Review of: A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Vol. I, 1809–1849, by Sidney Blumenthal
Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog
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:
As the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe in 2020, it left in its wake the near-paralysis of many hospital systems, unprepared and unequipped for the waves of illness and death that suddenly overwhelmed capacities for treatment that were after all at best only palliative care, since for this deadly new virus there was neither a cure nor a clear route to prevention. Overnight, epidemiologists—scrambling for answers or even just clues—became the most critically significant members of the public health community, even if their informed voices were often shouted down by the shriller ones of media pundits and political hacks.
Meanwhile, data collection began in earnest and the number of data dashboards swelled. In the analytical process, the first stop was identifying the quality of the data and the disparities in how data was collected. Was it true, as some suggested, that a disproportionate number of African Americans were dying from COVID? At first, there was no way to know since some states were not collecting data broken down by this kind of specific demographic. Data collection eventually became more standardized, more precise, and more reliable, serving as a key ingredient to combat the spread of this highly contagious virus, as well as one of the elements that guided the development of vaccines. Even so, dubious data and questionable studies too often took center stage both at political rallies and in the media circus that echoed a growing polarization that had one side denouncing masks, resisting vaccination, and touting sideshow magic bullets like Ivermectin. But talking heads and captive audiences aside, masks reduce infection, vaccines are effective, and dosing with Ivermectin is a scam. How do we know that? Data. Mostly due to data. Certainly, other key parts of the mix include scientists, medical professionals, case studies, and peer reviewed papers, but data—first collected and then analyzed—is the gold standard, not only for COVID but for all disease treatment and prevention.
But it wasn’t always that way.
In the beginning, there was no such thing as epidemiology. Disease causes and treatments were anecdotal, mystical, or speculative. Much of the progress in science and medicine that was the legacy of the classical world had long been lost to the west. The dawn of modern epidemiology rose above a horizon constructed of data painstakingly collected and compiled and subsequently analyzed. In fact, certain aspects of the origins of epidemiology were to run concurrent with the evolution of statistical analysis. In the early days, as the reader comes to learn in this brilliant and groundbreaking 2021 work by historian Jim Downs, Maladies of Empire: How Colonialism, Slavery, and War Transformed Medicine, the bulk of the initial data was derived from unlikely and unwilling participants who existed at the very margins: the enslaved, the imprisoned, the war-wounded, and the destitute condemned to the squalor of public hospitals. Their identities are mostly forgotten, or were never recorded in the first place, but yet collectively the data harvested from them was to provide the skeletal framework for the foundation of modern medicine.
In a remarkable achievement that could hardly be more relevant today, the author cleverly locates Maladies of Empire at the intersection of history and medicine, where data collection from unexpected and all too frequently wretched subjects comes to form the very basis of epidemiology itself. It is these early stories that send shudders to a modern audience. Nearly everyone is familiar with the wrenching 1787 diagram of the lower deck of the slave ship Brookes, where more than four hundred fifty enslaved human beings were packed like sardines for a months-long voyage, which became an emblem for the British antislavery movement. But, as Downs points out, few are aware that the sketch can be traced to the work of British naval surgeon Dr. Thomas Trotter, one of the first to recognize that poor ventilation in crowded conditions results in a lack of oxygen that breeds disease and death. His observations also led to a better understanding of how to prevent scurvy, a frequent cause of higher mortality rates among the seaborne citrus-deprived. Trotter himself was appalled by the conditions he encountered on the Brookes, and testified to this before the House of Commons. But that was hardly the case for many of his peers, and certainly not for the owners of slave ships, who looked past the moral dilemmas of a Trotter while exceedingly grateful for his insights; after all, the goal was keep larger quantities of their human cargo alive in order to turn greater profits. Dead slaves lack market value.
A little more than three decades prior to Trotter’s testimony, the critical need for ventilation was documented by another physician in the wake of the confinement of British soldiers in the infamous “Black Hole of Calcutta” during the revolution in Bengal, which resulted in the death by suffocation of the majority of the captives. Downs makes the point that one of the unintended consequences of colonialism was that for early actors in the medical arena it served to vastly extend the theater of observation of the disease-afflicted to a virtually global stage that hosted the byproducts of colonialism: war, subjugated peoples, the slave trade, military hospitals and prisons. But it turns out that the starring roles belong less to the doctors and nurses that receive top billing in the history books than to the mostly uncredited bit players removed from the spotlight: the largely helpless and disadvantaged patients whose symptoms and outcomes were observed and cataloged, whose anonymous suffering translated into critical data that collectively advanced the emerging science of epidemiology.
Traditionally, history texts rarely showcased notable women, but one prominent exception was Florence Nightingale, frequently extolled for her role as a nurse during the Crimean War. But as underscored in Maladies of Empire, Nightingale’s real if often overlooked legacy was as a kind of disease statistician through her painstaking data collection and analysis—the very basis for epidemiology that was generally credited to white men rather than to “women working in makeshift hospitals.” [p111] But it was the poor outcomes for patients typically subjected to deplorable conditions in these makeshift military hospitals—which Nightingale assiduously observed and recorded—that drew attention to similarly appalling environments in civilian hospitals in England and the United States, which led to a studied analysis that eventually established systematic evidence for the causes, spread, and treatment of disease.
The conclusions these early epidemiologists reached were not always accurate. In fact, they were frequently wrong. But Downs emphasizes that what was significant was the development of the proper analytical framework. In these days prior to the revolutionary development of germ theory, notions on how to improve survival rates of the stricken put forward by Nightingale and others were controversial and often contradictory. Was the best course quarantine, a frequent resort? Or would improving the sickbed conditions, as Nightingale advocated, lead to better outcomes? Unaware of the role of germs in contagion, evidence could be both inconclusive and inconsistent, and competing ideas could each be partly right. After all, regardless of how disease spread, cleaner and better ventilated facilities might lead to lower mortality rates. Nightingale stubbornly resisted germ theory, even as it was widely adopted, but after it won her grudging acceptance, she continued to promote more sanitary hospital conditions to improve survival rates. Still, epidemiologists faced difficult challenges with diseases that did not conform to familiar patterns, such as cholera, spread by a tainted water supply, and yellow fever, a mosquito-borne pathogen.
In the early days, as noted, European observers collected data from slave ships, yet it never occurred to them that because their human subjects were black such evidence was not applicable to the white population. But epidemiology took a surprisingly different course in the United States, where race has long proved to be a defining element. Of the more than six hundred thousand who lost their lives during the American Civil War, about two-thirds were felled not by bullets but by disease. The United States Sanitary Commission (USSC) was established in an attempt to ameliorate these dreadful outcomes, but its achievements on one hand were undermined on the other by an obsession with race, even going so far as the sending out to “. . . military doctors a questionnaire, ‘The Physiological Status of the Negro,’ whose questions were based on the belief that Black soldiers were innately different from white soldiers . . . The questionnaire also distinguished gradations of color among Black soldiers, asking doctors to compare how ‘pure Negroes’ differed from people of ‘mixed races’ and to describe ‘the effects of amalgamation on the vital endurance and vigor of the offspring.’” With its imprimatur of governmental authority, the USSC officially championed scientific racism, with profound and long-term social, political, and economic consequences for African Americans. [p134-35]
Some of these notions can be traced back to the antebellum musings of Alabama surgeon Josiah Nott—made famous after the war when he correctly connected mosquitoes to the etiology of Yellow Fever—who asserted that blacks and whites were members of separate species whose mixed-race offspring he deemed “hybrids” who were “physiologically inferior.” Nott believed that all three of these distinct “types” responded differently to disease. [p124-25] His was but one manifestation of the once widespread pseudoscience of physiognomy that alleged black inferiority in order to justify first slavery and later second-class citizenship. Such ideas persisted for far too long, and although scientific racism still endures on the alt-right, it has been thoroughly discredited by actual scientists. It turns out that a larger percentage of African Americans did indeed succumb to death in the still ongoing COVID pandemic, but this has been shown to be due to factors of socioeconomic status and lack of access to healthcare, not genetics.
Still, although deemed inferior, enslaved blacks also proved useful when convenient. The author argues that “… enslaved children were most likely used as the primary source of [smallpox] vaccine matter in the Civil War South,” despite the danger of infection in harvesting lymph from human subjects in order to vaccinate Confederate soldiers in the field. In yet one more reminder of the moral turpitude that defined the south’s “peculiar institution,” the subjects also included infants whose resulting scar or pit, Downs points out, “. . . would last a lifetime, indelibly marking a deliberate infection of war and bondage. Few, if any, knew that the scars and pit marks actually disclosed the infant’s first form of enslaved labor, an assignment that did not make it into the ledger books or the plantation records.” [p141-42]
Tragically, this episode was hardly an anomaly, and unethical medical practices involving blacks did not end with Appomattox. The infamous “Tuskegee Syphilis Study” that observed but failed to offer treatment to the nearly four hundred black men recruited without informed consent ran for forty years and was not terminated until 1972! One of the chief reasons for COVID vaccine hesitancy among African Americans has been identified as a distrust of a medical community that historically has either victimized or marginalized them.
Maladies of Empire is a well-written, highly readable book suitable to a scholarly as well as popular audience, and clearly represents a magnificent contribution to the historiography. But it is hardly only for students of history. Instead, it rightly belongs on the shelf of every medical professional practicing today—especially epidemiologists!
Review of: Chemistry for Breakfast: The Amazing Science of Everyday Life, by Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim
Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog
Is your morning coffee moving? Is there a particle party going on in your kitchen? What makes for a great-tasting gourmet meal? Does artificial flavoring really make a difference? Why does mixing soap with water get your dishes clean? Why do some say that “sitting is the new smoking?” How come one beer gives you a strong buzz but your friend can drink a bottle of wine without slurring her words? When it comes to love, is the “right chemistry” just a metaphor? And would you dump your partner because he won’t use fluoridated toothpaste?
All this and much more makes for the delightful conversation packed into Chemistry for Breakfast: The Amazing Science of Everyday Life, by Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim, a fun, fascinating, and fast-moving slender volume that could very well turn you into a fan of—of all things—chemistry! This cool and quirky book is just the latest effort by the author—a real-life German chemist who hosts a YouTube channel and has delivered a TED Talk—to combat what she playfully dubs “chemism:” the notion that chemistry is dull and best left to the devices of boring nerdy chem-geeks! One reason it works is because Nguyen-Kim is herself the antithesis of such stereotypes, coming off in both print and video as a hip, brilliant, and articulate young woman with a passion for science and for living in the moment.
I rarely pick up a science book, but when I do, I typically punch above my intellectual weight, challenging myself to reach beyond my facility with history and literature to dare to tangle with the intimidating realms of physics, biology, and the like. I often emerge somewhat bruised but with the benefit of new insights, as I did after my time with Sean Carroll’s The Particle at the End of the Universe and Bill Schopf’s Cradle of Life. So it was with a mix of eagerness and trepidation that I approached Chemistry for Breakfast.
But this proved to be a vastly different experience! Using her typical day as a backdrop—from her own body’s release of stress hormones when the alarm sounds to the way postprandial glasses of wine mess with the neurotransmitters of her guests—Nguyen-Kim demonstrates the omnipresence of chemistry to our very existence, and distills its complexity into bite-size concepts that are easy to process but yet never dumbed-down. Apparently, there is a particle party going on in your kitchen every morning, with all kinds of atoms moving at different rates in the coffee you’re sipping, the mug in your hand, and the steam rising above it. It’s all about temperature and molecular bonds. In a chapter whimsically entitled “Death by Toothpaste,” we find out how chemicals bond to produce sodium fluoride, the stuff of toothpaste, and why that not only makes for a potent weapon against cavities, but why the author’s best buddy might dump her boyfriend—because he thinks fluoride is poison! There’s much more to come—and it’s still only morning at Mai’s house …
As a reader, I found myself learning a lot about chemistry without studying chemistry, a remarkable achievement by the author, whose technique is so effective because it is so unique. Fielding humorous anecdotes plucked from everyday existence, Mai’s wit is infectious, so the “lessons” prove entertaining without turning silly. I love to cook, so I especially welcomed her return to the kitchen in a later chapter. Alas, I found out that while I can pride myself on my culinary expertise, it all really comes down to the way ingredients react with one another in a mixing bowl and on the hot stove. Oh, and it turns out that despite the fearmongering in some quarters, most artificial flavors are no better or worse than natural ones. Yes, you should read the label—but you have to know what those ingredients are before you judge them healthy or not.
Throughout the narrative, Nguyen-Kim conveys an attractive brand of approachability that makes you want to sit down and have a beer with her, but unfortunately she can’t drink: Mai, born of Vietnamese parents, has inherited a gene mutation in common with a certain segment of Asians which interferes with the way the body processes alcohol, so she becomes overly intoxicated after just a few sips of any strong drink. She explains in detail why her “broken” ALDH2 enzyme simply will not break down the acetaldehyde in the glass of wine that makes her guests a little tipsy but gives her nausea, a rapid-heartbeat, and sends a “weird, lobster-red tinge” to her face. Mai’s issue with alcohol reminded me of recent studies that revealed the reason that some people of northern European ancestry always burn instead of tan at the beach is due to faulty genes that block the creation of melanin in response to sun exposure. This is a strong underscore that while race is of course a myth that otherwise communicates nothing of importance about human beings, in the medical world genetics has the potential of serving as a powerful tool to explain and treat disease. As for Mai, given the overall health risks of alcohol consumption, she views her inability to drink as more of a blessing than a curse, and hopes to pass her broken gene on to her offspring!
The odds that I would ever deliberately set out to read a book about chemistry were never that favorable. That I would do so and then rave about the experience seemed even more unlikely. But here we are, along with my highest recommendations. Mai’s love of science is nothing less than contagious. If you read her work, I can promise that not only will you learn a lot, but you will really enjoy the learning process. And that too, I suppose, is chemistry!
[Note: I read an Advance Reader’s Copy of this book as part of an early reviewer’s program]
Until Jimmy Carter came along, there really was no rival to John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) as best ex-president, although perhaps William Howard Taft earns honorable mention for his later service as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Carter—who at ninety-seven still walks among us as this review goes to press—has made his reputation as a humanitarian outside of government after what many view as a mostly failed single term in the White House. Adams, on the other hand, whose one term as the sixth President of the United States (1825-29) was likewise disappointing, managed to establish a memorable outsize official legacy when he returned to serve his country as a member of the House of Representatives from 1831 until his dramatic collapse at his desk and subsequent death inside the Capitol Building in 1848. Freshman Congressman Abraham Lincoln would be a pallbearer.
Like several of the Founders whose own later presidential years were troubled, including his own father, John Quincy had a far more distinguished and successful career prior to his time as Chief Executive. But quite remarkably, unlike these other men—John Adams, Jefferson, Madison—who lingered in mostly quiet retirement for decades beyond their respective tenures, in his long career John Quincy Adams could be said to have equaled or surpassed his accomplished pre-presidential service as diplomat, United States Senator, and Secretary of State, returning as just a simple Congressman from Massachusetts who was to be a giant in antislavery advocacy. Adams remains the only former president elected to the House, and until George W. Bush in 2001, the only man who could claim his own father as a fellow president.
Notably, the single unsatisfactory terms that he and his father served in the White House turned out to be bookends to a significant era in American history: John Adams was the first to run for president in a contested election (Washington had essentially been unopposed); his son’s tenure ended along with the Early Republic, shattered by the ascent of Jacksonian democracy. But if the Early Republic was no more, it marked only the beginning of another chapter in the extraordinary life of John Quincy Adams. And yet, for a figure that carved such indelible grooves in our nation’s history, present at the creation and active well into the crises of the antebellum period that not long after his death would threaten to annihilate the American experiment, it remains somewhat astonishing how utterly unfamiliar he remains to most citizens of the twenty-first century.
