On November 6, 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected the 16th president of the United States, although his name did not appear on the ballot in ten southern states. Just about six weeks later, South Carolina seceded. This
When I was in school, in the standard textbooks Lincoln seems to come out of nowhere. A homespun, prairie lawyer who served a single, unremarkable term in the House of Representatives, he is thrust into national prominence when he debates Stephen A. Douglas in his ultimately unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate, then somehow rebounds just two years later by skipping past Congress and into the White House. Douglas, once one of the most well-known and consequential figures of his day, slips into historical obscurity. Meanwhile, long-simmering sectional disputes between white men on both sides roar to life with Lincoln’s election, sparking secession by a south convinced that their constitutional rights and privileges are under assault. Slavery looms just vaguely on the periphery. Civil War ensues, an outgunned Confederacy falls, Lincoln is assassinated, slavery is abolished, national reconciliation follows, and African Americans are even more thoroughly erased from history than Stephen Douglas.
Of course, the historiography has come a long way since then. While fringe “Lost Cause” adherents still speak of states’ rights, the scholarly consensus has unequivocally established human chattel slavery as the central cause for the conflict, as well as resurrected the essential role of African Americans—who comprised a full ten percent of the Union army—in putting down the rebellion. In recent decades, this has motivated historians to reexamine the prewar and postwar years through a more polished lens. That has enabled a more thorough exploration of the antebellum period that had been too long cluttered with grievances of far less significance such as the frictions in rural vs. urban, agriculture vs. industry, and tariffs vs. free trade. Such elements may indeed have exacerbated tensions, but without slavery there could have been no Civil War.
And yet … and yet with all the literature that has resulted from this more recent scholarship, much of it certainly superlative, students of the era cannot help but detect the shadows of missing bits and pieces, like the dark matter in the universe we know exists but struggle to identify. This is at least partially due to timelines that fail to properly chart root causes that far precede traditional antebellum chronologies that sometimes look back no further than the Mexican War—which at the same time serves as a bold underscore to the lack of agreement on even a consistent “start date” for the antebellum. Not surprisingly perhaps, this murkiness has also crept into the realm of Lincoln studies, to the disfavor of genres that should be complementary rather than competing.
In fact, the trajectory of Lincoln’s life and the antebellum are inextricably conjoined, a reality that Sidney Blumenthal brilliantly captures with a revolutionary tactic that chronicles these as a single, intertwined narrative that begins with A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Vol. I, 1809–1849 (which I reviewed elsewhere). It is evident that at Lincoln’s birth the slave south already effectively controlled the government, not only by way of a string of chief executives who also happened to be Virginia plantation dynasts, but—of even greater consequence—outsize representation obtained via the Constitution’s “Three-Fifth’s Clause.” But even then, there were signs that the slave power—pregnant with an exaggerated sense of their own self-importance, a conviction of moral superiority, as well as a ruthless will to dominate—possessed an unquenchable appetite to enlarge their extraordinary political power to steer the ship of state—frequently enabled by the northern men of southern sympathies then disparaged as “doughfaces.” Lincoln was eleven at the time of the Missouri Compromise, twenty-three during the Nullification Crisis so closely identified with John C. Calhoun, twenty-seven when the first elements of the “gag rule” in the House so ardently opposed by John Quincy Adams were instituted, thirty-seven at the start of both the Mexican War and his sole term as an Illinois Congressman, where he questioned the legitimacy of that conflict. That same year, Stephen A. Douglas, also of Illinois, was elected U.S. Senator.
Through it all, the author proves as adept as historian of the United States as he is biographer of Lincoln—who sometimes goes missing for a chapter or more, only summoned when the account calls for him to make an appearance. Some critics have voiced their frustration at Lincoln’s own absence for extended portions in what is after all his own biography, but they seem to be missing the point. As Blumenthal demonstrates in this and subsequent volumes, it is not only impossible to study Lincoln without surveying the age that he walked the earth, but it turns out that it is equally impossible to analyze the causes of the Civil War absent an analysis of Lincoln, because he was such a critical figure along the way.
