Sidney Blumenthal Tells Story of Lincoln’s Political Evolution
According to some estimates, almost 15,000 books have been written about Abraham Lincoln. But that didn’t stop Chicago native and author Sidney Blumenthal from taking another look at Lincoln’s transformation into perhaps this country’s greatest president.
Blumenthal served as the former assistant and senior adviser to President Bill Clinton and senior adviser to Hillary Clinton. He has reported and written for The Washington Post, The New Yorker and The New Republic. He is currently in the process of writing four books about the 16th president. His new book is: “Wrestling With His Angel: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Vol. II, 1849-1856.”
Blumenthal joins host Phil Ponce in discussion. Below, an excerpt from the book.
After Abraham Lincoln’s one term in the Congress and his return to his spare law office in the Tinsley Building in Springfield, he stared into the distance for long periods of time. His partner, William Henry Herndon, recalled him breaking one of his melancholy silences with a cry of anguish. “He said gloomily, despairingly, sadly, ‘How hard, oh! how hard it is to die and leave one’s country no better than if one had never lived for it! The world is dead to hope, deaf to its own death-struggle, made known by a universal cry, What is to be done? Is anything to be done? Who can do anything? and how is it to be done? Did you ever think of these things?’ ”
A great revolution was required to bring Lincoln out of the wilderness. In order to understand his presence in the transforming events that would eventually carry him to the presidency and their profound influence upon him, the events must be chronicled. To do Lincoln justice, the history must be done justice. Lincoln would be diminished, simplified and flattened into a one-dimensional character without the complexity he had to work through. Unlike smaller politicians, he had a long historical view but applied it in fine detail as he went along. He took no shortcut, not that there ever could be one. To understand Lincoln more fully, the historian needs to attempt understanding his times nearly as closely as he did.
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. The party of Lincoln, the Whig Party, flew apart. Passionate movements raged across the landscape. 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.
The old party distinctions were erased, but there were no new and more compelling distinctions on the shelf. The nascent Republican Party, originally a sectarian radical outlying group, was not recognized as a credible alternative. An anti-immigrant movement, the Know Nothings, overnight attracted many more adherents. An older generation of political titans departed, the imposing triumvirate of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun, none having reached the presidency each desperately sought, all ultimately victims of their own curdled hopes. With their passing, the conflicts of political ages faded like yellowing newspapers. A new generation arose who knew not Jefferson and Jackson as living breathing souls; but as these new men climbed the ladder grappling for position and power, trying to reach the top, they stepped on broken rungs.
No one could have foreseen the surprising spiral of events that began when Zachary Taylor, the victorious general of the Mexican War (“Give them a little more grape, Captain Bragg!”), was elected president as the Whig Party candidate. He was a military hero above politics, a Southern slaveholder from Louisiana, with no decipherable record on any issue, standing on no platform whatsoever. “Old Rough and Ready” was assumed to be the ideal wooden figurehead for the ship of state, as intellectually opaque as an inanimate object, and articulate in making what were perceived to be only creaking noises. He was utterly lacking in experience with the cunning men of the Congress, who expected to run the show. It was a revelation that Taylor turned out to have clear and emphatic views, and a shock that he was strongly against the extension of slavery in the territory he had seized as the prize of the Mexican War. President Taylor was even more forceful than the abolitionist orators and pamphleteers, or the antislavery congressmen (like Lincoln) who had voted time and again in vain for the Wilmot Proviso, which would have prohibited slavery in the Mexican Cession. Taylor threatened a declaration of war against the Southern Rights movement if it treasonously opposed him, and stated he would personally draw his sword as commander-in-chief to lead the army to crush resistance. Then, as abruptly as Taylor stunned the South, he was struck down, probably by the cholera epidemic that was sweeping the country.
The civil war that seemed imminent terminated into an armistice. Tay- lor’s successor, Millard Fillmore, a lifelong Whig Party placeman, elevated to the vice presidency from his rightful station as the New York State comptroller, had an unusual temperament melding bland complacency and overheated resentment. Determined to discard the well-defined intentions of Taylor, who had banished him as a nonentity from his councils, Fillmore conciliated the South in the Compromise of 1850, which he pronounced the “permanent settlement.” Its political effect was to stifle slavery as a national controversy, deliver a mortal blow to the Whigs, splitting them into Northern and Southern wings, and empower the Democrats again as the natural governing party.
The landslide election of Franklin Pierce in 1852 appeared to settle the political question far to the horizon, but this was an illusion. Beneath the serene surface on which Pierce skated to the presidency was a roiling sea. A well-mannered Northern man of Southern sympathies, he was pliant under pressure. The grandiose ambitions and petty hatreds of others easily overwhelmed him as he turned to brandy for solace and Jefferson Davis for guidance.
The once and future rivals of Lincoln combined to blow to smithereens the cornerstone of civil and political peace. Senator Stephen A. Douglas, of Illinois, yet another self-made man, and Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, of Mississippi, highhanded heir to slaveholding wealth and the acting president of the United States, each had visions of an American imperium, prophecies that converged in their collaboration on the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise, forbidding slavery north of a fateful line of latitude. The parallel lives of these two men would define Lincoln’s.