Prominent historian William J. Cooper seeks to remedy that with The Lost Founding Father: John Quincy Adams and the Transformation of American Politics (2017), an exhaustively researched, extremely well-written, if dense study that is likely to claim distinction as the definitive biography for some years to come. Cooper’s impressive work is old-fashioned narrative history at its best. John Quincy Adams is the main character, but his story is told amid the backdrop of the nation’s founding, its evolution as a young republic, and its descent to sectional crises over slavery, while many, at home and abroad, wondered at the likelihood of its survival. It is not only clever but entirely apt that in the book’s title the author dubs his subject the “Lost Founding Father.”
Some have called Benjamin Franklin the “grandfather of his country.” Likewise, John Quincy Adams could be said to be a sort of “grandson.” He was not only to witness the tumultuous era of the American Revolution and observe John Adams’ storied role as a principal Founder, he also accompanied his father on diplomatic missions to Europe while still a boy, and completed most of his early education there. Like Franklin, Jefferson, and his father, he spent many years abroad during periods of fast-moving events and dramatic developments on American soil that altered the nation and could prove jarring upon return. Unlike the others, his extended absence coincided with his formative years; John Quincy grew up not in New England but rather in France, the Netherlands, Russia, and Great Britain, and this came to deeply affect him.
A brooding intellectual with a brilliant mind who sought solitude over society, dedicated to principle above all else, including loyalty to party, the Adams that emerges in these pages was a socially awkward workaholic subject to depression, blessed with a wide range of talents that ranged from the literary to languages to the deeply analytical, but lacking even the tiniest vestige of charisma. He strikes the reader as the least suitable person to ever aspire to or serve as president of the United States. A gifted writer, he began a diary when he was twelve years old that he continued almost without interruption until shortly before his death. He frequently expressed dismay at his inability to keep up with his ambitious goals for daily diary entries that often ran to considerable length.
There is much in the man that resembles his father, also a principled intellect, whom he much admired even while he suffered a sense of inadequacy in his shadow. Both men were stubborn in their ideals and tended to alienate those who might otherwise be allies. While each could be self-righteous, John Adams was also ever firmly self-confident in a way that his son could never match. Of course, in his defense, the younger man not only felt obligated to live up to a figure who was a titan in the public arena, but he lacked a wife that was cut from the same cloth as his mother, with whom he had a sometimes-troubled relationship.
Modern historians have made much of the historic partnership that existed, mostly behind the scenes, between John and Abigail Adams; in every way except eighteenth century mores she seems his equal. John Quincy, on the other hand, was wedded to Louisa Catherine, a sickly woman given to fainting spells and frequent migraines whose multiple miscarriages coupled with the loss of an infant daughter certainly triggered severe psychological trauma. A modern audience can’t help but wonder if her many maladies and histrionics were not psychosomatic. At any rate, John Quincy treated his wife and other females he encountered with the patronizing male chauvinism typical of his times, so it is dubious that if he instead found an Abigail Adams at his side, he could have flourished in her orbit the way his father did.
Although Secretary of State John Quincy Adams was largely the force that drove the landmark “Monroe Doctrine” and other foreign policy achievements of the Monroe Administration, most who know of Adams tend to know of him only peripherally, through his legendary political confrontation with the far more celebrated Andrew Jackson. That conflict was forged in the election of 1824. The Federalist Party, scorned for threats of New England secession during the War of 1812, was essentially out of business. James Monroe was wrapping up his second term in what historians have called the “Era of Good Feelings” that ostensibly reflected a sense of national unity controlled by a single party, the Democratic-Republicans, but there were fissures, factions, local interests, and emerging coalitions beneath the surface. In the most contested election to date in the nation’s history, John Quincy, Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, and William Crawford were chief contenders for the highest office. While Jackson received a plurality, none received a majority of the electoral votes, so as specified in the Constitution the race was sent to the House for decision. Crawford had suffered a devastating stroke and was thus out of consideration. Adams and Clay tended to clash, but both were aligned on many national issues, and Jackson was rightly seen as a dangerous demagogue. Clay threw his support to Adams, who became president. Jackson was furious, even more so when Adams later named Clay Secretary of State, which was then seen as a sure steppingstone to the presidency, something that further enraged Jackson, who branded his appointment by Adams a “Corrupt Bargain.” As it turned out, while Adams prevailed, his presidency was marked by frustration, his ambitious domestic goals stymied by Congress. In a run for reelection, he was dealt a humiliating defeat by Jackson, who headed the new Democratic Party. The politics of John Quincy Adams and the Early Republic went extinct.