Wrestling With His Angel: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Vol. II, 1849-1856, picks up where A Self-Made Man leaves off, and that in turn is followed by All the Powers of Earth. All form a single unbroken narrative of politics and power, something that happens to fit with my growing affinity for political biography, as distinguished by David O. Stewart’s George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father, Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, and Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life, by Robert Dallek. Blumenthal, of course, takes this not only to a whole new level, but to an entirely new dimension.
For more recent times, the best of the best in this genre appears in works by historian Rick Perlstein (author of Nixonland and Reaganland) who also happens to be the guy who recommended Blumenthal to me. In the pages of Perlstein’s Reaganland, Jimmy Carter occupies center-stage far more so than Ronald Reagan, since without Carter’s failed presidency there never could have been a President Reagan. Similarly, Blumenthal cedes a good deal of Lincoln’s spotlight to Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln’s longtime rival and the most influential doughface of his time. Many have dubbed John C. Calhoun the true instigator in the process that led to Civil War a decade after his death. And while that reputation may not be undeserved, it might be overstated. Calhoun, a southerner who celebrated slavery, championed nullification, and normalized notions of secession, could indeed be credited with paving the road to disunion. But, as Blumenthal skillfully reveals, maniacally gripping the reins of the wagon that in a confluence of unintended consequences was to hurtle towards both secession and war was the under-sized, racist, alcoholic, bombastic, narcissistic, ambitious, pro-slavery but pro-union northerner Stephen A. Douglas, the so-called “Little Giant.”
Like Calhoun, Douglas was self-serving and opportunistic, with a talent for constructing an ideological framework for issues that suited his purposes. But unlike Calhoun, while he often served their interests Douglas was a northern man never accepted nor entirely trusted by the southern elite that he toadied to in his cyclical unrequited hopes they would back his presidential ambitions. Such support never materialized.
It may not have been clear at the time, and the history books tend to overlook it, but Blumenthal demonstrates that it was the rivalry between Douglas and Lincoln that truly defined the struggles and outcomes of the age. It was Douglas who—undeterred by the failed efforts of Henry Clay—shepherded through the Compromise of 1850, which included the Fugitive Slave Act that was such an anathema to the north. More significantly, the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act that repealed the Missouri Compromise was Douglas’s brainchild, and Douglas was to continue to champion his doctrine of “popular sovereignty” even after Taney’s ruling in Dred Scott invalidated it. It was Douglas’s fantasy that he alone could unite the states of north and south, even as the process of fragmentation was well underway, a course he himself surely if inadvertently set in motion. Douglas tried to be everyone’s man, and in the end he was to be no one’s. Throughout all of this, over many years, Blumenthal argues, Lincoln—out of elective office but hardly a bystander—followed Douglas. Lincoln’s election brought secession, but if a sole agent was to be named for fashioning the circumstances that ignited the Civil War, that discredit would surely go to Douglas, not Lincoln.
These two volumes combined well exceed a thousand pages, not including copious notes and back matter, so no review can appropriately capture it all except to say that collectively it represents a magnificent achievement that succeeds in treating the reader to what the living Lincoln was like while recreating the era that defined him. Indeed, including his first book, I have thus far read nearly sixteen hundred pages of Blumenthal’s Lincoln and my attention has never wavered. Only Robert Caro—with his Shakespearian multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson—has managed to keep my interest as long as Blumenthal. And I can’t wait for the next two in the series to hit the press! To date, more than fifteen thousand books have been published about Abraham Lincoln, so there are many to choose from. Still, these from Blumenthal are absolutely required reading.
I reviewed Blumenthal’s first volume, A Self-Made Man, here: Review of: A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Vol. I, 1809–1849, by Sidney Blumenthal
I reviewed Rick Perlstein’s Reaganland here: Review of: Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976-1980, by Rick Perlstein
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