When I consider Goodwin’s delineation of Lincoln choosing, Stanton, Chase, Seward, and Bates – his direct political rivals – to become major figures of his political team, I am reminded of the writer Baltasar Gracian and his text The Art of Worldly Wisdom. Gracian was a 17th century Spanish Jesuit philosopher who among other things wrote of how to adroitly navigate the turbid waters of the political and civic milieux of the time through the employment of wise aphorisms. Gracian is akin to a moral Machiavelli. And this leads back to Lincoln. Lincoln was an astute judge of his own abilities and needs related to governance as well as the strength and needs of the nation that he was governing. He saw much of the strength he needed for the task at hand in his rivals and so in many ways employed the classic, “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” motif. In many senses, I find Lincoln to be a grounded or rooted optimist; an optimist well aware of the surrounding context, but one who refused to lose hope because of his understanding of the Great Hope of humanity.
Of his cabinet level members of these four men, it was only Salmon P. Chase, who Lincoln appointed Secretary of the Treasury, who never ceased to be a consistent thorn in Lincoln’s side. However, even in this, Goodwin notes that Lincoln was able to see the good that the man was doing in his role as the Secretary of the Treasury. Thus, it wasn’t until a “third strike your out” scenario that Lincoln finally accepted the resignation that Chase offered.
Lincoln’s humble beginnings are fairly well known and the general population of any land can take comfort in this “rags to riches” (in the sense of power and influence especially) life. As well known, but less trumpeted at times is Lincoln’s dogged perseverance and morality. These qualities are both build more character and take more character. Perseverance and morality are qualities that require work, effort, discipline – and in no small sense, the grace of God. People like to hear that people beat the odds. People don’t as much like to hear Ben Franklin’s sentiment that “diligence is the mother of good luck.”
What I like about Linclon’s formation of his cabinet as described in Goodwin is that long before the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 under the Kennedy administration, Lincoln was avoiding something that Kennedy had to contend with and that nearly cost us the destruction of the world – that is, Lincoln managed to avoid the negative in-group bias of “Group Think.” Group Think is the name given to the phenomenon that occurs when groups reach agreement together at the expense of critical evaluation of issues at hand; an agreement that can prove significantly detrimental due to the lack of critical evaluation. The reasons for this Group Think can stem from multiple roots, but it amounts to a preference for in-group bias over against rational out-group assessment. Lincoln recognized that at a time of such significant national instability he didn’t need to circle the wagons per se in his own camp. No, he did not. Instead he saw that he needed to spread the net wide to encompass some of those differing perspectives within his own team and overcome those differences there so as to better be able to navigate those issues in the broader political arena. And navigate them he did in both places…that is why our sixteenth president is remembered so honorably to this day.
I also appreciate Goodwin’s recognition that while Lincoln is the architect of this team of rivals in the end, it is a “team.” That is, in the end, if all of the people chose to combat Lincoln all the way through like Chase did and not buy in to his vision, then it is very likely we would not have the chance to read Goodwin’s book today because Lincoln’s efforts would have failed. That is, rivals or not, it takes a team to run a country.
What’s the too quick, too short, to be fully just leadership take away from Goodwin’s book? One, remember that our rivals – despite all of the disagreements on emphasis and importance of particular policies – may well offer strengths we lack and show us areas of engagement that we need to further consider. Two, like with both Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., the goal is not ultimately to win, but to reconcile. As MLK Jr. said in his sermon titled ‘Loving Your Enemies,’
“Third, we must not seek to defeat or humiliate the enemy but to win his friendship and understanding. At times we are able to humiliate our worst enemy. Inevitably, his weak moments come and we are able to thrust in his side the spear of defeat. But this we must not do. Every word and deed must contribute to an understanding with the enemy and release those vast reservoirs of goodwill which have been blocked by impenetrable walls of hate.”
Goodwin’s text gives us a glimpse into the difficult workings of a team that didn’t fully come together for the right reasons, but that nonetheless did come together and accomplished great things during a time when our country desperately need it.