James Oakes

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - James Oakes

A Self-Made Man:

The Po­lit­i­cal Life of

Abra­ham Lin­coln, 1809–1849 by Sid­ney Blu­men­thal.

Si­mon and Schus­ter, 556 pp., $35.00

Wrestling with His An­gel:

The Po­lit­i­cal Life of

Abra­ham Lin­coln, 1849–1856 by Sid­ney Blu­men­thal.

Si­mon and Schus­ter, 581 pp., $35.00

By the time Abra­ham Lin­coln was in­au­gu­rated as pres­i­dent in 1861, Africans and their de­scen­dants had been en­slaved in North Amer­ica for about 250 years. Slav­ery had sur­vived wars and rev­o­lu­tions, eco­nomic up­heavals, and a va­ri­ety of gov­ern­ments. Fif­teen pres­i­dents had come and gone, as had more than thirty Con­gresses, and not one of them had made a se­ri­ous ef­fort to un­der­mine slav­ery. Yet within a mere eigh­teen months of tak­ing the oath of of­fice, Lin­coln an­nounced the eman­ci­pa­tion of three mil­lion slaves in the south­ern states, sound­ing what Eric Foner called “the death knell of slav­ery.” Why did Lin­coln move so fast? Why did he so quickly com­mit the United States to the com­plete de­struc­tion of a slave sys­tem that, un­til his elec­tion, had not only sur­vived but flour­ished for a quar­ter of a mil­len­nium?

It is one of the virtues of Sid­ney Blu­men­thal’s ac­count in The Po­lit­i­cal Life of Abra­ham Lin­coln that it does not ap­proach this ques­tion by ref­er­ence to Lin­coln’s bi­og­ra­phy alone. The de­tails of Lin­coln’s life are wo­ven through­out the two vol­umes so far pub­lished. (There are two more to come.) But the one thousand pages we al­ready have take us only up to 1856, when Lin­coln joined the newly formed Repub­li­can Party, and the doc­u­men­ta­tion of his life un­til that point is too scant to fill so much space. What Blu­men­thal has given us in­stead is a sprawl­ing ac­count of the larger po­lit­i­cal his­tory of the United States, within which he places the de­tails of Lin­coln’s bi­og­ra­phy. Th­ese two vol­umes are a study less of Lin­coln’s po­lit­i­cal life than of his po­lit­i­cal world. It was a world dom­i­nated for decades by an in­creas­ingly in­tractable de­bate over slav­ery.

Ap­proach­ing his sub­ject in this way leads Blu­men­thal down a num­ber of ob­scure by­ways that, at first glance, seem to be of no great rel­e­vance to Lin­coln’s po­lit­i­cal life. There are long stretches dur­ing which Lin­coln dis­ap­pears com­pletely. An en­tire chapter is de­voted to a lively ac­count of the po­lit­i­cally charged his­tory of Mor­mons in Illi­nois in the 1840s. Another cov­ers the 1853 whirl­wind tour of the United States by Louis Kos­suth, the Hun­gar­ian freedom fighter. The text con­tains en­gag­ing mini-bi­ogra­phies of dozens of char­ac­ters, some of whom were dead by the time Lin­coln was first elected to of­fice.

Ev­ery pres­i­den­tial elec­tion cam­paign is re­con­structed; ev­ery can­di­date for ev­ery party’s nom­i­na­tion is in­tro­duced. It’s easy to get lost in the de­tails of lo­cal pol­i­tics in Spring­field, Illi­nois; the philo­soph­i­cal writ­ings of the Comte de Vol­ney and Thomas Paine; law­suits in Lex­ing­ton, Kentucky; or the shady fi­nan­cial deals of Stephen Dou­glas. The first vol­ume, A Self-Made Man, feels par­tic­u­larly baggy, and I con­fess that I was half­way through the sec­ond, Wrestling with His An­gel, be­fore I could dis­cern the broad out­lines of Blu­men­thal’s im­pres­sive in­tel­lec­tual project. There is method to his ran­dom­ness. In a way, Blu­men­thal is build­ing an ex­pla­na­tion for how Lin­coln got to the Eman­ci­pa­tion Procla­ma­tion.


