Historians consistently rank him at the top, tied with Washington for first place or simply declared America’s greatest president. His tenure was almost precisely synchronous with the nation’s most critical existential threat: his very election sparked secession, first shots fired at Sumter a month after his inauguration, the cannon stilled at Appomattox a week before his murder. There were still armies in the field, but he was gone, replaced by one of the most sinister men to ever take the oath of office, leaving generations of his countrymen to wonder what might have transpired with all the nation’s painful unfinished business had he survived, to the trampled hopes for equality for African Americans to the promise of a truly “New South” that never emerged. A full century ago, decades after his death, he was reimagined as an enormous, seated marble man with the soulful gaze of fixed purpose, the central icon in his monument that provokes tears for so many visitors that stand in awe before him. When people think of Abraham Lincoln, that’s the image that usually springs to mind.
The seated figure rises to a height of nineteen feet; somebody calculated that if it stood up it would be some twenty-eight feet tall. The Lincoln that once walked the earth was not nearly that gargantuan, but he was nevertheless a giant in his time: physically, intellectually—and far too frequently overlooked—politically! He sometimes defies characterization because he was such a character, in so very many ways.
An autodidact gifted with a brilliant analytical mind, he was also a creature of great integrity loyal to a firm sense of a moral center that ever evolved when polished by new experiences and touched by unfamiliar ideas. A savvy politician, he understood how the world worked. He had unshakeable convictions, but he was tolerant of competing views. He had a pronounced sense of empathy for others, even and most especially his enemies. In company, he was a raconteur with a great sense of humor given to anecdotes often laced with self-deprecatory wit. (Lincoln, thought to be homely, when accused in debate of being two-faced, self-mockingly replied: “I leave it to my audience. If I had another face, do you think I’d wear this one?”) But despite his many admirable qualities, he was hardly flawless. He suffered with self-doubt, struggled with depression, stumbled through missteps, burned with ambition, and was capable of hosting a mean streak that loomed even as it was generally suppressed. More than anything else he had an outsize personality.
And Lincoln likewise left an outsize record of his life and times! So why has he generally posed such a challenge for biographers? Remarkably, some 15,000 books have been written about him—second, it is said, only to Jesus Christ—but yet in this vast literature, the essence of Lincoln again and again somehow seems out of reach to his chroniclers. We know what he did and how he did it all too well, but portraying what the living Lincoln must have been like has remained frustratingly elusive in all too many narratives. For instance, David Herbert Donald’s highly acclaimed bio—considered by many the best single volume treatment of his life—is indeed impressive scholarship but yet leaves us with a Lincoln who is curiously dull and lifeless. Known for his uproarious banter, the guy who joked about being ugly for political advantage is glaringly absent in most works outside of Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, which superbly captures him but remains, alas, a novel not a history.
All that changed with A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Vol. I, 1809–1849, by Sidney Blumenthal (2016), an epic, ambitious, magnificent contribution to the historiography that demonstrates not only that despite the thousands of pages written about him there still remains much to say about the man and his times, but even more significantly that it is possible to brilliantly recreate for readers what it must have been like to engage with the flesh and blood Lincoln. This is the first in a projected four-volume study (two subsequent volumes have been published to date) that—as the subtitle underscores—emphasize the “political life” of Lincoln, another welcome contribution to a rapidly expanding genre focused upon politics and power, as showcased in such works as Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, Robert Dallek’s Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life, and George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father, by David O. Stewart.
At first glance, this tactic might strike as surprising, since prior to his election as president in 1860 Lincoln could boast of little in the realm of public office beyond service in the Illinois state legislature and a single term in the US House of Representatives in the late 1840s. But, as Blumenthal’s deeply researched and well-written account reveals, politics defined Lincoln to his very core, inextricably manifested in his life and character from his youth onward, something too often disregarded by biographers of his early days. It turns out that Lincoln was every bit a political animal, and there is a trace of that in nearly every job he ever took, every personal relationship he ever formed, and every goal he ever chased.
This approach triggers a surprising epiphany for the student of Lincoln. It is as if an entirely new dimension of the man has been exposed for the first time that lends new meaning to words and actions previously treated superficially or—worse—misunderstood by other biographers. Early on, Blumenthal argues that Donald and others have frequently been misled by Lincoln’s politically crafted utterances that cast him as marked by passivity, too often taking him at his word when a careful eye on the circumstances demonstrates the exact opposite. In contrast, Lincoln, ever maneuvering, if quietly, could hardly be branded as passive [p9]. Given this perspective, the life and times of young Abe is transformed into something far richer and more colorful than the usual accounts of his law practice and domestic pursuits. In another context, I once snarkily exclaimed “God save us from The Prairie Years” because I found Lincoln’s formative period—and not just Sandburg’s version of it—so uninteresting and unrelated to his later rise. Blumenthal has proved me wrong, and that sentiment deeply misplaced.