While evaluating these two elections, it’s worth pausing here to emphasize John Quincy’s longtime objection to the nefarious if often overlooked impact of the three-fifths clause in the Constitution, which granted southern slaveholding states outsize political clout by counting an enslaved individual as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of representation. This was to prove significant, since the slave south claimed a disproportionate share of national political power when it came to advancing legislation or, for that matter, electing a president. He found focus on this issue while Secretary of State in the debate that swirled around the Missouri Compromise of 1820, concluding that:
The bargain in the Constitution between freedom and slavery had conveyed to the South far too much political influence, its base the notorious three-fifths clause, which immorally increased southern power in the nation … the past two decades had witnessed a southern domination that had ravaged the Union … he emphasized what he saw as the moral viciousness of that founding accord. It contradicted the fundamental justification of the American Revolution by subjecting slaves to oppression while privileging their masters with about a double representation. [p174]
This was years before he was himself to fall victim to the infamous clause. As underscored by historian Alan Taylor in his recent work, American Republics (2021), the disputed election of 1824 would have been far less disputed without the three-fifths clause, since in that case Adams would have led Andrew Jackson in the Electoral College 83 to 77 votes, instead of putting Jackson in the lead 99 to 84. When Jackson prevailed in the next election in 1828, it was the south that cemented his victory. The days of Virginia planters in the White House may have passed, but the slave south clearly dominated national politics and often served as antebellum kingmaker for the White House.
In any case, Adams’ dreams of vindicating his father’s single term were dashed. A lesser man would have gone off into the exile of retirement, but Adams was to come back—and come back stronger than ever as a political figure to be reckoned with, distinguished by his fierce antislavery activism. His abhorrence of human bondage ran deep, and long preceded his return to Congress. And because he kept such a detailed journal, we have insight into his most personal convictions.
Musing once more about the Missouri Compromise, he confided to his diary his belief that a war over slavery was surely on the horizon that would ultimately result in its elimination: “If slavery be the destined sword in the hand of the destroying angel which is to sever the ties of this Union … the same sword will cut in sunder the bonds of slavery itself.” [p173] He also wrote of his conversations with the fellow cabinet secretary he most admired at the time, South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun, who clearly articulated the doctrine of white supremacy that defined the south. To Adams’ disappointment, Calhoun told him that southerners did not believe the Declaration’s guarantees of universal rights applied to blacks, and “Calhoun maintained that racial slavery guaranteed equality among whites because it placed all of them above blacks.” [p175]
These diary entries from 1820 came to foreshadow the more crisis-driven politics in the decades hence when Adams—his unhappy presidency long behind him—was the leading figure in Congress who stood against the south’s “peculiar institution” and southern domination of national politics. These were, of course, far more fraught times. He opposed both Texas annexation and the Mexican War, which he correctly viewed as a conflict designed to extend slavery. But he most famously led the opposition against the 1836 resolution known as the “gag rule” that prohibited House debate on petitions to abolish slavery, which incensed the north and spawned greater polarization. Adams was eventually successful, and the gag rule was repealed, but not until 1844.
It has long been my goal to read at least one biography of each American president, and I came to Cooper’s book with that objective in mind. I found my time with it a deeply satisfying experience, although I suspect because it is so pregnant in detail it will find less appeal among a more popular audience. Still, if you want to learn about this too often overlooked critical figure and at the same time gain a greater understanding of an important era in American history, I would highly recommend that you turn to The Lost Founding Father.