In 1864 James Gordon Ben­nett, editor of the New York Her­ald, de­scribed Lin­coln as “the keen­est of politi­cians, and more than a match for his wily an­tag­o­nists in the arts of diplo­macy.” Charles Henry Dana, Lin­coln’s as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of war, agreed. “Lin­coln was a supreme politi­cian,” Dana re­called. “He never stepped too soon, and he never stepped too late.” What­ever else we choose to make of Lin­coln—Great Eman­ci­pa­tor or white su­prem­a­cist, redeemer of the Union or ex­ec­u­tive tyrant—it’s hard to deny that he was, from be­gin­ning to end, a par­ti­san politi­cian. “The se­cret of Lin­coln’s suc­cess is sim­ple,” the his­to­rian David Don­ald ex­plained in a clas­sic es­say, “A. Lin­coln, Politi­cian.” “He was an as­tute and dex­ter­ous op­er­a­tor of the po­lit­i­cal ma­chine.” Blu­men­thal is the lat­est in a long line of chron­i­clers to echo Don­ald’s ob­ser­va­tion. Lin­coln, Blu­men­thal writes, was “one of the most as­tute pro­fes­sional politi­cians the coun­try has pro­duced.”

Ad­mi­ra­tion for Lin­coln’s po­lit­i­cal ge­nius is most of­ten di­rected to his per­for­mance as pres­i­dent and com­man­der in chief—how he held his frac­tious party to­gether, man­aged his dis­or­derly cabi­net, ap­pealed for unity across party lines, and per­suaded north­ern­ers to ac­cept eman­ci­pa­tion as a nec­es­sary step to save the Union. No doubt Blu­men­thal will ad­dress those is­sues in fu­ture vol­umes, but it is al­ready clear that he is tak­ing a dis­tinc­tive ap­proach to an other­wise con­ven­tional story. That story, as he tells it, is al­most al­ways about slav­ery and the po­lit­i­cal con­flicts it aroused. Wher­ever he looks, whether in Illi­nois, Wash­ing­ton, D.C., In­di­ana, Kentucky, or Mis­souri, whether he’s digging into the his­tory of rail­roads or of for­eign re­la­tions, Blu­men­thal finds a strug­gle over slav­ery that was steadily be­com­ing ir­rec­on­cil­able. The open­ing chap­ters of A Self-Made Man fo­cus on Lin­coln’s early life, but they tilt in the same di­rec­tion.

Lin­coln once said that he was “nat­u­rally an­ti­slav­ery. If slav­ery is not wrong, noth­ing is wrong. I can­not re­mem­ber when I did not so think and feel.” Pre­sum­ably this means that he had ab­sorbed his an­ti­slav­ery views when he was very young, a point now widely ac­cepted among his­to­ri­ans and af­firmed by Blu­men­thal. Lin­coln’s par­ents at­tended an an­ti­slav­ery church. He later said that his fa­ther moved their fam­ily from Kentucky to In­di­ana mostly for eco­nomic rea­sons, but in part to get away from slav­ery. Lin­coln taught him­self the art of rhetoric by pe­rus­ing an­ti­slav­ery speeches reprinted in the school­books he man­aged to get his hands on as a boy. While still a young man Lin­coln rode flat­boats down the Mis­sis­sippi River to New Or­leans, and decades later he re­called how dis­turbed he had been by the sight of slaves chained to­gether or sold at auc­tions in the Cres­cent City.