But Blumenthal not only succeeds in fleshing out a far more nuanced portrait of Lincoln—an impressive accomplishment on its own—but in the process boldly sets out to do nothing less than scrupulously detail the political history of the United States in the antebellum years from the Jackson-Calhoun nullification crisis onward. Ambitious is hardly an adequate descriptive for the elaborate narrative that results, a product of both prodigious research and a very talented pen. Scores of pages—indeed whole chapters—occur with literally no mention of Lincoln at all, a striking technique that is surprisingly successful; while Lincoln may appear conspicuous in his absence, he is nevertheless present, like the reader a studious observer of these tumultuous times even when he is not directly engaged, only making an appearance when the appropriate moment beckons. As such, A Self-Made Man is every bit as much a book of history as it is biography, a key element to the unstated author’s thesis: that it is impossible to truly get to know Lincoln—especially the political Lincoln—except in the context and complexity of his times, a critical emphasis not afforded in other studies.
And there is much to chronicle in these times. Some of this material is well known, even if until recently subject to faulty analysis. The conventional view of the widespread division that characterized the antebellum period centered on a sometimes-paranoid south on the defensive, jealous of its privileges, in fear of a north encroaching upon its rights. But in keeping with the latest historiography, Blumenthal deftly highlights how it was that, in contrast, the slave south—which already wielded a disproportionate share of national political power due to the Constitution’s three-fifths clause that inflated its representation—not only stifled debate on slavery but aggressively lobbied for its expansion. And just as a distinctly southern political ideology evolved its notion of the peculiar institution from the “wolf by the ear” necessary evil of Jefferson’s time to a vaunted hallmark of civilization that boasted benefit to master and servant, so too did it come to view the threat of separation less in dread than anticipation. The roots of all that an older Lincoln would witness severing the ancient “bonds of affection” of the then no longer united states were planted in these, his early years.
Other material is less familiar. Who knew how integral to Illinois politics—for a time—was the cunning Joseph Smith and his Mormon sect? Or that Smith’s path was once entangled with the budding career of Stephen A. Douglas? Meanwhile, the author sheds new light on the long rivalry between Lincoln and Douglas, which had deep roots that went back to the 1830s, decades before their celebrated clash on the national stage brought Lincoln to a prominence that finally eclipsed Douglas’s star.
Blumenthal’s insight also adeptly connects the present to the past, affording a greater relevance for today’s reader. He suggests that the causes of the financial crisis of 2008 were not all that dissimilar to those that drove the Panic of 1837, but rather than mortgage-backed securities and a housing bubble, it was the monetization of human beings as slave property that leveraged enormous fortunes that vanished overnight when an oversupply of cotton sent market prices plummeting, which triggered British banks to call in loans on American debtors—a cotton bubble that burst spectacularly (p158-59). This point can hardly be overstated, since slavery was not only integral to the south’s economy, but by the eve of secession human property was to represent the largest single form of wealth in the nation, exceeding the combined value of all American railroads, banks, and factories. A cruel system that assigned values to men, women, and children like cattle had deep ramifications not only for masters who acted as “breeders” in the Chesapeake and markets in the deep south, but also for insurance companies in Hartford, textile mills in Lowell, and banks in London.
Although Blumenthal does not himself make this point, I could detect eerie if imperfect parallels to the elections of 2016 and 1844, with Lincoln seething as the perfect somehow became the enemy of the good. In that contest, Whig Henry Clay was up against Democrat James K. Polk. Both were slaveowners, but Clay opposed the expansion of slavery while Polk championed it. Antislavery purists in New York rejected Clay for the tiny Liberty Party, which by a slender margin tipped the election to Polk, who then boosted the slave power with Texas annexation, and served as principal author of the Mexican War that added vast territories to the nation, setting forces in motion that later spawned secession and Civil War. Lincoln was often prescient, but of course he could not know all that was to follow when, a year after Clay’s defeat, he bitterly denounced the “moral absolutism” that led to the “unintended tragic consequences” of Polk’s elevation to the White House (p303). To my mind, there was an echo of this in the 2016 disaster that saw Donald Trump prevail, a victory at least partially driven by those unwilling to support Hillary Clinton who—despite the stakes—threw away their votes on Jill Stein and Gary Johnson.
No review could properly summarize the wealth of the material contained here, nor overstate the quality of the presentation, which also suggests much promise for the volumes that follow. I must admit that at the outset I was reluctant to read yet another book about Lincoln, but A Self-Made Man was recommended to me by no less than historian Rick Perlstein, (author of Nixonland), and like Perlstein, Blumenthal’s style is distinguished by animated prose bundled with a kind of uncontained energy that frequently delivers paragraphs given to an almost breathless exhale of ideas and people and events that expertly locates the reader at the very center of concepts and consequences. The result is something exceedingly rare for books of history or biography: a page-turner! Whether new to studies of Lincoln or a long-time devotee, this book should be required reading.
NOTE: A review of one of Rick Perlstein’s books is here: