The life of Abraham Lincoln abounds with dramatic contradiction. Born into a Kentucky poverty as obscure as it was desperate, Lincoln died a global icon, mourned by emperors from Brazil to Turkey, and later cherished as an inspiration by Japanese sugar workers in Hawaii and anticolonial activists in Ghana. Haunted all his life by a lack of education—as a middle-aged state legislator, he still spelled the word “very” with two R’s—Lincoln is now routinely celebrated as our most literary president, a terse and natural poet of American aspiration.
With a life marked by personal tragedy—he lost his mother at age 9, his only sister at 19, his fiancée at 26, and two children in midlife—Lincoln was prone to intense bouts of depression. Nevertheless, he held fast to what can only be called a profoundly optimistic political philosophy, defined by a deep trust in the unity of moral and material progress and a sanguine belief that the “central idea” of American life was the “equality of all men.” Devoting the great bulk of his career to dusty rural courtrooms and quotidian provincial politics, Lincoln ultimately led the country’s greatest political revolution, and soon after its greatest social revolution, too—the bloody transformation of 4 million Americans from property into people.
In this essential dramatic sense, the life of Lincoln is a biographer’s dream. WorldCat, an online catalog of global library holdings, lists nearly 24,000 books on Lincoln, more than the numbers for George Washington and Adolf Hitler combined. But his life also presents a formidable challenge: how to square Lincoln’s real and appealing ordinariness—“one rais’d through the commonest average of life,” as Walt Whitman put it—with his utterly extraordinary career. For his first 45 years, Lincoln cut many figures: dirt-poor farm boy in Indiana, hackish Whig politico in Springfield, prosperous railroad lawyer riding the Illinois circuit. But few of these roles, in a strict sense, had much to do with the colossal drama that tore the union apart and made Lincoln a world-historical symbol of emancipation.
In A Self-Made Man: 1809–1849 and Wrestling With His Angel: 1849–1856— the first two installments of a projected four-volume study on The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln—Sidney Blumenthal approaches this dilemma with a winningly old-fashioned strategy. His study of Lincoln is not a pure biography so much as something that 19th-century readers would have understood as a “life and times”: a sweeping narrative of antebellum American politics in which our hero only intermittently dominates the action. Where other recent biographers have drilled inward, exploring the social universe of central Illinois or Lincoln’s own complex psychology, Blumenthal continually leaps outward, offering a detailed tableau of major events in state and national politics: the nullification crisis of 1832, the annexation of Texas in 1845, the Compromise of 1850. Lincoln’s major antagonist in Illinois, the Democratic leader Stephen Douglas, at times receives almost equal billing; a host of additional rivals and allies, from William Seward to Jefferson Davis, are given extended treatments of their own.
This deep context matters to Blumenthal, because his guiding biographical insight is that Lincoln the great statesman and Lincoln the piddling politician were the same man. Blumenthal has no patience for a mythology that puts Honest Abe somehow above and beyond the sordid realm of everyday politics. Lincoln, he writes, “never believed politics corrupted him. He always believed that politics offered the only way to achieve his principles.” If we are to understand Lincoln, Blumenthal argues, we must understand the world of antebellum political conflict: messy, rivalrous, jobbing, venal, and yet still an arena where momentous struggles over the American future were fought. “If it were not for Lincoln the politician,” Blumenthal explains, “Lincoln the Great Emancipator would never have existed.”
In some ways, of course, this can be read as Blumenthal’s self-flattering interpretation of 19th-century America: Few antebellum politicos could match the author’s own insider credentials. Since the early 1990s, Blumenthal’s career has been defined by proximity to power in the form of Bill and Hillary Clinton. As a New Yorker correspondent, White House adviser, and, more recently, a highly paid (if unclearly tasked) employee of the Clinton Foundation, Blumenthal has remained Bill and Hillary’s most pugnacious and loquacious loyalist, half-courtier and half-captain-at-arms. Often lobbing a wisp of flattery or a salivating suggestion back to the palace courtyard, for the most part he has earned his keep as a fierce and perhaps not overly scrupulous defender of Fortress Clinton.
Blumenthal’s relish for political combat sprinkles these pages with dashes of spiky wit. Weak entrants into the field of battle are summarily drawn and quartered: The New York radical Gerrit Smith is dismissed as a “delusional…trust fund abolitionist”; the “preternaturally bland” Millard Fillmore comes off as “a man without qualities,” whose “vanity exceeded his mediocrity.” Of the obese and unimaginative Democrat Lewis Cass, Blumenthal writes that “he had the momentum of inertia.”
But what really distinguishes Blumenthal’s analysis is his focus on politics as a relentless war for public opinion. In 1844, for instance, Congressman John Quincy Adams stormed over to the State Department and charged Secretary John C. Calhoun with abusing census data in order to fill his official correspondence with proslavery talking points. Blumenthal comments acidly: “Adams’s ruthless humiliation of Calhoun, exposing his intellectual and political squalor before an audience consisting mainly of himself, was personally gratifying…but had no public resonance.” For Blumenthal, this kind of moral and intellectual performance, totally devoid of popular effect, doesn’t even qualify as a political act.
So Blumenthal prizes Lincoln’s oratory not for its pure philosophical power, but for the political work it accomplished. Unlike Adams, Blumenthal’s Lincoln “was always tactical and strategic. Deliberate, methodical, and meticulous, he crafted every line for political impact.”
To capture Lincoln’s mastery of popular rhetoric, Blumenthal’s books are studded with lively, often insightful close readings of his speeches and writing. In almost all of them, context takes precedence over text. The famous 1838 Springfield Lyceum Address, in which a young Lincoln worried that a man of “towering genius” might subvert American democracy? Blumenthal reads it as an ironic warning shot aimed at the would-be Napoleon of the Illinois Democrats, the five-foot-tall Stephen Douglas. Lincoln’s first major antislavery speech, also delivered in Springfield, 15 years later? Blumenthal shows that it was not just an ethical argument for human equality or a constitutional case for the restriction of slavery, but also a fundamentally “strategic” effort to organize the diverse strands of antislavery opinion into a coherent and viable opposition.
Blumenthal’s method bears the deficits of its virtues. His focus on context sometimes obscures the deeper ideological stakes of political warfare: We learn much about tactics and positioning, but less about what kind of world the various combatants were trying to build. It also produces a narrative that careens fitfully across the mid-19th-century American scene. In every section of Blumenthal’s first two volumes, there is a digressive chapter; in every chapter, a digressive paragraph; in every paragraph, a digressive parenthesis. Some of these side trips are worthwhile, as when Blumenthal uses a legal dispute over Mary Todd’s inheritance to recount the violent death of antislavery politics in antebellum Kentucky. Other excursions, including a sensationalized spin on the politics of Mormonism in Illinois—drawn largely from outdated secondary sources—are much less rewarding. And Blumenthal’s relentless parentheses, stuffed to the gills with odd scraps of political genealogy, eventually grate on the reader’s patience.
At times, the accumulated experience feels less like absorbing a master narrative of American politics than being buttonholed in the corner of a smoke-filled room by a zestful and manically rambling party boss. Between gulps of whiskey, he might delight his audience with a story about how a Kentucky abolitionist blocked a pistol bullet with his knife scabbard, then cut off his assailant’s ear—but he is just as likely to tell you, for the third time, about the spectacular feats of wire-pulling that put Millard Fillmore on the 1848 Whig ticket in place of Abbott Lawrence.
The larger problem is that a biography of Abraham Lincoln, however expansive, is an awkward vehicle for covering the terrain that Blumenthal really wants to explore: the collapse of the American party system and the emergence of a mass political organization opposed to slavery. The trouble is that Lincoln did not make the Republican Party; it would be closer to the truth to say that the Republican Party made Lincoln. In some ways, Blumenthal’s detailed narrative of Lincoln’s pre-1854 political career makes this clearer than ever before.
From the moment he entered politics as a 23-year-old candidate for the Illinois Legislature, Lincoln devoted himself to opposing Andrew Jackson’s Democratic Party. The quaint style of Lincoln’s early career—a “gawky and rough looking fellow,” friends recalled, with his pantaloons six inches above his shoes—is much better remembered than its specific content. But Lincoln’s politics were always both deeply partisan and deeply ideological. He was above all an acolyte of Henry Clay, and for two full decades a loyal and ardent Whig. As a state-legislative captain in the 1830s, and a central Illinois party boss in the 1840s, Lincoln gave the best years of his youth to the Whig economic agenda: defending banks, tariffs, railroads, and canals, and opposing Jacksonian attempts to subvert them.
To be sure, Lincoln quietly nurtured more radical convictions. “I have always hated slavery,” he told a Chicago audience in 1858, “I think as much as any Abolitionist.” Blumenthal makes much of this personal belief, tracing the influence of antislavery ideas on the Lincoln family’s migration out of Kentucky, and arguing persuasively that Lincoln’s own teenage experience as an indentured farm laborer in Indiana fueled his “unsmotherable hate” for the peculiar institution.