Lin­coln left home at the age of twen­tytwo and within a year em­barked on a po­lit­i­cal ca­reer. On March 9, 1832, he an­nounced his can­di­dacy for a seat in the Illi­nois Gen­eral Assem­bly as a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Sang­a­mon County. He in­tro­duced him­self as an en­thu­si­as­tic sup­porter of im­prove­ments such as rail­roads, turn­pikes, and pub­lic schools— govern­ment projects de­signed to spur eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment and pro­mote the gen­eral wel­fare of the peo­ple. At the na­tional level, this leg­isla­tive agenda, led by Henry Clay, was known as the Amer­i­can Sys­tem and be­came the dis­tinc­tive plat­form of the emerg­ing Whig Party. But in 1832 Lin­coln was think­ing lo­cally, and in an­nounc­ing his can­di­dacy he fo­cused on clear­ing and straight­en­ing the Sang­a­mon River so the peo­ple of his dis­trict could more eas­ily ex­port their “sur­plus prod­ucts” and im­port “nec­es­sary ar­ti­cles from abroad.”

Lin­coln lost that first elec­tion, but he spent the next cou­ple of years mak­ing him­self more widely known through­out the county. In 1834 he ran again, this time suc­cess­fully. He was re­elected three more times, serv­ing a total of eight years, dur­ing which his most con­spic­u­ous ac­com­plish­ment was his lead­er­ship of the cam­paign to move the state cap­i­tal from Van­dalia to Spring­field. But if his leg­isla­tive record was mea­ger, Lin­coln was all the while sharp­en­ing his par­ti­san skills.

He wrote anony­mous edi­to­ri­als for lo­cal pa­pers hurl­ing scan­dalous ac­cu­sa­tions at his op­po­nents. He be­lit­tled their man­hood and made fun of their re­li­gious con­vic­tions. Though never per­son­ally cor­rupt, Lin­coln scram­bled for pa­tron­age for him­self and his fa­vorites in the Whig Party. He was in many ways a par­ti­san hack, but he was also an in­creas­ingly ef­fec­tive pop­u­lar leader, party or­ga­nizer, and coali­tion builder.

It was in those same years that Lin­coln first put him­self on the pub­lic record in op­po­si­tion to slav­ery. On March 3, 1837, he signed a pub­lic protest declar­ing that “the in­sti­tu­tion of slav­ery is founded on both in­jus­tice and bad pol­icy.” Blu­men­thal rightly sees this as a lo­cal man­i­fes­ta­tion of a na­tional con­tro­versy. Proslav­ery politi­cians were claim­ing that Congress lacked the power to abol­ish slav­ery in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., be­cause slave own­er­ship was pro­tected as a fun­da­men­tal right of prop­erty. By con­trast Lin­coln in­voked the broad an­ti­slav­ery prin­ci­ple that Congress could, “un­der the con­sti­tu­tion,” abol­ish slav­ery in the Dis­trict of Columbia. By im­pli­ca­tion, Congress could do sev­eral other things as well. Af­ter four terms Lin­coln re­signed

from the state leg­is­la­ture and in 1846 was elected to the US House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives. When he ar­rived in Wash­ing­ton the fol­low­ing year, Congress was in an up­roar caused by the Mex­i­can– Amer­i­can War. In the North the war was widely viewed as a proslav­ery swin­dle, and Lin­coln read­ily joined the ma­jor­ity of north­ern con­gress­men who re­peat­edly voted to ban slav­ery in any ter­ri­tory snatched from Mex­ico. While in Wash­ing­ton, Lin­coln also drafted a mod­er­ate statute for the abo­li­tion of slav­ery in Wash­ing­ton and sup­ported a num­ber of res­o­lu­tions along those same lines.

Hav­ing earned noth­ing but ridicule for his op­po­si­tion to the Mex­i­can war, Lin­coln’s po­lit­i­cal ca­reer stalled. He served only one term in Congress, af­ter which he re­turned to Illi­nois in 1849 where he had lit­tle choice but to con­cen­trate on his le­gal prac­tice. A Self-Made Man con­cludes at this point. “His an­ti­slav­ery ges­tures in the leg­is­la­ture and the Congress came to naught and were largely ig­nored,” Blu­men­thal writes. “He had learned the arts and let­ters of pol­i­tics in the new re­pub­lic. But even pro­fi­ciency was in­suf­fi­cient. He was at a dead end.”

