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.