Yet for the first 45 years of Lincoln’s life, the gap between the personal and the political could hardly have been larger. Lincoln’s hatred for slavery may not have been smothered, but under the heavy blanket of Whiggery it was certainly suppressed. Although the young Lincoln found a handful of isolated opportunities to record an antislavery preference, he was enlisted far more often in a national political effort that necessarily involved attacks on abolitionism, and sometimes—as in the 1840 presidential campaign—accusations that his opponents supported “negro suffrage” or some similar horror.
The Whig Party was a national organization, which meant that Southern slaveholders constituted a critical mass of its voters and a critical wing of its leadership. Lincoln’s “beau ideal of a statesman,” the Whig hero Henry Clay, was himself an owner of slaves. Clay won fame as the Great Compromiser, the man who crafted the sectional bargains that saved the union from dissolution time and again. But the terms of Clay’s settlements required the question of slavery to remain outside national politics. And the one group that Clay never compromised with was the abolitionists: Their “wild, reckless, and abominable theories,” he declared in 1850, “strike at the foundation of all property.”
Perhaps the single most dramatic incident of Lincoln’s Whig career came in 1842, when the Democratic state auditor, James Shields, challenged Lincoln to a duel. Lincoln chose broadswords as the weapon and named a fellow Kentucky-born Whig as his second: Albert Taylor Bledsoe, who later moved to Mississippi and became a leading pro- slavery propagandist. The duel was eventually called off, but not before Lincoln spent some afternoons practicing at swords with a future Confederate assistant secretary of war. The great object that brought Lincoln and Bledsoe together—and the issue that sparked the challenge in the first place—was a shared Whiggish conviction that paper notes issued by the State Bank of Illinois should be acceptable for state tax payments. Even as the population of enslaved Americans doubled between 1820 and 1850, these financial debates—rather than the basic question of human beings as property—occupied the greater part of Lincoln’s career as a Whig.
Blumenthal’s narrative, as if weary of its subject’s political timidity, regularly flashes forward to the future. A Self-Made Man ends in 1849, but the book is packed with quotations from a later and greater Lincoln—battling slavery with the Republican Party in the 1850s, or with the Union Army in the 1860s, rather than accommodating it with the Whigs in the 1840s. As a Whig, Lincoln’s antislavery feelings did not define his politics; they only adorned them on special occasions. For that to change, a radical transformation was required.
That political revolution is the subject of Blumenthal’s second volume. Channeling Shakespeare, Lincoln’s favorite author, Blumenthal has assembled an extensive dramatis personae to stand at the front of each book, but in his overstuffed volumes, the narrative effect is less Macbeth or Hamlet than an antebellum version of Game of Thrones. Across these pages, various factions of House Jackson and House Clay jockey for power in the capital, even as a more desperate and more elemental struggle—over the future of slavery and freedom on the continent—begins to take shape.
Blumenthal introduces the second book in this vein: “Premonitions of civil war, shattering deaths, fatal compromises, crushing defeats, corrupt bargains, brazen betrayals and reckless ambition joined in a pandemonium of political bedlam. Presidents rose and fell…. On the Western plains, a pristine battlefield was cleared, democracy trampled in the name of popular sovereignty, and ruffians and pilgrims armed for a struggle to the death over slavery.” You can almost hear the beat of dragon wings.
In fairness, when called upon to describe the battle between slavery and freedom, Lincoln himself was prone to such primal language. “The day of compromise has passed,” he told his law partner William Herndon. “These two great ideas have been kept apart only by the most artful means. They are like two wild beasts in sight of each other, but chained and held apart. Some day these deadly antagonists will one or the other break their bonds, and then the question will be settled.”
The political transformation of the 1850s unchained these wild beasts, opening the struggle that smashed the party system, spawned the Civil War, and ultimately destroyed slavery itself. Yet as Blumenthal explains, the event that triggered the revolution did not emerge from the agitation of radicals, but from the ambition of politicians. It was Stephen Douglas’s desire to unite and dominate a divided Democratic Party that led him to push for a bill to establish the Nebraska Territory in 1854. Prodded by proslavery leaders in Washington, Douglas agreed that the Kansas-Nebraska Act would annul the Missouri Compromise, essentially removing all legal restrictions on slavery’s westward expansion. He knew the bill would provoke “a hell of a storm,” but the tempest was even wilder than Douglas anticipated, wrecking the Northern Whigs and rousing formerly cautious men like Lincoln to throw in their lots with the new Republican Party.
