Tag Archives: Abraham Lincoln

Relaxing Reads: Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

The Writing Well is devoted to book reviews or recommendations every Sunday in May. Last year for Memorial Day I paid tribute to “Three Must Reads of the War-time Experience:”

The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin
War by Sebastian Junger

The post included book excerpts and author interview clips. With tomorrow being Memorial Day, I wanted to feature a work that memorably speaks to our national story.

One book emerged as an easy choice: Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.
Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author and acclaimed historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, the exhaustively researched biography has been called “a brilliant portrayal of our best president” and “the bible of the Civil War era and of Abraham Lincoln.” I couldn’t agree more.

Kearns Goodwin spent 10 years researching and writing Team of Rivals. She does a masterful job retelling the story of Lincoln’s unlikely rise to president and his gutsy decision to surround himself with his former rivals — William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates after winning the 1860 Republican nomination. This excerpt, set on the morning of May 18, 1860, the day of the Republican nomination, perfectly captures the view of Lincoln as the undisputed underdog:

“There was little to lead one to suppose that Abraham Lincoln, nervously rambling the streets of Springfield that May morning, who scarcely had a national reputation, certainly nothing to equal any of the other three, who had served but a single term in Congress, twice lost bids for the Senate, and had no administrative experience whatsoever, would become the greatest historical figure of the nineteenth century.”

This work offers a rare glimpse into our 16th president, showing Lincoln’s ability to put himself in the place of other men, to experience what they were feeling, and to understand their motives and desires. The new president deliberately surrounded himself with individuals from differing political leanings and ideologies.  In the process, he earned the respect and devotion of his former foes.

A key player in the book is Edwin B. Stanton, who treated Lincoln with contempt  the first time the two crossed paths — during a celebrated law case in the summer of 1855. In spite of Stanton’s demeaning behavior, Lincoln offered him the most powerful civilian post –that of secretary of war– when they met again six years later. Stanton was Lincoln’s closest adviser during the Civil War and at Lincoln’s death, he uttered the famous words, “Now he belongs to the ages,” and lamented,”There lies the most perfect ruler of men the world has ever seen.”


The popular press took note of President Obama taking a cue from his presidential idol when he embraced former political foe Hillary Rodham Clinton as his Secretary of State. Business leaders are constantly speaking to the need for creativity and specifically, diverse ideas, to drive success. Clearly, Lincoln intuitively knew a leadership principle that offers lasting lessons to our often-polarized business and political world.

Watch Jim Heath’s interview with Kearns Goodwin about Team of Rivals.  During the interview, she talks about why Lincoln is her favorite president and her view of “Lincoln,” Steven Spielberg’s upcoming film adaptation of her book. Spielberg pledges that the film will be released after the 2012 presidential election. Daniel Day-Lewis will play the lead role. Other cast members include Sally Fields, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Tommy Lee Jones.   

Kearns Goodwin has said, “Once a president gets to the White House, the only audience that is left that really matters is history.”

Thanks to her painstaking biography, the political life of our most remarkable president is clearly illumined. 

Revolutionary Speeches to Remember

Whether it’s to inform, entertain, unify or defend, speeches are a critical form of communication. Good ones  know how to grab and keep the audience’s attention, and great ones change thinking and inspire action.  This Memorial Day, I share examples of great patriotic speeches delivered here and abroad that made a lasting impact on the public during times of trial and times of healing.

Winston Churchill was among the great orators whose war-time speeches rallied both his country and the world. In his Suite101 post, Churchill’s Greatest Speeches, blog contributor Michael Rowland noted that Churchill’s “ability to motivate entire nations through the spoken word proved crucial in guiding the Allies to ultimate victory in World War II and saving Western civilization from Nazi tyranny.”

In June 1940, Churchill told his people and the world, “Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender!”

Voices.com offers these top 10 U.S. Presidential Speeches that transformed America that were given in times of war and peace. Topping the list is of course President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which was delivered on Nov. 19, 1863, four months after the bloody battle, and was intended to honor the fallen on both sides, who “gave the last full measure of devotion.” The president also hoped to heal the country and unify it. Lincoln’s conclusion resolved “that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

FDR’s famous Pearl Harbor speech following Japan’s premeditated attack on our naval forces in Hawaii rallied the country in a way that few speeches by U.S. presidents have before or since.  President Roosevelt words, carried over radio, began with, “Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

Toward the end of his speech, FDR declared, “No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.

With confidence in our armed forces – with the unbounding determination of our people – we will gain the inevitable triumph – so help us God.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech delivered during the March on Washington D.C. in August 1963 was a defining moment in the Civil Rights Movement. In 1999, it was ranked the best speech of the 20th century in a poll of scholars of public address.

Rev. King urged America to “make real the promises of democracy,” saying, “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

I conclude with a lesser known speech given on Memorial Day 1884 by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who survived the Civil War with three wounds as a member of the Twentieth Massachusetts Infantry. Holmes would serve 30 years as a U.S. Supreme Court justice. He captured the spirit of Memorial Day in these words of remembrance for fellow soldiers gone but never far from the hearts and memories of those left behind:

“But as surely as this day comes round we are in the presence of the dead. For one hour, twice a year at least–at the regimental dinner, where the ghosts sit at table more numerous than the living, and on this day when we decorate their graves–the dead come back and live with us.

“I see them now, more than I can number, as once I saw them on this earth. They are the same bright figures, or their counterparts, that come also before your eyes; and when I speak of those who were my brothers, the same words describe yours.”