And Goodwill

Lincoln’s goodwill towards his colleagues was evident even after the war. Salmon Chase, the Secretary of Treasury, had been campaigning for his own spot during the re-elections. He had begun placing his own friends in the department, overstepping his bounds and refusing to accept his mistake.

Though Lincoln was aware of this, he chose to not sever the ties of a productive relationship. Thus, while he accepted Chase’s resignation, he also appointed him as a US Supreme Court Chief Justice – a gesture of goodwill that never went unnoticed. Seward even proclaimed that Lincoln’s ‘magnanimity is almost superhuman.’

Lincoln knew that as the war came to a close, he had to protect the Emancipation Proclamation even in peacetime. He knew he had to push the proclamation as an amendment in Congress. Hence, in January 1865, his Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery once and for all.

He individually met with significant members of the Congress and secured the much-needed five Democratic votes in favour of the amendment, the final nail that broke the spirit of the Confederates.

In the initial months of 1865, representatives of both sides were in deep discussion about ending the war. However, without any conclusions drawn, the last few battles of the war ensued. General Sherman, however, successfully captured Charleston in North Carolina and Columbia in South Carolina. In April 1865, finally, General Lee was defeated in battle at Petersburg.

The Confederacy fled Richmond, and a week later, General Lee handed over his 28,000 troops to Grant. The war had ended, and victory was sweet, as Lincoln triumphantly walked the streets of Richmond, with former slaves cheering.

A Loss For The Nation

After General Lee’s surrender, Lincoln gave an enthralling speech from the White House. As Lincoln laid out his hopeful plans of uniting the southern states and the Union, John Wilkes Booth, along with Lewis Powell and George Atzerodt, were amongst the crowd, planning to kidnap Lincoln in exchange for Confederate prisoners of war. 

However, after hearing Lincoln promise citizenship to slaves, Booth changed the plan and decided to kill Lincoln along with Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward.

Lincoln was scheduled to watch the play Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater on 14th April 1865. Familiar with the location as a professional actor, Booth entered Lincoln’s seating box in the theatre. He shot Lincoln in the back of the head and escaped as Major Rathbone tried to hold him down. He stabbed Rathbone in the chest and jumped onto the stage.

At the same time, Powell broke into Seward’s house and severely injured many as he looked for Seward. Seward was bedridden as he was recovering from surgery due to a carriage accident. Though he stabbed Seward in the face, the metal that was used to repair his jaw saved Seward.

George Atzerodt, deciding that kidnapping was one thing, but murder was unacceptable, reneged on his plan to murder Johnson.

Lincoln died the next day.


The death of Abraham Lincoln was a sharp blow to the rebuilding of the United States. According to southern-born Montgomery Blair, “Those of southern sympathies know they have lost a friend willing and more powerful to protect and serve them than they can now ever hope to find again.”

Lincolns political genius was evident in how he surrounded himself with his political rivals. Moreover, his goodwill and determined belief that those who did not agree with each other or him would make the best decisions for the country, and whose unique opinions and thinking would help in exploring solutions from all possible angles for any issue.

Lincoln’s ‘team of rivals’ was perhaps the best cabinet that led to the making of a great country!