Abra­ham Lin­coln’s po­lit­i­cal ge­nius was bal­anced by prin­ci­ple.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - RE­VIEW BY MICHAEL GREEN

It was no small feat that Abra­ham Lin­coln was able to ma­neu­ver his re­elec­tion in 1864. The last pres­i­dent to win a sec­ond term, Andrew Jack­son, did so in 1832 with his party united and with­out the weight of a a bloody, three-year-old war. Lin­coln was, in the words of Doris Kearns Good­win and oth­ers, a “po­lit­i­cal ge­nius.”

Sid­ney Blu­men­thal would agree. Blu­men­thal, a long­time jour­nal­ist who worked for a pres­i­dent who won two terms, be­lieves that Lin­coln ac­com­plished what he did be­cause he was a politi­cian from his toe­nails to the top of his stovepipe hat. How Lin­coln bal­anced pol­i­tics and prin­ci­ple is cen­tral to “Wrestling With His An­gel,” the sec­ond of Blu­men­thal’s pro­jected four vol­umes on Lin­coln’s po­lit­i­cal ca­reer. It fol­lows last year’s “A Self-Made Man,” which ex­am­ined Lin­coln’s first 40 years.

In that vol­ume, Lin­coln was a mostly a lo­cal politi­cian who tried to stick to his party’s prin­ci­ples while broad­en­ing its ap­peal, as Blu­men­thal’s for­mer boss Bill Clin­ton sought to do in the Demo­cratic Party of the 1990s. Lin­coln’s ef­forts proved less suc­cess­ful. In 1849, he re­turned to Illi­nois as a one-term con­gress­man, a ca­pa­ble lawyer and a mi­nor cog in a creaky Whig po­lit­i­cal ma­chine that soon dis­in­te­grated.

But just as Winston Churchill had his “wilder­ness years” to ready him­self for bigger things, so did Lin­coln. In 1860, five years af­ter the Whig Party col­lapsed, Lin­coln was elected pres­i­dent. How he emerged from that wilder­ness — how “he en­tered his wilder­ness years a man in pieces and emerged on the other end a co­her­ent steady fig­ure” — is the story Blu­men­thal tells with panache and un­der­stand­ing.

Lin­coln grasped that “when the events changed he had to change to align him­self with them.” As Blu­men­thal puts it, “The self-made man ed­u­cated him­self in the pol­i­tics of democ­racy,” “ap­pren­ticed in logrolling,” stud­ied “pe­cu­liar nu­ances of power that could not be com­manded by fiat” and be­longed to “the first Amer­i­can gen­er­a­tion in­no­vat­ing in party or­ga­ni­za­tion, mass me­dia, and public opin­ion.”

Blu­men­thal knows that world bet­ter than any­one else who has ex­am­ined Lin­coln. Two po­lit­i­cal fig­ures — Sen. Albert Bev­eridge, an early 20th-cen­tury Pro­gres­sive and bi­og­ra­pher, and Ge­orge McGovern, who car­ried the bag­gage of a PhD in his­tory when he ran for pres­i­dent — have writ­ten bi­ogra­phies of Lin­coln, but they did not fo­cus, as Blu­men­thal does, on Lin­coln as the po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tive who also wrote edi­to­ri­als and fi­nanced news­pa­pers. Blu­men­thal has spent his life in the in­ter­con­nected worlds of pol­i­tics and jour­nal­ism, and it shows: He grasps that po­lit­i­cal ge­nius in ways oth­ers could not, mak­ing Lin­coln more po­lit­i­cally plau­si­ble.

In ex­plain­ing Lin­coln’s tran­si­tion from just an­other Whig to a ris­ing Repub­li­can, Blu­men­thal keeps the man him­self off the stage. In­deed, Lin­coln was in the wings, watch­ing and an­a­lyz­ing events as they un­folded. Blu­men­thal ex­plains those de­vel­op­ments and the per­son­al­i­ties at the cen­ter of them, from the rigid and ma­nip­u­la­tive Jef­fer­son Davis (Blu­men­thal clearly de­lights in dis­cussing Davis’s her­pes, which caused se­ri­ous vi­sion prob­lems, and his ex­tra­mar­i­tal af­fair with an Alabama politi­cian’s wife) to the cease­lessly pan­der­ing Stephen Dou­glas, the long­time po­lit­i­cal ri­val whom Lin­coln (and Blu­men­thal) dis­dained.

