Lincoln's political resume was meager, his learning derided, and his election considered a stroke of luck. And yet the prairie lawyer from Springfield would emerge the undisputed captain of his distinguished Cabinet, earning the respect of colleagues who had originally disdained him, and become, as Whitman wrote, "the grandest figure yet, on all the crowded canvas of the Nineteenth Century."
As it turned out, unbeknownst to the country at the time, Lincoln was a towering political genius--not because he had mastered the traditional rules of the game, but because he possessed a remarkable array of emotional strengths that are rarely found in political life. He had what we would call today a first-class emotional intelligence.
To appreciate the magnitude of Lincoln's political success, it helps to understand just how slight a figure he appeared to be when he arrived in Washington. "Never did a President enter upon office with less means at his command," Harvard professor James Russell Lowell wrote in 1863. "All that was known of him was that he was a good stump-speaker, nominated for his availability--that is, because he had no history." His entire national political experience consisted of a single term in Congress that had come to an end nearly a dozen years earlier and two failed Senate races. He had absolutely no administrative experience and only one year of formal schooling. Newspapers described him as "a third-rate Western lawyer" and a "fourth-rate lecturer, who cannot speak good grammar."
In contrast, his three chief rivals for the Republican nomination were household names in Republican circles. William Henry Seward had been a celebrated Senator from New York for more than a decade and Governor of his state for two terms before he went to Washington. Ohio's Salmon P. Chase, too, had been both Senator and Governor, and had played a central role in the formation of the Republican Party. Edward Bates was a widely respected elder statesman from Missouri, a former Congressman whose opinions on national matters were still widely sought. All three men, knowing they were better educated, more experienced and more qualified than Lincoln, were stunned when he received the Republican nomination and went on to win the election.
Then he, in turn, stunned the political world by putting all three of his rivals into his Cabinet. It was a seemingly dangerous act, since it risked building up a potential opponent in the next election and ensured that he would be seen by many as a mere figurehead. His opponents were certain that he had failed this first test of leadership. "The construction of a Cabinet," one critical editorial suggested, "like the courting of a shrewd girl, belongs to a branch of the fine arts with which the new Executive is not acquainted. There are certain little tricks which go far beyond the arts familiar to the stump, and the cross-road tavern, whose comprehension requires a delicacy of thought and subtlety of perception, secured only by experience."