Pandora’s box, as Secretary of State William L. Marcy, an old Jacksonian, warned, had been foolishly unlatched: “This Pandora’s box—the Nebraska question.” Though the rupture was sudden, it was not unforeseen. During the debate over the Compromise of 1850, Henry Clay had held aloft a piece of wood from Washington’s coffin. “It was a warning voice coming from the grave to the Congress now in session,” he said, “to beware, to pause, to reflect before they lend themselves to any purposes which shall destroy that Union which was cemented by his exertions and example.” In another speech, Clay warned of “the yawning abyss below, which will inevitably lead to certain and irretrievable destruction.” Daniel Webster spoke in horror of Southern “secession,” which would produce “a crash of the universe.” Jefferson Davis had described the country “blind” on “a volcanic mountain” that would explode if Southern rights of slavery were not respected. He forecast the creation of “a Southern Confederacy.” On his deathbed, John C. Calhoun, the “cast-iron man” of the master class, Davis’s mentor, predicted, “The Union is doomed to dissolution, there is no mistaking the signs.
Within days of the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act on May 30, 1854, Lincoln and his friends joined the battle. The lead editorial in the Illinois State Journal on June 6, written possibly by Herndon, as always with Lincoln’s approval, express or tacit, appeared under a mocking headline—“The Question Settled!” “If there is the least evidence that the people of the free States are disposed to sit down quietly under the accumulated insults and wrongs sought to be inflicted upon them by this slavery-extension administration, and its servile supporters, we do not see evidence of it. On the contrary almost everywhere we see a general uprising and condemnation by the people of the wanton, un-called-for and grievous wrong sought to be inflicted upon this country by Pierce, Douglas & Co.” Douglas’s newspaper, the Illinois State Register, returned the fire, editorializing that the Illinois State Journal “opens its batteries upon Senator Douglas’ Nebraska bill, following in the wake of the New York Tribune, and renewing the ‘agitation’ of the ‘nigger’ question, by humorously ! charging Douglas with opening that question. . . . Niggerdom is preparing for a new onslaught.” As Lincoln began to draw together the anti-Nebraska coalition, the Register warned, “The people of this district will want pledges” against “all alliances with niggerism,” and it praised Old Whigs who resisted “the fusion with niggerism.”
In a stroke, the old order cracked apart. All that had been proclaimed to be permanent shattered into pieces; everything settled came undone. The Kansas-Nebraska Act made possible the extension of slavery to the West as only one element in a strategy to create a “slave empire” in the hemisphere, as Lincoln would later put it. Now Lincoln, the former surveyor, precisely measured the fissures of the conflict. Lincoln, the lawyer, carefully constructed his arguments political and constitutional. Lincoln, the politician, coolly calculated the force of his opponents and the potential coalition of his allies. Lincoln, the defender of the Declaration of Independence, invoked “the blood of the revolution.” Lincoln, the Shakespearean, invoked “blood” and “blood.” Stepping onto the stage of history to speak at the Illinois House of Representatives on October 4, 1854, he never left it.
In two brief autobiographies Lincoln depicted himself in this interregnum period as strangely contented in a kind of imperturbable internal exile, becoming nearly indifferent to politics, immersed in his legal practice. “Always a whig in politics, and generally on the whig electoral tickets, making active canvasses—I was losing interest in politics, when the repeal of the Missouri Compromise aroused me again. What I have done since then is pretty well known,” he wrote on December 20, 1859, to his friend Jesse Fell, as he was contemplating his race for the presidency. In another short account, he told the journalist John L. Scripps of the Chicago Tribune: “In 1854, his profession had almost superseded the thought of politics in his mind, when the repeal of the Missouri compromise aroused him as he had never been before.”
But the legend of Cincinnatus, the Roman aristocrat summoned from his farm by alarm to rescue the endangered republic—the story that had draped Washington with classical prestige—did not properly fit Lincoln. He was not a hero above the fray who reluctantly felt duty-bound to descend into the political arena. While the Whigs had a tradition of drawing upon a variation of the Cincinnatus theme in nominating gallant generals for president—William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, and Winfield Scott—pretenders to the Washington mantle—the professional politician who was in truth consumed with anxiety about his own and the country’s future was hardly part of that line. (His “beau ideal,” Henry Clay, was the only politician, the only man who was not a general, ever to receive the presidential nomination of the Whig Party. The first Republican candidate, John C. Frémont, in 1856, was also a daring military figure. In the line of continuity of Old Whig politicians, Lincoln was the second since Clay to gain a presidential nomination.)
It was about this decisive juncture in Lincoln’s career in 1854, when he revealed himself as recognizably Lincoln, that Herndon wrote the most famous description of his ambition. “That man who thinks Lincoln calmly sat down and gathered his robes about him, waiting for the people to call him, has a very erroneous knowledge of Lincoln. He was always calculating, and always planning ahead. His ambition was a little engine that knew no rest.”