As was true of the first vol­ume, Wrestling with His An­gel opens with bi­o­graph­i­cal de­tails from Lin­coln’s life, in this case a law­suit over his fa­ther-in­law’s es­tate that took him to Kentucky. There Lin­coln wit­nessed close up the fi­nal de­struc­tion of an­ti­slav­ery forces in that state. But once again bi­og­ra­phy gives way to po­lit­i­cal his­tory as Blu­men­thal moves on to an ex­tended ac­count of the so-called Com­pro­mise of 1850. (Lin­coln, back in Spring­field prac­tic­ing law, is not part of this story.) The de­tails of Blu­men­thal’s ac­count are fa­mil­iar, but he ar­ranges them in order to fore­shadow the next dra­matic shift in Lin­coln’s po­lit­i­cal ca­reer, which be­gan with the death of Henry Clay, his “beau ideal” of a states­man. It was Clay who fash­ioned the var­i­ous el­e­ments of the Com­pro­mise of 1850. But un­able to se­cure its pas­sage through Congress, Clay left Wash­ing­ton ex­hausted, frus­trated, and frail. He would be dead within two years. Blu­men­thal sees Clay’s depar­ture as the be­gin­ning of the end of the Whig Party he had founded and to which Lin­coln had long been de­voted. The po­lit­i­cal ground was shift­ing be­neath Lin­coln’s feet.

John C. Cal­houn like­wise made his fi­nal ap­pear­ance in na­tional pol­i­tics in 1850, ris­ing from his deathbed to de­nounce the com­pro­mise. With Cal­houn gone, Blu­men­thal con­cen­trates on his pro­tégé and suc­ces­sor, Jef­fer­son Davis, who soon emerged as the leader of the in­creas­ingly in­tran­si­gent proslav­ery forces in na­tional pol­i­tics. Like Cal­houn, Davis op­posed the com­pro­mise and would ex­er­cise his for­mi­da­ble in­flu­ence to de­stroy it a few years later. But Davis is not yet the lead char­ac­ter in the story Blu­men­thal is telling.

The dark knight in this tale, the archri­val with whom “Lin­coln was locked in mor­tal com­bat,” is still Stephen Dou­glas. In A Self-Made Man Blu­men­thal traces the ri­valry be­tween Lin­coln and Dou­glas all the way back to the 1830s—not only in the head-to­head con­fronta­tions be­tween them, but also in the war of words be­tween Whig and Demo­cratic news­pa­pers, in the par­ti­san strug­gles within the Illi­nois leg­is­la­ture, in the com­pe­ti­tion for Mary Todd’s af­fec­tions, in the shift­ing ap­peals for sup­port from Joseph Smith’s Mor­mons, and most of­ten in the “shadow” matches be­tween can­di­dates who were prox­ies for ei­ther Lin­coln or Dou­glas. Through it all, and to his im­mense frus­tra­tion, Lin­coln’s po­lit­i­cal star faded as Dou­glas’s rose.

Wrestling with His An­gel is as much Dou­glas’s story as Lin­coln’s, be­gin­ning with Dou­glas’s tri­umphant res­cue of Clay’s com­pro­mise mea­sures. Clay had put to­gether a pack­age of items—some ap­peal­ing to an­ti­slav­ery north­ern­ers and oth­ers to proslav­ery south­ern­ers— and bun­dled them to­gether in what was de­ri­sively dubbed the “om­nibus” bill. That strat­egy back­fired. It alien­ated each side so that in­stead of max­i­miz­ing sup­port, the om­nibus ap­proach en­sured the bill’s down­fall. But as Clay re­treated in de­feat, Dou­glas as­sumed con­trol of the sit­u­a­tion. He broke Clay’s bill into in­di­vid­ual pieces, each suf­fi­ciently ap­peal­ing to win dif­fer­ent ma­jori­ties. The com­pro­mise was saved, and Dou­glas pro­claimed him­self the hero of the hour. Whigs and Democrats alike de­clared that the slav­ery is­sue was set­tled, per­ma­nently, never again to dis­rupt na­tional pol­i­tics. Rev­el­ing in his tri­umph, Dou­glas fixed his eyes on the pres­i­dency.

