New Bio Delivers a Full-Length Lincoln
We live in a golden age of Lincoln scholarship, but most of the best books concentrate on particular aspects of Lincoln’s life and character. Sidney Blumenthal wants the whole man or nothing.
“Who is this huckster in politics?” asks an angry abolitionist upon Abraham Lincoln’s nomination for president.“Who is the country court advocate?”
A man of a different political stripe than that abolitionist, while campaigning against Lincoln in 1860, called him “infinitely worse than a Yankee Abolitionist.”
Thus did Abraham Lincoln inspire not merely contradictory opinions in men but violently contradictory opinions. Sometimes he inspired different opinions in the same person. According to his law partner, William Herndon, Lincoln was “ambitious, secretive, and somewhat selfish …” while also “full of honesty, integrity, sincerity; open, fair, and candid when speaking or acting.”
“He seemed paradoxical,” writes Sidney Blumenthal in A Self-Made Man, “but was of a piece.”
Much of what is said about Lincoln in the first of a proposed three-volume set has been presented before; how can that not be true in a book about the most written about human being who ever lived? Seldom, though, has the information been placed in a more illuminating context.
Slavery, for instance. One finds in every Lincoln biography his hatred of slavery; I’ve read in at least four biographies of his resentment and humiliation when his father rented him out (at a price of ten to thirty-one cents a day) to split rails, work on farms, and perform whatever other manual tasks someone wanted done for a dime an hour. I did not know of the degree to which the young Lincoln seethed under such a yoke. “I used to be a slave,” he announced at a campaign event.
His father collected his son’s wages, a practice young Lincoln hated. He felt degraded, imprisoned “in a world of neglect, fecklessness, and ignorance. It was at the root of his fierce desire to rise. It was also at the core of his belief that “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.”
Mary Todd benefits greatly from the depth of Blumenthal’s scholarship and the breadth of his vision. Blumenthal leaves little doubt that he is on the side of the woman often portrayed as desperately clinging to her husband’s arm. The daughter of a business partner of Henry Clay, the senator and secretary of state whom Lincoln greatly admired, “was a rare woman of the Southern upper class who loved politics …” who “did not hesitate to offer her strong opinions at a time when women were supposed to remain silent and deferential on the subject.”
Though he did not share her fondness for society—“How can you attach such great importance to matters so trivial?” he once asked her with a smile.” Lincoln needed a wife whose “preternatural ambition … would spur him to reach for the highest rewards in politics. There would be only one woman he would ever meet like that.”
But life as Lincoln’s wife bore many burdens. Hendon felt that “The world does not know what she bore, and the history of the bearing … This domestic hell of Lincoln’s life is not all on one side.” Mary’s half-sister, Emilie Helm, thought “Oh, how she did love this man!”
Simply, “there would have been no Lincoln without Mary, and he knew it. He remained smitten and in wonder that she had selected ‘a poor nobody.’”
Blumenthal’s greatest contribution is, as the book’s subtitle indicates, putting Lincoln the politician in bas-relief. Once again, much of this information has been covered in the best Lincoln biographies of recent decades, but Blumenthal provides greater perspective and emphasis on perhaps the preeminent politician in American history.
Modern readers may accept the concept of Lincoln’s political mastery easier than previous generations, but the accumulated effect of nearly a century of Lincoln biographies—I’m thinking of the famous books by Carl Sandburg and James G. Randall, the leading Lincoln scholar from the mid-’20s to the ’50s—is hard to break through. Nearly one hundred years after Lincoln’s death, he was still being viewed (and for this we may also blame movies starring Walter Huston and Henry Fonda) as a folksy backwoods savant, a philosopher by nature, and a somewhat reluctant politician.
But in fact, Lincoln was, as his assistant secretary of war Charles Dana put it, “a supreme politician. “He understood politics because he understood human nature.” The Great Emancipator “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 as an unpleasant process that might pollute them … He never believed politics corrupted him.” Lincoln “completely embraced party politics … His idea of politics was not separate from his idea of democracy …”
He was a dyed-in-the wool Whig, and his politics, as he put it, were “short and sweet, like the old woman’s dance. I am in favor of a national bank.”—Thank you, Alexander Hamilton—“I am in favor of the internal improvement system and a high protective tariff. These are my sentiments and political principles.” So we have a pretty good idea of where he would have stood on the issue of funding for the infrastructure as, in Blumenthal’s words, “he would launch his political career on the issue, remaining an unwavering advocate through the creation of the transcontinental railroad.”