Of course, this was only half the story. Why were the foes of slavery so well prepared to make the most of the Kansas- Nebraska Act and the outrages that followed? As Blumenthal acknowledges, this part of the narrative doesn’t center on faithful partisans like Lincoln, but on more daring and experimental antislavery politicians like Ohio’s Salmon Chase and Massachusetts’s Henry Wilson. While Lincoln trudged along under the Whig banner, these third-party radicals developed the constitutional argument—and the political strategy—that equipped antislavery forces to seize control of mainstream politics in 1854 with the launch of the Republican Party.
Since the early 1840s, as a member of the tiny abolitionist Liberty Party, Chase had struggled to reorient American politics around the fundamental question of slavery. Fortified by a belief that most Northerners opposed the spread of slave institutions into the West, Chase and his allies sought to build an antislavery political organization on the basis of this sturdy if silent majority. An absolute commitment to the nonextension of slavery, they believed, could help an antislavery party win at the polls, toppling the so-called Slave Power in Washington and setting the stage for a political battle against bondage within the South.
Although Blumenthal covers these antislavery political maneuvers, his view of the larger American struggle against bondage is unfortunately narrow. He describes some of the most dramatic runaway-slave controversies that gripped the North after the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, but he does not treat the fugitives themselves—or the black and white abolitionists who aided them—as significant political actors. Scoffing at the “absolutism and sectarianism” of activists like William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, Blumenthal indulges in the hard-boiled insider’s naïveté about the relationship between social movements and political change. He also ignores recent scholarship that has stressed the expansive democratic commitments of these abolitionists and their vital role in mobilizing and sustaining pockets of antislavery opinion across the antebellum era. Drawing an unhelpful contrast between Lincoln’s earthy realism and “the high-flown moral preachments of the abolitionists,” Blumenthal fails to see that what distinguished the 1850s was, in fact, a rare and deep congruence between political radicals and radical activists: What Charles Sumner called the larger “anti-slavery enterprise” stretched from Lincoln all the way to Frederick Douglass.
This is the history of politics as a history of politicians. Yet on the politicians themselves, Blumenthal delivers the goods. Although Lincoln did not found the mass antislavery movement, when it arrived in 1854, he soon became one of its indispensable leaders: “at first he dodged them,” Blumenthal notes; “but then he led them.” It was Lincoln’s historic task to grasp the constitutional edifice developed by Chase and others and add the democratic muscle required to forge the new majority they had envisioned. This he began to do with a series of remarkable speeches, in which he drew on all the rhetorical and strategic resources of his apprenticeship in antebellum politics. Lincoln ranged selectively but effectively across history in order to prove that “our revolutionary fathers” had really fought to end slavery. He dressed philosophical principle in the homespun garb of common sense: “What I do say is, that no man is good enough to govern another man, without that other’s consent.” Above all, he linked the struggle against the master class to the broader cause of popular democracy: The extension of slavery, as Lincoln wrote, “enables the first FEW to deprive the succeeding MANY, of a free exercise of the right of self-government.”
In the landscape of antebellum America, this amounted to a revolutionary political program. The Republicans sought to contain slavery in order to isolate and terminate it—to put it on the road to “ultimate extinction,” as Lincoln said in 1858. For decades, that kind of antislavery commitment had lived only on the leftmost fringe of American politics. (As recently as 1852, the Free Soil Party, with a similar anti- slavery platform, attracted just 4.9 percent of the national vote.) Yet through the new Republican Party, as Blumenthal notes, “what had been marginal and peripheral could be brought into a new center.”
Given the course of Blumenthal’s own political career, this point bears emphasis. The centrist position in the 1850s was straightforward: Restore the Missouri Compromise, no less and no more, without any additional cant about overthrowing the Slave Power or blocking all forms of slavery’s expansion. For an antebellum Dick Morris or Mark Penn, this path would have been obvious, and the road to electoral victory clear. But Lincoln fought to remake the center—not to compromise under its immovable weight. On the question of slavery’s future, Lincoln became the Great Uncompromiser.
“Lincoln,” says Blumenthal, “always wanted to win.” Yet as these volumes show, after 1854 he didn’t want to win simply by gaining office. He wanted to win by changing the world—by affirming what he called “the monstrous injustice of slavery itself,” and by ousting the slaveholding aristocracy that ruled the United States.
The unglamorous arts of partisan politics helped Lincoln lead the Republican Party, but they cannot explain why that party remained so single-mindedly focused on slavery and so stubbornly opposed to compromise. For Lincoln the Republican, political triumph did not mean winning power by co-opting the ideas of his opposition or developing a “Third Way” between abolition and slavery; it meant rallying a democratic majority behind a shared vision of the possible. This required transformation, not triangulation. Eventually, it took revolution.