Blu­men­thal be­gins his story by ex­plain­ing cholera, which ends up be­ing cru­cial to Lin­coln’s — and Amer­ica’s — po­lit­i­cal evo­lu­tion. In 1849, a cholera epi­demic killed Mary Lin­coln’s fa­ther, Robert Todd, re­quir­ing Lin­coln to go to Ken­tucky for a law­suit over his es­tate. At the time, Ken­tucky was de­bat­ing a new con­sti­tu­tion. Pro-slav­ery forces de­feated ef­forts for grad­ual, com­pen­sated eman­ci­pa­tion led by al­lies of Henry Clay, Lin­coln’s “beau ideal of a states­man” and a friend of Mary’s fa­ther.

Lin­coln lost the es­tate case to some of those pro-slav­ery politi­cians. Blu­men­thal’s un­der­stand­ing of pol­i­tics leads him to the log­i­cal con­clu­sion that los­ing the le­gal bat­tle to those wag­ing the po­lit­i­cal bat­tle hard­ened Lin­coln’s views. “Lin­coln was brood­ingly silent but smol­der­ing for years” about the case. “The tragic death of his fa­ther-in-law as he was at­tempt­ing to pre­serve the old Ken­tucky, the ag­gres­sive tri­umphal­ism of the pro-slav­ery forces in de­stroy­ing it, and the de­fin­i­tive loss of the Todd fam­ily es­tate to the leader of that move­ment, fused in Lin­coln’s mind.”

Pres­i­dent Zachary Tay­lor died dur­ing that same cholera epi­demic in 1850. His death em­pow­ered Whigs who sup­ported slav­ery or were will­ing to com­pro­mise on its ex­pan­sion. When Clay died in 1852, Lin­coln, in­creas­ingly con­scious of the key is­sue, gave a eu­logy that made the Ken­tuck­ian sound more anti-slav­ery than he re­ally was. But, writ­ing to a Ken­tucky lawyer shortly after­ward, Lin­coln pri­vately called Clay’s view of slav­ery “bank­rupt.”

Lin­coln’s let­ter, Blu­men­thal ob­serves, “trans­formed the Rev­o­lu­tion into a slave re­volt and the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence into a kind of Eman­ci­pa­tion Procla­ma­tion.” In­deed, Lin­coln showed signs of eman­ci­pat­ing him­self from his party’s at­tempts to com­pro­mise on slav­ery.

Iron­i­cally, Dou­glas en­abled Lin­coln to break his old shack­les by brook­ing no com­pro­mise. In 1854, hop­ing to gain sup­port from the in­creas­ingly rigid South, Dou­glas drove Congress to pass the Kansas-Ne­braska Act, which oblit­er­ated ex­ist­ing lim­its on slav­ery and per­mit­ted it to ex­tend north and west. He split the Demo­cratic Party and prompted North­ern anti-slav­ery men to plan a new party.

When Lin­coln re­sponded to Dou­glas in a speech at Peo­ria, Ill., in Oc­to­ber 1854, he claimed the Found­ing Fathers and the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence on be­half of abo­li­tion. “Many had un­doubt­edly been spec­ta­tors be­fore at his amus­ing, sharp, and clever per­for­mances,” Blu­men­thal writes. “But it was at this mo­ment that the per­cep­tion of Lin­coln al­tered.” Blu­men­thal calls it a “trans­fig­u­ra­tion,” but the politi­cian sur­vived. Blu­men­thal shows how Lin­coln ma­neu­vered him­self and oth­ers to­ward the new Repub­li­can Party with­out en­tirely leav­ing the Whigs, at least at first. Still a po­lit­i­cal warhorse, Lin­coln mapped cam­paigns that seemed to ben­e­fit oth­ers more than him­self.

Lin­coln once said, “I am slow to learn and slow to for­get that which I have learned.” Dur­ing the first half of the 1850s, he con­tin­ued to learn about pol­i­tics and about him­self. Blu­men­thal guides us through what Lin­coln learned and how he learned it as he wres­tled with slav­ery and pol­i­tics, and ma­tured into some­one who could find the bet­ter an­gels of our na­ture.

Michael Green is an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of his­tory at the Univer­sity of Ne­vada at Las Ve­gas and the author of sev­eral books on the Civil War era, in­clud­ing “Lin­coln and the Elec­tion of 1860,” and on Ne­vada his­tory.


Sid­ney Blu­men­thal de­scribes Abra­ham Lin­coln as a mas­ter­ful politi­cian con­fronting the key is­sue of his time: slav­ery.

By Sid­ney Blu­men­thal Si­mon & Schus­ter. 581 pp. $35

WRESTLING WITH HIS AN­GEL The Po­lit­i­cal Life of Abra­ham Lin­coln Vol. II, 1849-1856

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