But Dou­glas was not only am­bi­tious, he was also greedy—not to men­tion scur­rilous, de­ceit­ful, and ruth­less. Blu­men­thal’s portrait of the “Lit­tle Giant”—as Dou­glas was known be­cause of his short stature—is mer­ci­less. If Jef­fer­son Davis comes off as a hu­mor­less ide­o­logue, Dou­glas is an un­prin­ci­pled dem­a­gogue. He cap­i­tal­ized on his leg­isla­tive tri­umph in 1850 to se­cure con­gres­sional pas­sage of a rail­road bill that, not co­in­ci­den­tally, made him rich from real es­tate in­vest­ments in Chicago. His ap­petite whet­ted, Dou­glas tried it again in 1854, this time with plans for a transcon­ti­nen­tal rail­road that would make him richer still. In order for his well-si­t­u­ated in­vest­ments to pay off, Dou­glas had to in­cor­po­rate the Ne­braska Ter­ri­tory, but to do that he needed south­ern sup­port. The price Davis and his fel­low south­ern­ers ex­torted for en­dorse­ment of Dou­glas’s ter­ri­to­rial bill was the re­peal of the Mis­souri Com­pro­mise, which had banned slav­ery in the Ne­braska Ter­ri­tory since 1820. Dou­glas will­ingly com­plied, se­cured pas­sage of the Kansas-Ne­braska Act of 1854, and made a for­tune.

It is hard to un­der­state the seis­mic up­heaval Dou­glas had set in mo­tion. The Whig Party was al­ready reel­ing from the north­ern back­lash against the Fugi­tive Slave Act, which had been passed as part of the Com­pro­mise of 1850. But that was noth­ing com­pared to the po­lit­i­cal re­bel­lion un­leashed by the Ne­braska bill’s re­peal of the Mis­souri Com­pro­mise. Anti-Ne­braska par­ties sprang up across the North, where Democrats suf­fered dis­as­trous de­feats in the 1854 elec­tions. With both ma­jor par­ties spin­ning off dis­sent­ing fac­tions, north­ern politi­cians scram­bled to fuse the dis­cor­dant el­e­ments into a new coali­tion. For a while it was un­clear whether a new party would co­a­lesce around hos­til­ity to the ex­pan­sion of slav­ery or hos­til­ity to

Catholic im­mi­grants. Dis­dain­ful of the anti-im­mi­grant fever and with no Whig Party left to cling to, Lin­coln threw in his lot with the new Repub­li­can Party. The Ne­braska con­tro­versy had re­vived Lin­coln’s po­lit­i­cal ca­reer. He shad­owed Dou­glas from town to town per­fect­ing the first of his great an­ti­slav­ery speeches—known ever af­ter as the Peo­ria speech. This was a dif­fer­ent Lin­coln, Blu­men­thal be­lieves, a ma­ture states­man rather than a party hack. But the po­lit­i­cal cir­cum­stances had changed at least as much as the man. Lin­coln’s life­long hos­til­ity to slav­ery had been held in check for as long as he re­mained loyal to the Whig Party, with its pow­er­ful south­ern wing. The dec­i­ma­tion of his beloved Whigs and the con­se­quent rise of the an­ti­slav­ery Repub­li­can Party ac­tu­ally lib­er­ated Lin­coln. For the first time in his po­lit­i­cal life his par­ti­san al­le­giance aligned with his an­ti­slav­ery con­vic­tions.


