Book Reviews

Lincoln Ascending

It takes Sidney Blumenthal awhile to get to Lincoln, but it’s worth the wait.

By David S. Reynolds

Tagged Abraham LincolnHistory

Wrestling With His Angel: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, 1849-1856 by Sidney Blumenthal  • Simon & Schuster • 2017 • 608 pages • $35

It takes guts to write a new biography of Abraham Lincoln. Among the some 16,000 books on Lincoln that have appeared to date, there are already a number of superb biographies, not to mention fine books with a biographical slant, such as Harold Holzer’s Lincoln and the Power of the Press and Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial. Sidney Blumenthal’s multivolume biography, of which Wrestling With His Angel is the second volume, is, however, the elucidation of a political life. Although it offers less about Lincoln personally than about the political context in which he came to prominence, it is also worth reading for its detailed coverage of the American political scene during a paramount time of national crisis.

Blumenthal is well-equipped to undertake such a political history, for he has long been involved in American politics as both a commentator and a participant. In a 1988 book, Our Long National Daydream, he wrote that he was waiting for “the new,” by which he meant the arrival, finally, of a natural politician among Democrats: The new turned out to be Bill Clinton. Blumenthal wrote about Clinton and, eventually, got to know him personally. By 1997, Blumenthal was a senior advisor of Clinton’s. During the impeachment proceedings, he was one of the President’s top defenders. Blumenthal remained close to the Clintons, serving as a consultant to Hillary in her 2008 campaign and working for the Clinton Foundation for four years. All the while, Blumenthal has been a liberal activist and an author of books and articles on contemporary politics.

In Wrestling With His Angel, Blumenthal revisits a period in America when bitter divisions over slavery and corruption in high places formed storm clouds that portended civil war. Blumenthal devotes much of his book to describing this ominous foreground to Lincoln’s ascendancy to political power.

Blumenthal is hardly the first to see Lincoln as primarily a political animal rather than a moral one. In Blumenthal’s view, politics provided an escape for Lincoln, who recalled having been, as a child, “a slave” under the control of his father, Thomas Lincoln, who had continuously hired out the young Abe for various kinds of menial labor. Once Lincoln reached legal age, he studied law books (mainly on his own) and, soon after, plunged into Whig politics in Illinois, serving several terms in the state legislature before being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1846. The first volume of Blumenthal’s biography, A Self-Made Man, chronicled Lincoln’s political fortunes through his term in Congress. Wrestling With His Angel covers 1849 to 1856, therefore chronicling the years from Lincoln’s congressional term to his emergence as a leader of the antislavery Republican Party in Illinois.

Given the paucity of Lincoln’s political activities during these six years, it is perhaps understandable that Blumenthal devotes more than half of this volume to matters other than the man himself, including the Compromise of 1850, the presidency of Franklin Pierce, the influence of slavery on politics, and the rise of Lincoln’s nemesis, Senator Stephen A. Douglas.

During this period, as Blumenthal writes, Lincoln was at “the low ebb of his political career,” “mired in his own bog . . . without any visible prospects as far as his horse Bob would take.” Having resumed the law practice he had left when he had entered Congress, Lincoln took biannual treks around the Eighth Judicial Circuit in Illinois, where he tried cases in various towns and villages. We don’t hear much about these trips or the cases he chose to take up in Wrestling With His Angel, as Blumenthal minimizes Lincoln’s law practice and merges it with his politics, the idea being that Lincoln’s argumentative courtroom style fed into his lawyerly dismantling of the proslavery arguments advanced by northern Democrats and Southern apologists.

But before getting to Lincoln’s public confrontation with slavery, Blumenthal covers a crowded stretch of political history. Reading this history is like watching a train wreck in slow motion. In this case, the wreck involved the two national parties, the Democrats and the Whigs. Both parties were shaken by rising tensions over slavery. The Compromise of 1850, introduced to Congress by Senator Henry Clay of the Whigs, and passed as result of the clever promotion of Senator Stephen Douglas, supposedly resolved these tensions by divvying up parts of the newly acquired western territories into free and slave states and by instituting the strict Fugitive Slave Law as a sop to the South. But the compromise was only a temporary fix. Between 1850 and 1856, the Democratic Party split and the Whig Party dissolved over the slavery issue, with Southerners flocking to proslavery politics while Northerners drifted first to the nativist Know Nothing Party and then to a fusion of groups that later became the Republican Party, which was devoted to preventing the westward spread of slavery. Presidents Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce did nothing to halt this ill-omened political repositioning, since they were doughfaces: Northern men with Southern principles.

The abolitionists brought attention to the humanity of blacks and the injustice of slavery, but they were generally seen as marginal fanatics.

The collapse of the Second Party System is a familiar topic, but rarely has its story been told in such careful detail as Blumenthal does here. Blumenthal has a remarkable grasp of the strategizing, deal-making, and backstabbing of the political scene of the early 1850s. He shows, among other things, how the opportunistic Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas tried to parlay his program of popular sovereignty (the notion that slavery could spread anywhere, so long as it was locally approved) into political capital and financial gain. Douglas stood to profit from slavery’s expansion, since he owned large tracts of land that would be traversed by the Illinois Central Railroad, whose federal backing he successfully called for.

Among the other morally compromised figures Blumenthal describes are Franklin Pierce, the charming but weak-willed New Hampshirite who used the presidency to bolster a proslavery agenda; the Mississippian Jefferson Davis, who in his position as Pierce’s secretary of war pushed that agenda at every turn; the Tennessee-born filibusterer William Walker, who invaded Nicaragua and assumed temporary control of the country; and Pierre Soulé of New Orleans, who as the U.S. minister to Spain helped write the Ostend Manifesto, which called for the annexation of Cuba as a Southern slave state.

