The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln: A Self-Made Man, 1809 – 1849
By Sidney Blumenthal
Simon & Schuster
556 pages, $35
By Michael D. Langan
The first volume of Sidney Blumenthal’s history of Lincoln’s evolution as politician and leader is a corker. If you thought Blumenthal was just a political adviser in the thrall of Hillary Clinton and former assistant and adviser to her husband, that would be a mistake.
Blumenthal’s been a journalist for the Washington Post, the New Yorker, the New Republic and a columnist for the Guardian, as well as author of seven previous books. He’s got writer’s chops and demonstrates them here in a book that many people, figuring they know all about Lincoln, might think would be a mistake to pick up.
After all, what else could be new about our 16th president? The answer is “plenty.” Here are some significant issues that captured my attention.
Lincoln thought politics was the only way to achieve his principles.
Blumenthal writes this about the mythology that Lincoln saw himself as too noble for politics: “Lincoln above politics was not Lincoln … Lincoln did not believe that politicians were unsavory creatures he felt compelled to associate with out of duty. He did not hold himself above the political give-and-take or dismiss the deal-making, or ‘log-rolling’, as it was called, as repugnant to his higher calling. He did not see politics as the enemy of his principles or an unpleasant process that might pollute him. These notions were wholly alien to him. He never believed politics corrupted him. He always believed that politics offered the only way to achieve his principles … He discovered the promise of American life – and created the man who became Abraham Lincoln – through politics itself.”
If this philosophy seems to be at odds with the present politics pursued in Washington, not cooperating has been going on a long time in our nation’s government. Some stasis is inevitable. It’s built into a tripartite government system, and what stops bad laws from being passed. But no cooperation among major parties is bad news in Washington, D.C.
Lincoln would be dismayed. Lyndon Johnson would find the present federal government inaction unbelievable. The lack of cooperation is deplorable. Johnson’s motto was “If you want to get along, you have to go along.” Lincoln would have seconded this approach. Almost nobody pays attention to it now.
Lincoln was actually a slave.
Blumenthal begins his narrative with the startling confession that Lincoln made public the year he became a Republican. “I used to be a slave,” Lincoln confided, and that circumstance continued until he was 21 years old.
It happened this way, our author explains: “his father had rented him out to neighbors in rural Indiana at a price of ten to thirty-one cents a day, to labor as a rail splitter, farm hand, hog butcher, and ferry operator. His father collected his son’s wages, making Lincoln in effect an indentured servant, a slave.”
Lincoln grew up in an atmosphere suffused with anti-slavery sentiment. We are told that antipathy to slavery was everywhere. He learned about it in his father’s cabin, in the newspapers and books he perused. He found more about it from the men he chose as mentors and what they said, and the debates he observed in country stores. In every circumstance it was the politics of Indiana, “pitting the party of “the People” against the party of “the Virginia Aristocrats.”
Although Lincoln was never an abolitionist, Blumenthal reports, he insisted upon being counted as “naturally antislavery.” Lincoln identified with American slaves, knew about the slaves for sale in New Orleans, and was accepting of the Primitive Baptist antislavery dissidents in Kentucky and Indiana, whose churches his parents attended, according to Blumenthal.
In fact, we are told, Lincoln lost his seat in the Congress after his first term because he denounced the Mexican War “as fraudulently started,” and voted numerous times for the Wilmot Proviso which was against the expansion of slavery “into territories taken from Mexico.”
We have a general sense about Lincoln’s being self-educated. But what did he read?
He was immersed in the Bible. He read Shakespeare, as well as the freethinking works of Thomas Paine and the French philosophers. These were the foundational works of an intellectual Christianity that set him against what was called Southern Christian pro-slavery theology.
Lincoln’s personal rivalry with Stephen Douglas was what spurred on his forward political movement.
How so? “For nearly a quarter century, before they faced off in a battle for a U. S. Senate seat in 1858, Lincoln and Douglas were fierce combatants in a contest that began with street brawls and a knife fight between their partisans in the muddy streets of Springfield.” Lincoln’s forward movement was always in pursuit of the Little Giant, an object of envy for him, we are told.
Lincoln goes home to Illinois after losing his House of Representatives seat and gathers momentum to return to Washington.
Lincoln acquired additional political skills from a successful lawyer’s career over a seven-year career traveling on a horse named Bob throughout the political wilderness. He went from county courthouse to courthouse, sharpening his skills, reading Euclid at night to sharpen his abilities in logic and acquiring many loyalists around him.
Blumenthal tells us all this in beautiful style, remarking also that the Whig Party, of which Lincoln had a fervent, lifelong attachment, was breaking apart. Lincoln’s genius was “crystalized” with the coming of the Civil War. He anticipated it and acquired the political savvy and intellectual capacities to deal with it successfully. In the bargain the Constitution was remade and slavery was ended.
What about Mary Todd, Lincoln’s wife? So many stories about her are out there. What’s the truth?
Blumenthal answers simply, “There would have been no Lincoln without Mary.” Mary may have been fractious and subject to hissy fits, but she was a rare woman “of the Southern upper class who loved politics” and supported her man unequivocally.
Lincoln was “a comically awkward suitor who had a nervous breakdown over his ability to deal with the opposite sex … Mary gave him a family, respectability, a proper home, and she passionately believed in him.”
Blumenthal’s Lincoln is a terrific read. I can’t wait for the next volume.
Michael D. Langan is a frequent reviewer of books for The Buffalo News. He worked for Democrats and Republicans for 20 years in various government entities in Washington, D.C.