And he could be ruthless in his support of those policies. Blumenthal calls David Herbert Donald “the greatest Lincoln biographer of the late twentieth century,” but strongly disagrees with Donald’s assertion in Lincoln that “Lincoln’s ‘basic trait of character’ was his ‘essential passivity.’”
Well, Lincoln was so passive that he “leaked [information] to favored reporters, played newspaper editors against each other, and even offered the post of minister to France to ‘His Satanic Majesty,’ James Gordon Bennett, editor of the New York Herald, a vicious critic, to help win his support for reelection.” He went so far as to write articles favorable to himself and his policies for respected publications such as the Atlantic Monthly under the bylines of journalist friends.
The man who would later be called Father Abraham was “likely the author … of letters in rustic dialectic in the [Sangamo] Journal under the byline ‘Johnny Blubberhead’ … maligning a host of Democrats.”
He wasn’t above provoking a political rival, James Shields, into challenging him to a duel, though he never lost his wit. When asked about the choice of weapons, he replied, “How about cow dung at five paces?” Yielding to the advice of a congressman who was Mary Todd’s cousin, the two men agreed to submit their differences to a disinterested panel; Shields withdrew his challenge and Lincoln apologized. More than a decade later, Lincoln approved Shields’s position as a brigadier general in the Union army.
There seems to be some reluctance among academic historians to accept A Self-Made Man for the instant classic it clearly is.
Some of the sniping has to do with the fact that Lincoln himself disappears from the narrative for pages at a time. It’s true that Blumenthal devotes large chunks of text to, say, the influence of Mormonism on society and politics when Lincoln was a young man. The Latter Day Saints don’t come off well; the ideals of Joseph Smith (who once referred to God as “my right-hand man”) were “overlaid with predatory self-aggrandizing enterprises—a unique mixture of collectivism and cronyism.” The Mormons in Lincoln’s time were, among other crimes, accused of cattle rustling, fraudulent land deals, and counterfeiting.
The conflicts leading to the expulsions of Mormons from one state after another were not driven by persecution, as their chieftains claimed, but by their leaders’ “political wire-working.” Lincoln thought they were “an autocracy in the center of the republic.”
I do not recall reading about the Mormons and their disruptive influence in previous volumes on Lincoln, and I appreciate the time Blumenthal took to fill in this background.
More of the sniping, I think, has to do with Blumenthal’s being a popular historian in an era when writing an unpopular history is often seen as a badge of credibility. (The back cover endorsements from Lincoln scholars Harold Holzer and James McPherson should alone dispel the notion that Blumenthal is unqualified for this task.)
Some of the criticism no doubt derives from time he spent at the Washington Post and the New Yorker rather than Princeton or Harvard. And let’s face it, in a time of unparalleled partisanship, there is much resentment over his political leanings in general. He was a senior advisor during Bill Clinton’s administration, and has been particularly scrutinized for his association with the Clintons, He wrote The Clinton Wars (2004), and is the author of The Strange Death of Republican America: Chronicles of a Collapsing Party (2008). And yes, he is the Sidney Blumenthal whose name surfaced in Hillary Clinton’s emails when she was secretary of state.
Well, every historian has some cross to bear. In a particularly snotty review in the New York Times, Steven Hahn sniffed “Another book about Abraham Lincoln? And this is the first of a multivolumed biography! The shelves groan with LIncoln studies …” When Hahn comes down to a specific complaint, it’s that a “longtime scholar of Lincoln or the nineteenth century he [Blumenthal] is not.” (Hahn, whose upcoming book is A Nation Without Borders: the United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830-1910, presumably is such an expert.)
Hahn concedes that Blumenthal “shows a nice grasp of the politics of the period,” but, not content with nit-picking and condescension, he casts a dim light on Blumenthal’s next volume, that “might serve as a vital hub around which new perspectives on the 19th century could be devised. This is possible … But I have my doubts.” This might be called praising with faint damns.
The last thirty or so years have been the golden age of Lincoln scholarship, but the best of these books—Lincoln at Gettysburg by Garry Wills (1992), Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals (2005), and James McPherson’s Tried by War: Lincoln as Commander in Chief (2009)—have each focused on a particular area of Lincoln’s presidency. Blumenthal, in his first volume, seems to be going for the whole Lincoln from the ground up, and he writes with a boldness as if no one has written on Lincoln before.
Make no mistake, A Self-Made Man is to Lincoln what Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson is to LBJ. Or at least it has started out that way, and Blumenthal’s subject is far greater.