He was a hick country lawyer with all the down-home quirks of a frontiersman: His clothes were rumpled and he walked as if his legs needed oiling. His political experience was almost as unimpressive. While he'd made a slight mark as a freshman congressman, it was for all the wrong reasons: He'd brashly accused a sitting president of ginning up evidence to push the country into a needless war.
No wonder hardly anyone thought much of Abraham Lincoln's chances for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860. Essentially, he was the fourth man in a three-man race, up against a trio of politicians with loads of experience as governors and senators.
But Mr. Lincoln carefully carved out a moderate position on slavery and transformed himself from an also-ran to Republican party nominee. He won again in November. Then, in a remarkable display of equanimity, he immediately asked his three convention foes join his cabinet.
They agreed, with visions of President Pushover dancing in their heads. But they soon learned better, as historian Doris Kearns Goodwin explains in her captivating 916-page book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.
In this immense and immensely readable work, Ms. Goodwin uncovers how Lincoln's unusual combination of forgiving human spirit and savvy political instincts converted his enemies into (mostly) loyal friends and advisers.
Without their expertise and guidance, Lincoln could have lost the Civil War; without his careful steering, the bipartisan cabinet would have dissolved into endless angling for power.
Thanks to voluminous letters and diaries, William Seward and Salmon Chase - Lincoln's Secretary of State and the Treasury - are the most vividly portrayed cabinet members in "Team of Rivals."
Mr. Seward comes across as one of the forgotten heroes of American history. He emerges as an energetic and inspiring abolitionist who provides the basic wording that Lincoln - in one of history's great feats of editing - turned into the powerful poetry of his second inaugural address.
Mr. Chase - the man whose grim face stares out from defunct $10,000 bills - is nearly a comic villain, constantly plotting to gain power and endlessly threatening to resign. But even he, often unwittingly, serves Lincoln's ends.
Goodwin isn't a prose stylist, and she could have included less play-by-play and more color commentary. But this veteran of books on the presidencies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and John Fitzgerald Kennedy is still a master storyteller, and she includes dozens of memorable anecdotes.
Some of the tales resonate today, including those portraying Lincoln's masterly use of press leaks and his obsession with campaign battleground states. She also includes tales of some of Lincoln's political missteps, including the young Abe's ill-advised attacks on President Polk over the Mexican War.
Other stories liven "Team of Rivals" with delicious comedy.
They include Lincoln's favorite ribald jokes, Vice President Andrew Johnson's gloriously addled 1865 inaugural address (during which he actually stopped mid-speech to boom, "What's the name of the secretary of the Navy?"), and the story of the young Army captain who yelled "Get down, you fool!" as Lincoln - in a moment of foolhardy curiosity - craned his neck to get a closer view of the action in a Civil War battle.
The captain is Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., one of many 19th-century luminaries who appear in "Team of Rivals." But as intriguing as the supporting characters in this book may be, they can't hold a candle to three vibrant and influential women who appear here.
Frances Seward is even more of a fiery abolitionist than her husband, and her perceptive and forceful letters seem to strengthen the deep love the two have for one another.
Mary Todd Lincoln, maligned by history, here shows glimpses of the warmth and wit that must have won over the future president.
And Chase's captivating daughter Kate becomes the reigning queen of the nation's capital - no thanks to a jealous First Lady - even as she works to juggle a drunken suitor and a father with overpowering ambition.
He's no saint, as revealed by his truth-stretching political maneuvering and lapses in his vaunted tolerance for criticism.
No matter. His self-confidence grows during his presidency, blending with his natural charm to win over skeptics. He conquers grief and melancholy.
And his "astoundingly magnanimous soul" allows him to accept blame - and deflect it from others - with almost unfathomable ease.
Goodwin herself, deflated by a recent plagiarism scandal, could learn a lesson here. Some critics feel that she still hasn't demonstrated a Lincolnesque willingness to accept full responsibility for her errors.
Ultimately, though, any past missteps Goodwin may have made do not detract from the powerful story she tells in "Team of Rivals."
Bolstered by faith in a higher power, Lincoln instinctively understood the value of both grit and generosity. Taken as a whole, his all-too-brief presidency has more to teach us about real leadership than any seminar or self-help book ever could.
• Randy Dotinga is a freelance writer in San Diego.
Every year brings new explorations of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. Here are a few notable recent efforts.
April 1865: The Month that Saved America (2001) Historian Jay Winik tackles the last weeks of both the Civil War and Lincoln's life, revealing the emotional and physical strain on everyone from generals to politicians.
We Are Lincoln Men: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends (2003) By focusing on Lincoln's friends, including two young aides who lived in the White House, biographer David Herbert Donald offers new views of his private side.
American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies (2004) What turned a handsome actor into an assassin? Historian Michael W. Kauffman searches Booth's private life for the answer in this riveting book.
Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness (2005) Journalist Joshua Wolf Shenk makes a provocative argument for the vital role of Lincoln's inner struggles.