The common denominator of much of this scheming was the South’s effort to take over new territory for slavery. Jefferson Davis, as Blumenthal notes, aimed for nothing less than a Caribbean empire controlled by the South and inhabited by slaveholders. Davis found a convenient puppet in President Pierce, an unprincipled alcoholic who chose proslavery officials for top positions. As more and more Southerners jumped on the expansionist bandwagon, Douglas
did his part as a doughface to clear the way for them. A bombastic orator and the political idol of the jingoistic movement known as “Young America,” Douglas said, “The peculiar position of our country requires that we should have an American policy in our foreign relations based upon the principles of our own government, and adapted to the spirit of the age.” An unabashed racist, Douglas fumed against the connection of some Northern politicians with “niggerdom” or Black Republicanism, his preferred terms for antislavery sentiment. Douglas promoted his pet scheme, popular sovereignty, as a patriotic concept that allegedly honored the spirit of the Founding Fathers. Every American state or territory, he argued, should be allowed to decide for itself whether or not to accept slavery. What was more American, he wondered, than self-determination?

But such reasoning could make sense only if you accepted the South’s notion that slaves were not human beings with social rights but instead were like any other property—cattle, horses, hogs, and so on. The latter view was confirmed by the era’s ethnographic “science,” which identified blacks as inferior to whites; by Southern religion, which held that slavery was Biblically ordained; and by the economy, which saw a rise in the value of slave labor as the South’s cotton industry prospered.

There is much to learn from these twists and turns in Blumenthal’s political narrative. He amply covers both national and local politics, which provides a solid background for what will come later in Lincoln’s life. But readers hoping to see the promise of the book’s title fulfilled will have to wait for more than 300 pages, for it’s not until the second half of the book that we get a sustained look at Lincoln himself. Here, the book could have profited from some greater focus. Blumenthal could have attained a better balance of political background and Lincoln biography had he extended the scope of this volume to include the entire 1850s, which would have carried us past Lincoln’s congressional days to the eve of his presidential campaign and the Civil War.

That said, the segments on Lincoln’s life that are included are sound. It was Stephen Douglas’s twisted version of freedom that aroused Lincoln from his political lethargy. In 1854, the year that Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act opened up the western territories for slavery, Lincoln began speaking out against its extension. Douglas’s notion of freedom, Lincoln pointed out, did not match that of the Founders, who envisaged the eventual extinction of slavery and prized human equality. The most ardent critics of the South, the abolitionists, brought attention to the humanity of blacks and the injustice of slavery, but their views were in a distinct minority, and they were generally seen as marginal fanatics. Lincoln, as a rising politician, had to navigate carefully between the opposing sides. If he openly advocated abolitionism, he might have sacrificed his political career by being associated with that highly unpopular cause. If, on the other hand, he was too soft on slavery, he could seem overly conservative to the growing body of antislavery politicians in the North. And so he took a middle course, tolerating the Fugitive Slave Act and the noninterference with slavery where it already existed while making firm moral statements against slavery. Although Lincoln’s middling position alienated extremists on both sides, it positioned him to emerge as a moderate force amidst the surrounding political chaos.

Though his concentration is on politics, Blumenthal does not neglect the personal. His treatment of Lincoln’s marriage, for example, is judicious. Blumenthal takes an unblinking look at the quirks and flaws of Mary Todd Lincoln—her irrational fear of storms, her tantrums, migraines, panic attacks, and so on—but avoids dismissing her as a termagant who was perpetual drain on Lincoln, as some biographers have. Blumenthal is justified in suggesting that without the ever-ambitious Mary behind him, Lincoln may have not risen as high as he did. Charming and well-educated despite her failings, she was an intelligent companion for Lincoln and an attentive mother to their children. Also, as Blumenthal points out, she dealt with her own set of challenges in their marriage, as Lincoln was away on the law circuit for many weeks a year and could be absent-minded and distracted when at home.

And as Blumenthal is covering another tempestuous time in American history, his book contains many parallels to today. One can glean an early sketch of Donald Trump in the brash, hyper-nationalist Douglas, whose promoter and sidekick George Nicholas Sanders, adept in behind-the-scenes maneuvering, presages Steve Bannon. Sanctuary cities? The era of Lincoln had them too. This included Boston, where runaway slaves were shielded, thanks to abolitionists, from Southerners who came north to recover their chattel under the Fugitive Slave Law. Then as now, immigrants were widely held under suspicion—not Muslims, then, but Catholics, who flooded to America’s shores in such great numbers that nativist paranoia reached never-before-seen heights.

The unraveling of the political parties as result of the social divisions of the times also has a familiar ring. But as divided as America is today, it was far more so then. After all, it would take the deaths of 750,000 Americans in a four-year civil war to rid the nation of slavery. And it is the nation’s good fortune that Abraham Lincoln occupied the presidency during that time of unparalleled crisis.

Wrestling With His Angel scrupulously illustrates the emergence of the political leader whose principled devotion to human rights stood in stark contrast to the venality and complacency that swirled around him as the ship of state headed toward its most violent storm.

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David S. Reynolds is a Distinguished Professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the author or editor of 15 books, including Walt Whitman’s America, Beneath the American Renaissance, John Brown, Abolitionist, Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson, and, most recently, Lincoln’s Selected Writings. He is the winner of the Bancroft Prize, the Christian Gauss Award, the Ambassador Book Award, and finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

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