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President Obama’s guide to inclusive leadership

07 October 2016

Peter Selby on Team of Rivals: The political genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin

DO NOT let the sheer weight (literally) of this 900-plus-page blockbuster put you off, even if you do not want to take it on a train journey. Nor let yourself be deterred by knowing that it is about 19th-century foreign politicians whom you may not have heard of (other than Abraham Lincoln, that is), and about the history of the American Civil War, even if you are not keen on biography or war stories. Do not be worried that it is not the kind of book that a study group would normally pick up.

Notice, rather, that this is the one book that President Obama says he would not be without if he had no others (he has plenty); and that it is a global prize-winning best seller — one that is almost getting to the point where you might not want to confess that you have not read it.

Then begin, joining the four rivals of the title, who are waiting for the outcome of the convention to choose the fledgling Republican Party’s nominee for the presidential election of 1860 — an event no less exciting than the conventions of this age, even if there were no TV ads or social media (there was a vibrant and varied press, of course, and that is part of this story).

As this is not a novel, but history, we know what the unlikely outcome is going to be: Lincoln will be the nominee, and will win the election of that year. But Kearns makes you get to that in her time, after 250 pages tracing the journeys that bring Seward, Chase, Bates, and Lincoln himself to be the four candidates awaiting the outcome of a ballot. Seward was generally believed to be bound to win it, as he was also believed to have the qualities needed for the presidency.

As we now know, however, and as Kearns sets out, Lincoln’s nomination and eventual election lit the fuse under what turned out to be one of the costliest conflicts of human history: 620,000 deaths in action (twice as many Americans as those who died in the Second World War). The fortunes of that war were volatile, and the victory hoped for, early on, turned into a four-year struggle.

Nothing can outweigh that terrible suffering. And yet the twin successes of Lincoln’s presidency — the saving of the Union, and the abolition of slavery — are of massive significance. They do not determine what it is to be an American: they establish between them a vision of equality for all peoples. Lincoln, it was rightly said after his assassination, belongs not just to his country, but to the ages.

All this, Kearns avers, was possible only because of Lincoln’s special political magnanimity, traced through this book as the willingness — indeed, the determination — to include in his team the strongest men of his party, all of whom had either been his rivals for the presidency, or sought to be his successor.

He presided over the United States through this terrible war using all the skills and energies which such a task required: the cultivation of alliances, sensitivity to the public mood, holding both to firm conviction and to the necessary search for compromise. This was made possible by his willingness to be in argument as constantly as in collaboration with his closest advisers, dispensing with the services of politicians or generals only as a last resort.

To read this accessible and yet scholarly book is to hear a strong warning against all accounts, whether of leadership or of solidarity, that depend on excluding the rival, the disagreement, and the quarrelsome. It is like being invited to witness the indispensable place of argument and debate in the eventual triumph of good decisions.

When it is read on this side of the Atlantic, there is more even than this. There was, in Lincoln and in the world he inhabited, an intellectual depth, which was borne out in his remarkable oratory. Most famous, of course, is his address at the dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery. A group discussion might well begin with that address — less than 300 words long — and work backwards and forwards from there. Those words, in their remarkable economy, contain a statement of what it is for a society to aspire to be humane.

Read in a church group on this side of the ocean, the book offers something else that we would want to register for ourselves and for the Anglican Communion: Lincoln, except perhaps in his second inaugural address (delivered in March 1865), is religiously reticent, choosing, rather, to speak the language of universal human values as the working out of faith in his — and our — time.

It would have been a good discipline if, in our dealings with American Anglicans, we had recognised that we were dealing with a people “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”, and to the rhetoric, the leadership, and the bloodshedding that that proposition has required.

Those of us nurtured on histories in which religious language is more detailed can be thankful that, within our Anglican family and the community of nations, is one that, whatever particular faults may appear in its ongoing story, has a history that holds before all of us a vision of human society, a pattern of leadership, and a costly story of what it takes to bring that to pass.

A book that President Obama can hail as a “remarkable study in leadership” is, after all, a book about what it took to make his presidency as an African American possible. What makes it a compulsive read is that it is, for the same reason, a book about what it takes to make humane social development possible for the world.


The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby is a former Bishop of Worcester.

Team of Rivals is published by Penguin at £14.99 (CT Bookshop £13.50); 978-0-141-04372-2.





  • Thomas Carlyle famously wrote that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men”. Having read Goodwin’s account of Lincoln and his team, how far do you agree with this?

What insight does this book give us into forgiveness and turning the other cheek?

Has Goodwin’s book changed your views about the relationship between idealism and pragmatism?

What can we learn about discipleship fromTeam of Rivals?

What part does religious faith play in this story?

Are there any villains in this book? If so, who are they, and why are they villains?

Tolstoy said that Lincoln’s “supremacy expresses itself altogether in his peculiar moral power”. Do you agree? What would you say is distinctive about his “moral power”?

In what ways might today’s leaders — local or national, religious, or political — benefit by reading Team of Rivals?

How might Team of Rivals make us rethink our ideas of “providence”, and what constitutes “God’s plan”?


IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 4 November, we will print extra information about our next book. This is The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope. It is published in various editions, including one by Wordsworth Classics at £1.99; 978-185326255-5, and an illustrated paperback from Create Space Independent Publishing Platform at £13.99; 978-153900876-7.


Book notes

The Way We Live Now (1875) is a satirical novel, written in response to a series of financial scandals that beset Britain in the early 1870s. Its plot turns on the career of a mysterious financier, Augustus Melmotte, whose influence sways the English Establishment, engrossing lives and fortunes while posing a threat to integrity and future happiness. Acclaimed as Trollope’s masterpiece, The Way We Live Now excoriates greed and dishonesty in high places. The novel needed to be written, he declared, because “there seems to be reason for fearing that men and women will be taught to feel that dishonesty, if it can become splendid, will cease to be abominable.”


Author notes

Anthony Trollope (1815-82) is one of the Victorian era’s pre-eminent novelists. His tales of English county life and politics, most prominently collected in the Chronicles of Barsetshire series and the Palliser novels, are widely loved for their deft and tender exploration of social and official life. Trollope was born in London; his mother, Frances, was a celebrated novelist and travel writer. Powered by a phenomenal work ethic, he balanced his literary pursuits with a career at the Post Office (he is often credited with the invention of the pillar box). In a 35-year career as a writer, Trollope published 47 novels, as well as several volumes of short stories and travel writing.


Books for the next two months:

December: The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers

January: The Enduring Melody by Michael Mayne

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