Al­though The Po­lit­i­cal Life of Abra­ham Lin­coln is any­thing but a con­ven­tional bi­og­ra­phy, it of­ten reads like a series of bi­o­graph­i­cal sketches. Blu­men­thal cites a num­ber of pre­vi­ous bi­ogra­phies that pro­vide a sub­stan­tial pro­por­tion of his source ma­te­rial. And al­though he draws on many of the ma­jor speeches and writ­ings of the char­ac­ters he dis­cusses, th­ese two vol­umes are works of syn­the­sis more than of orig­i­nal schol­ar­ship. Where Blu­men­thal does rely on pri­mary sources, they are of­ten mem­oirs or rec­ol­lec­tions that are not al­ways re­li­able. He knows this, and he oc­ca­sion­ally goes out of his way to de­bunk a fa­mil­iar story by dis­put­ing the source. But Blu­men­thal is not al­ways dis­cern­ing in his use of rec­ol­lected ma­te­rial, and he has a dis­con­cert­ing habit of telling a story and quot­ing a source only to re­veal that the anec­dote is prob­a­bly apoc­ryphal and the source un­trust­wor­thy.

As ex­pan­sive as his un­der­stand­ing of Lin­coln’s po­lit­i­cal world is, Blu­men­thal’s ac­count is in other ways nar­rowly con­ceived. This is a view of his­tory in which pol­i­tics is largely ex­plained by ref­er­ence to more pol­i­tics, an ap­proach that tends to dis­count pres­sure from out­side the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem it­self. How, for ex­am­ple, might we ac­count for the enor­mous im­pact the is­sue of fugi­tive slaves had on na­tional pol­i­tics be­fore and dur­ing the Civil War? Why did tens of thou­sands of women en­list in the abo­li­tion­ist move­ment, and why was gen­der such a promi­nent theme in an­ti­slav­ery pol­i­tics? Why were abo­li­tion­ists forced for so long to op­er­ate out­side the two-party sys­tem, and what was the in­flu­ence the move­ment ul­ti­mately had on the po­lit­i­cal mainstream? What was it about the north­ern econ­omy that made it so much more dy­namic than the South’s, and how did that shift the bal­ance of po­lit­i­cal power away from the slave states? Some­times ex­plain­ing pol­i­tics de­mands that the his­to­rian step out­side of pol­i­tics.

And yet this may be un­fair, a case of a critic com­plain­ing that the author should have writ­ten a dif­fer­ent book. Blu­men­thal is the ideal author for the kind of his­tory he writes. He has a jour­nal­ist’s eye for the telling de­tail, and he passes judg­ment with the skill of a prac­ticed polemi­cist. As a po­lit­i­cal strate­gist with close ties to Bill and Hil­lary Clin­ton, Blu­men­thal has an in­sider’s feel for the nitty-gritty of pol­i­tics. He smells rats from miles away. He rev­els in the de­tails of back­room deals and ex­poses shady ma­neu­vers and sharp prac­tices with clar­ity and panache. He skew­ers zealots and liars with gusto and yet re­mains unfazed by the sor­did­ness of it all. Blu­men­thal writes as an an­ti­slav­ery par­ti­san, but like any good politi­cian, he does not make the mis­take of un­der­es­ti­mat­ing his op­po­nents. The re­sult is po­lit­i­cal his­tory that re­sists both naiveté and cyn­i­cism. This is be­cause Blu­men­thal ap­pre­ci­ates the good that can some­times be done by politi­cians like Lin­coln. He closes Wrestling with His An­gel with an ob­ser­va­tion by John Bunn, a fel­low Whig who worked closely with Lin­coln in Spring­field:

Lin­coln’s en­tire ca­reer proves that it is quite pos­si­ble for a man to be adroit and skill­ful and ef­fec­tive in pol­i­tics, with­out in any de­gree sac­ri­fic­ing moral prin­ci­ples.

I’m not sure this is en­tirely cor­rect. Lin­coln cer­tainly had his prin­ci­ples, but not all of them were lovely, and he did oc­ca­sion­ally bend the ones that were. But Bunn was mostly right, and Blu­men­thal shares his re­spect for Lin­coln’s shrewd com­bi­na­tion of prag­ma­tism and prin­ci­ple. It is the an­i­mat­ing premise of both books.


