Pulitzer winner Goodwin has long demonstrated a feel for biography as a gateway into the past. In Lincoln, one of our greatest presidents, she has found an ideal subject for her attention. He is the more interesting to study because, unlike most presidents, who have sought to surround themselves in their cabinets with safe men who think like they do on important matters, Lincoln chose to build a cabinet out of men whose relationship to the president was problematic, if not downright risky. In 1861, Lincoln persuaded three of his rivals for the Republican nomination -Seward, Chase and Banks-to sit in his cabinet. They owed Lincoln nothing. As a rule, they saw Lincoln as a man of low ability and little promise, president by the accident of geography. Furthermore, some were enemies who would barely talk to each other. Yet, the cabinet did not dissolve in warfare and Lincoln established firm control over executive decisions, much to the surprise of Seward in particular, who had assumed that he, and not the president, would lead this group and be the true decisionmaker in Washington. In short while, Seward and Banks became firm allies of Lincoln; indeed, Seward became Lincoln’s fastest friend in the Washington power ranks. When Stanton joined the cabinet as secretary of war, he too was converted to allegiance to Lincoln although he had publicly slighted him years before. The only cabinet member whose loyalty remained suspect was Chase, whose lust for the presidency in 1864 blinded him to his own duplicity as he sought to undermine Lincoln and gain support for his own candidacy.
Chase was not above political blackmail: three times, he submitted his resignation to Lincoln and three times Lincoln, who valued Chase’s substantial ability to get things done in a key office and who would rather have Chase inside his tent than outside, persuaded him to remain. Chase proffered his resignation for the fourth time in 1864. This time, he had overplayed his hand: Lincoln, who by then had secured renomination by the Republican party, no longer needed Chase and didn’t need to fear him, so he accepted his resignation without further discussing it with Chase. When Chase heard, he was shocked, even though he’d asked for it. Lincoln tempered the blow by dismissing Chase’s rival in the Cabinet at the same time, maintaining a balance of interests in the group, and when an opening on the Supreme Court became available, he appointed Chase, an act of magnanimity unimaginable in any of Lincoln’s successors.
Recently, I read a very interesting “moral biography” of Lincoln’s early years (up to 1861), Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography, by William Lee Miller. Goodwin’s fine biography made a good counterpoint to Miller’s more limited and focused study. Both made the same point, that Lincoln succeeded as president, and excelled in the role, because he complemented his exceptional political talents and strong intellectual ability with a consistent ethical focus. There has never been another American president with such a strong moral compass as Lincoln and none who heeded it so consistently.