The Use and Abuse of Popular History – Goodwin Style

Thanks to James Oakes, Matthew Pinsker, and Brian Dirck for attempting to apply the breaks to the overused and abused Goodwinian meme, “Team of Rivals.”

Oakes: For one thing, there was nothing new in what Lincoln did. By tradition, presidents-elect reserved a cabinet position, often secretary of state, for the leading rival in their party. John Quincy Adams inaugurated the practice by appointing one of his presidential rivals, Henry Clay, to that post….Nor is it quite correct to say that Lincoln installed his “enemies” in the cabinet. Rivals for his own party’s nomination are not the same thing as political “enemies.” It would have been inconceivable, for example, for Lincoln to offer a cabinet appointment to his Democratic opponent, Stephen Douglas.

Pinsker: Over the years, it has become easy to forget that hard edge and the once bad times that nearly destroyed a president. Lincoln’s Cabinet was no team. His rivals proved to be uneven as subordinates. Some were capable despite their personal disloyalty, yet others were simply disastrous.

Dirck: Obama simply faces an entirely different situation in making his cabinet appointments–or really, in filling any government post. The reason Lincoln could get away with appointing his rivals–indeed, the reason he had little choice in the matter–lay in his party’s newness. The Republican Party did not as yet host big, powerful, countervailing ideological and political organizations, analagous to the Clinton wing of the modern Democratic Party. It was, in 1860 at least, largely a collection of individuals (like Seward) who certainly had their followers and their factions, but no real political base, rooted in the patronage…

We are being barraged by various commentators and so-called authorities who are either reflecting on or pushing Barack Obama to follow in the footsteps of Abraham Lincoln in choosing a cabinet. Well, not quite. They are actually utilizing an interpretive theme that dominates Doris Kearns Goodwin’s best-selling book, Team of Rivals, which argues that Lincoln intentionally chose cabinet members who would both reflect very different political positions and challenge his policies. Almost no one is questioning whether this accurately reflects Lincoln’s approach, whether it was unusual, or whether it makes any sense at all in comparing our own political climate and party organization with the 1860s. No doubt, the pervasiveness of this line of thought is in part the result of Obama’s own continual references to the sixteenth president as well as his best-known speeches.

I read Goodwin’s book when it was first published. Admittedly, I found it difficult to read without reflecting on the Bush Administration’s approach to internal cabinet dissent. Indeed, at times I had the impression that Goodwin was writing with Bush clearly in mind and yet I hesitate from impugning her work as a product of unrestrained presentism. It’s no surprise that a book about Lincoln written throughout the two terms of one of our most controversial presidents, and offering a model for a very different approach to presidential leadership, would be embraced. All history is written through the lens of contemporary politics and culture, but that does not necessarily imply that historical studies are relegated to the realm of relativism. Goodwin’s book deserves to be treated as a study of Lincoln and the politics of the 1860s. The pervasiveness of recent commentary surrounding this theme of cabinet rivals, however, is more about what we want to see in the past and much of the country’s frustrations and anger over the past few years.

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10 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Nov 23, 2008 @ 7:43

    Thanks for the references Heather.

  • Heather Michon Nov 22, 2008 @ 11:39

    Hi Kevin, Obama told Katie Couric back in January that the two books he would find most helpful in the Oval Office would be the Bible and “Team of Rivals,” and he has spoken about it in other interviews as well. His senior staff, apparently, is sick of hearing him talk about it. I think I read in Newsweek that Goodwin has met or talked with the President-Elect about Lincoln.

    I’m not sure how I feel about the linkage between the historical Lincoln and Obama. It may brighten the glow of his halo now, but puts him in the position of having to live up to so many myths, it can only hurt him over time. People are projecting greatness FORWARD onto Obama, and then expecting him to live up to it. Greatness is usually something we project BACKWARD, retrospectively.

  • Kevin Levin Nov 22, 2008 @ 10:48

    Paul, — I couldn’t agree more. It’s been some time since I felt good about politics, so I don’t mind admitting that I am guilty of this as well.

  • Paul Nov 22, 2008 @ 10:12

    Not only what we want to see in the past, but I think there’s a certain amount of longing here in what we wish to see in the present, politically speaking. After all, the historical Lincoln has been immortalized by many as our greatest president ever. To create linkage in style and tactics between the heroic Lincoln and Obama only brightens the glow of Obama’s halo.

  • Kevin Levin Nov 22, 2008 @ 5:33

    Heather, — I know that Obama has made reference to Lincoln on a number of occasions, but has he ever mentioned Goodwin’s book specifically?

  • Heather Michon Nov 21, 2008 @ 20:18

    I was moved to blog on this very same issue last week — although I certainly lack that scholarly flair of Oakes. The little shorthand I came up with is that Lincoln might choose a Hillary Clinton, but he probably wouldn’t choose a Dennis Kucinich or a John McCain.

    The whole thing is at:


  • Greg Rowe Nov 21, 2008 @ 15:01

    True, and I wrote that comment with only a cursory glance at his material. After looking at the whole article, I does appear that this is Oakes claim. I do believe that it is “much ado about nothing.” Every President has followed the example of someone before, but more is being made about Obama following Lincoln’s because he has made a big deal out of it himself.

  • Kevin Levin Nov 21, 2008 @ 14:28

    Greg, — Of course, Douglas could have been asked to serve in L’s cabinet, but the question is how likely would it have been. That seems to be Oakes’s point as well as your own.

  • Greg Rowe Nov 21, 2008 @ 9:52

    I think Oakes is wrong to presume it “inconceivable” that Lincoln would have appointed Stephen Douglas to a Cabinet post. Certainly Lincoln had motives for appointing a large number of pro-Union politicians to his cabinet in light of the secession crisis. However, Stephen Douglas publicly supported Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers in 1861. Lincoln was smart enough to keep his leading Democratic opponent on his side, if not in his cabinet. I think Douglas could have been in Lincoln’s cabinet, but, like most Presidents, Lincoln was looking for the best way to implement his policies in making most Cabinet appointments, not necessarily who his rivals were. That’s the real reason Douglas was not selectedby Lincoln and the real reason Obama has selected Ms. Clinton to serve in his cabinet.

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