In 1858, two years af­ter he com­mit­ted him­self to the Repub­li­can Party, Lin­coln once more con­fronted his archri­val in what be­came the most cel­e­brated sen­a­to­rial con­test in US his­tory. The seven de­bates be­tween Lin­coln and Dou­glas would be­come clas­sics of Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal rhetoric. As the cam­paign pro­ceeded, Lin­coln steadily found his voice and con­cluded with some of the most elo­quent pas­sages ever ut­tered in de­fense of hu­man dig­nity and univer­sal freedom. Dou­glas went the other way, de­scend­ing to a shocking level of vul­gar­ity, men­dac­ity, and un­abashed racial dem­a­goguery. He warned vot­ers that if Lin­coln had his way the slaves would be freed and sav­age blacks would swarm across the south­ern bor­ders of Illi­nois, where they would threaten the pu­rity of the wives and daugh­ters of free white men.

For Lin­coln, the out­come of the elec­tion could hardly have been more frus­trat­ing. The Repub­li­cans won the pop­u­lar vote, but at the time se­na­tors were cho­sen by state leg­is­la­tures, and the Illi­nois leg­is­la­ture, still dom­i­nated by Dou­glas’s Democrats, re­turned the shame­less dem­a­gogue to the Se­nate. On his way back to Wash­ing­ton, Dou­glas gave a series of speeches in which he likened blacks to a species of an­i­mal some­where be­tween a hu­man be­ing and a croc­o­dile. But there was only so much of this that peo­ple were will­ing to take. For years Dou­glas had fi­nessed the slav­ery is­sue with his call for “pop­u­lar sovereignty,” an idea Blu­men­thal sees as lit­tle more than a pub­lic­ity stunt. In 1860 the stunt was no longer work­ing. In the fi­nal con­test be­tween the two great ri­vals the vot­ers chose Lin­coln over Dou­glas as the next pres­i­dent of the United States. If Blu­men­thal has demon­strated any­thing, it is that by the time Lin­coln took his oath of of­fice, the de­bate over slav­ery had been at or near the cen­ter of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics for at least forty years. For most of that time slave­hold­ers con­trolled the pres­i­dency, Congress, and the Supreme Court. But with each pass­ing decade the bal­ance of eco­nomic power shifted to the North, and Wrestling with His An­gel traces the cor­re­spond­ing shift in po­lit­i­cal power, cul­mi­nat­ing in the estab­lish­ment of the Repub­li­can Party.

In 1861 Lin­coln be­came the first pres­i­dent elected on an an­ti­slav­ery plat­form. He made no se­cret of the fact that he had al­ways hated slav­ery. He had long since pub­li­cally en­dorsed a host of fed­eral poli­cies de­signed to put slav­ery on a peace­ful course of ul­ti­mate ex­tinc­tion. But he had also con­cluded that slav­ery was more likely to end in vi­o­lence, and he warned that if the slave states re­sponded to his elec­tion by se­ced­ing from the Union they would for­feit any claim to fed­eral pro­tec­tion of slav­ery.

No won­der he moved so quickly. Within a mere eigh­teen months of tak­ing of­fice Lin­coln com­mit­ted the fed­eral govern­ment to the over­throw of the largest and wealth­i­est slave sys­tem in the hemi­sphere, a sys­tem that had pros­pered for two and a half cen­turies. Rev­o­lu­tions of this mag­ni­tude are not the in­ci­den­tal byprod­ucts of war. They are a long time in the mak­ing, al­though when they come they of­ten come quickly. For any­one won­der­ing why Lin­coln is­sued the Eman­ci­pa­tion Procla­ma­tion so soon af­ter tak­ing of­fice, Sid­ney Blu­men­thal’s ex­pan­sive po­lit­i­cal life of the six­teenth pres­i­dent is a good place to start look­ing for an an­swer.

Abra­ham Lin­coln, Spring­field, Illi­nois, Au­gust 1860

Sid­ney Blu­men­thal

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