Time was not standing still waiting for Lincoln to make his emergence. It was accelerating all along. Time was indifferent to him, but he was not indifferent to the time. Lincoln could not have entered as a cogent and capable political actor unless he maintained a grasp of the nuances unfolding for years. During that interregnum between when he left the Congress and spoke against the Kansas-Nebraska Act there was little he could do to advance the Whig Party, which collapsed under the strains of both false peace and harsh conflict. Lincoln only seemed to be offstage. He did not disappear, even if his name did not prominently appear. Even while ambling on his horse Old Bob from county courthouse to courthouse in the Eighth Judicial Circuit of Illinois, he was constantly attending to what was happening beyond it. His fixation on his perpetual rival Douglas never wavered. His attention on the larger events was neither inadvertent nor casual; nor was he present merely by implication or allusion. He was out of the limelight, but the rapidly spinning world was under his gaze.
He and Herndon maintained the best private library in town, subscribed to newspapers and journals from across the country and from London, and both regularly wrote anonymous editorials for the Illinois State Journal, the Whig paper of which Lincoln was virtually the coeditor. His legal circuit was also his political network. It would spring to life when his political career did, too. He never ceased his travels around a changing Illinois, where the spectacular growth of Chicago and the mass influx of German immigrants were radically reconfiguring the political calculus.
The honing of his legal skills simultaneously sharpened his political ones. His nocturnal study of Euclid’s Elements enabled him to master the geometry of both law and politics. He was also capable of cold realism about his own limitations. He quickly if unhappily came to accept the formidable corporate attorney Edwin Stanton’s ruthless dismissal of his talents as the co-counsel in the Manny case of 1854. Lincoln knew then he would never rise to Stanton’s level in the profession, and that his true ability and opportunity, his square root, still lay in politics.
While Lincoln’s party disintegrated beneath him the necessity of political parties never escaped him. He clung to the hull of the sinking Whig Party longer than some, but knew at once that a new coalition against the extension of slavery must be organized. In this period of party chaos, Lincoln cast himself into the whirlwind. As his party splintered, he began building the framework of another, even when he did not yet know it. Many movements, often overlapping, swirled across the landscape, against slavery, immigrants, and drink. But the nativist and temperance movements confounded the development of the antislavery one. Antislavery Democrats and antislavery Whigs with long grudges still regarded each other with mutual suspicion. The old partisan lines, however, were not hard and fast, and becoming looser as the Whigs dissolved. Third party abolitionist politics suffused with sectarianism, meanwhile, asserted itself as the core of a new alignment, though it could not itself attract or manage a varying and volatile coalition. Yet what had been marginal and peripheral could be brought into a new center. Some farseeing people in the abolitionist movement in Illinois understood that more proficient and gifted political leaders were required to draw the elements together, which brought them to Lincoln’s doorstep. At first he dodged them; but then he led them.
Sequestering himself in the library of the state capitol as he drafted his speech against the Kansas-Nebraska Act, he constructed a coherent intellectual argument matching the elements of the political coalition that would become the Republican Party. He drew on the doctrines of the anti slavery movement, of the defunct Liberty Party and its chief theorist, Senator Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, incorporating the idea of the Declaration of Independence as integral to the Constitution, which he argued was an antislavery document despite its provisions for fugitive slaves and counting slaves for representation as three-fifths of a person. He co-opted the ambiguous figure of Thomas Jefferson, slaveholding father of the Democratic Party, as author not only of the Declaration but also the inspiration for the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which prohibited slavery in the territories. “All honor to Jefferson,” proclaimed Lincoln.
The growth of Lincoln’s politics and his thought was also shaped by events that were closer to home than those occurring in Washington. His experience serving as co-counsel in the Todd Heirs case of 1849 had been searing in his understanding of slavery as a political, economic, and social system. Failing in his attempt to recover his wife’s family’s fortune from the leader of the pro-slavery movement in Kentucky, Lincoln encountered its mounting power and virulence firsthand. For years afterward he turned over in his mind the menace of slavery to democracy until, in 1855, he began to envision the prospect of civil war. “I think, that there is no peaceful extinction of slavery in prospect for us,” he wrote. “The signal failure of Henry Clay, and other good and great men, in 1849, to effect any thing in favor of gradual emancipation in Kentucky, together with a thousand other signs, extinguishes that hope utterly.” And he would conclude, “Our political problem now is ‘Can we, as a nation, continue together permanently—forever—half slave, and half free?’ ”
Making sense of the crisis from the background, Lincoln moved in accord with his own timing to the foreground. He absorbed the drama, ruminated on it, a political mind continually at work, wondering how he might move forward, how he would break through. For years he wrestled. The decline and fall of the Whigs did not inevitably mean that there would be a new party of Lincoln. There was no imperative except that which was within Lincoln himself.
Wrestling With His Angel: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, 1849-1856 by Sidney Blumenthal. Copyright © 2017 by Sidney Blumenthal. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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