Review: Removed from politics, a young Lincoln forges his moral philosophy | Features


WRESTLING WITH HIS ANGEL: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1849-1856. By Sidney Blumenthal. Simon and Schuster. 808 pages. $35.

In this, the second of his projected four-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln, Sidney Blumenthal follows Lincoln through his years in the “wilderness,” between March 1849 when he returned from his one term in Congress and 1856 when he played an instrumental role in defining the purpose of the emergent Republican Party.

“Lincoln only seemed to be offstage” during this interval, Blumenthal informs us. From Illinois, he remained fully engaged in the political tumult that attended the rise of the Slave Power conspiracy after the war with Mexico. The Slave Power’s purpose was not only to perpetuate slavery where it existed but to expand its domain into New Mexico, Kansas and overseas into Central America and the Caribbean. Driven by politics as much as soil exhaustion or internal slave trading, the perpetuation of slavery required more slave states to maintain control in Congress.

In his first volume, “A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1849,” Blumenthal gave us a vivid picture of the young Lincoln seeking education and forming the core values that guided his political life. In volume two, he shows the intellectual maturation of Lincoln as a politician leading up to the revolution that produced the Republican Party.

The collapse of the Whig Party, Lincoln’s political home, and the rupture of the Democratic Party were both casualties of the slavery question. The author introduces nearly every figure, great and small, in Lincoln’s political universe, for “to understand Lincoln more fully, the historian needs to attempt understanding his times nearly as closely as he did.”

There is little to admire in the political leaders of the 1850s. In a chapter titled “The Art of the Deal,” Blumenthal provides a close look at political sausage-making behind the Compromise of 1850. We see John C. Calhoun, at death’s door, foretelling the death of the republic unless the enemies of slavery relent. We witness Henry Foote of Mississippi, limping from a wound incurred in an earlier duel, brandishing a pistol on the Senate floor, and menacing Thomas Hart Benton, who pulls open his shirt and challenges him “Let him fire! Let the assassin fire!”

We also meet Jefferson Davis, whose left eye was surrounded by infections and covered with an cloudy film, the result, Blumenthal casually adds, of a venereal disease contracted earlier. The effects of the disease also “intensified his rigidity, humorlessness and remoteness.” And we meet Henry Clay, once Lincoln’s hero, the venerable Whig who stole credit for the Compromise, who is portrayed as a failed posturer.

Another major figure is Stephen Douglas, who in fact ran the 1850 deal through Congress, is portrayed as an ambitious politician whose determined quest for power aligned closely with his avaricious pursuit of wealth. Through his marriage to a wealthy Southern belle, Douglas had come into possession of a large Mississippi plantation with 150 slaves. Douglas, a chronic alcoholic, constantly laced his public speeches with references to “n******” to arouse white fears.

Douglas served as Lincoln’s moral and political antagonist whose pursuit of power ignited Lincoln’s ambition to thwart him and stop the expansion of slavery.

The presidents of this period were also a sorry lot. Zachary Taylor, a Whig general and Southern planter with no political experience, died a short time after his inauguration, thus elevating to the presidency Millard Filmore, a New York bureaucrat with no qualifications. Beneath his bland personality “bile simmered.”

Blumenthal describes our first president from New York in terms that may ring familiar: his “resentment was located in mental dimness that aroused his sensitive sense of inferiority as a righteous cause against perceived social slights. He had a reactive frame of mind, often responding with a kind of startle reflex in flashes of petulance to surprising events as personal offenses. Normally complacent, his thin skin was easily rubbed raw. His vanity exceeded his mediocrity.”

Filmore’s successor was Franklin Pierce, the dark-horse Democrat from New Hampshire, another “northern man of Southern principles,” described by a friend as “a weak, imaginative, almost brilliant undetermined man” who “had no fixed will of his own. … He exhibited the same vacillation to all.”

Despite this menagerie of incompetents, Blumenthal rejects those revisionist historians who, decades ago, blamed the Civil War on a “blundering generation” of inept politicians and zealous fanatics on both sides. They were simply echoing Stephen Douglas and other northern Democrats who denied that slavery was a genuine moral, economic and political issue and proposed to let the people of Kansas (or any other territory) decide whether to allow slavery or not, according to their assessment of the practical conditions of the land.

Lincoln saw it very differently. He insisted slavery was a moral evil, that it wronged the slave and contradicted the basic principles of republican society. Furthermore, he came to believe that a “house divided against itself” could not continue to exist without becoming all one thing or all the other.

The American republic, Lincoln determined, was rooted in the Declaration of Independence and its premise that “all men are created equal.” The Declaration was the bedrock upon which the nation rested and which slavery betrayed. “I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself,” Lincoln said in his first major address on slavery in 1854. “I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world” and violates “the noblest political system the world ever saw.”

Slavery was a moral issue because “there is humanity in the negro,” Lincoln reasoned, and he was entitled to the fundamental human rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” embedded in the Declaration. “When the white man governs himself, that is self-government.” Lincoln reasoned, “but when he governs himself, and also governs another man, that is more than self-government — that is despotism.”

Despotism and self-rule were incompatible, and so were slavery and freedom. 

With extraordinary research and deft prose, Blumenthal provides a full and convincing portrait of Lincoln during his years of supposed retreat from politics. Here is Lincoln “becoming Lincoln,” moving beyond his well-honed skills as a witty speaker and occasional political “slasher.” We see him wrestling with ideas in long conversations and letters with friends and adversaries, in long days of research at the library, and in carefully crafted public speeches.

Lincoln excavated the underlying logic of slavery and democracy, then came to terms with what must be done. With an unusual lucidity and marvelous gift for choice quotes, Blumenthal brings the inner workings of Lincoln’s mind to life as few historians have. He reveals Lincoln’s intellectual and moral development not as pragmatic political positioning but as the lonely struggle of an anguished political contender “wrestling with his angel” and with the devil of slavery.

Reviewer Don H. Doyle is McCausland Professor of History Emeritus at the University of South Carolina and author of “The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War,” published by Basic Books.

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