Note: I reviewed the referenced Alan Taylor work here: Review of: American Republics: A Continental History of the United States, 1783-1850, by Alan Taylor
Early in the war … a Union squad closed in on a single ragged Confederate, and he obviously didn’t own any slaves. He couldn’t have much interest in the Constitution or anything else. And said: “What are you fighting for, anyhow?” they asked him. And he said: “I’m fighting because you’re down here.” Which is a pretty satisfactory answer.
That excerpt is from Ken Burns’ epic The Civil War (1990) docuseries, Episode 1, “The Cause.” It was delivered by the avuncular Shelby Foote in his soft, reassuring—some might say mellifluous—cadence, the inflection decorated with a pronounced but gentle southern accent. As professor of history James M. Lundberg complains, Foote, author of a popular Civil War trilogy who was himself not a historian, “nearly negates Burns’ careful 15-minute portrait of slavery’s role in the coming of the war with a 15-second” anecdote. Elsewhere, Foote rebukes the scholarly consensus that slavery was the central cause for secession and the conflict it spawned that would take well over 600,000 American lives.
While all but die-hard “Lost Cause” myth fanatics have relegated Foote’s ill-conceived dismissal of the centrality of slavery to the dustbin of history, the notion that southern soldiers fought solely for home and hearth has long persisted, even among historians. And on the face of it, it seems as if it should be true. After all, secession was the work of a narrow slice of the antebellum south, the slave-owning planter class which only comprised less than two percent of the population but dominated the political elite, in fury that Lincoln’s election by “Free-Soil” Republicans would likely deny their demands to transplant their “peculiar institution” to the new territories acquired in the Mexican War. More critically, three-quarters of southerners owned no slaves at all, and nearly ninety per cent of the remainder owned twenty or fewer. Most whites lived at the margins as yeoman farmers, although their skin color ensured a status markedly above those of blacks, free or enslaved. The Confederate army closely reflected that society: most rebel soldiers were not slaveowners. So slavery could not have been important to them … or could it?
The first to challenge the assumption that Civil War soldiers, north or south, were political agnostics was James M. McPherson in What They Fought For 1861-1865 (1995). Based on extensive research on letters written home from the front, McPherson argued that most of those in uniform were far more ideological than previously acknowledged. In a magnificent contribution to the historiography, Colin Edward Woodward goes much further in Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army During the Civil War (2014), presenting compelling evidence that not only were most gray-clad combatants well-informed about the issues at stake, but a prime motivating force for a majority was to preserve the institution of human chattel bondage and the white supremacy that defined the Confederacy.
Like McPherson, Woodward does a deep dive into the wealth of still extant letters from those at the front to make his case in a deeply researched and well-written narrative that reveals that the average rebel was surprisingly well-versed in the greater issues manifested in the debates that launched an independent Confederacy and justified the blood and treasure being spent to sustain it. And just as in secession, the central focus was upon preserving a society that had its foundation in chattel slavery and white supremacy. Some letters were penned by those who left enslaved human beings—many or just a few—back at home with their families when they marched off to fight, while most were written by poor dirt farmers who had no human property nor the immediate prospect of obtaining any.
But what is fully astonishing, as Woodward exposes in the narrative, is not only how frequently slavery and the appropriate status for African Americans is referenced in such correspondence, but how remarkably similar the language is, whether the soldier is the son of a wealthy planter or a yeoman farmer barely scraping by. In nearly every case, the righteousness of their cause is defined again and again not by the euphemism of “states’ rights” that became the rallying cry of “Lost Cause” after the war, but by the sanctity of the institution of human bondage. More than once, letters resound with a disturbing yet familiar refrain that asserted that the most fitting condition for blacks is as human property, something seen as mutually beneficial to the master as well as to the enslaved.
If those without slaves risking life and limb to sustain slavery with both musket in hand and zealous declarations in letters home provokes a kind of cognitive dissonance to modern ears, we need only be reminded of our own contemporaries in doublewides who might sound the most passionate defense of Wall Street banks. Have-nots in America often aspire to what is beyond their reach, for themselves or for their children. For poor southern whites of the time, in and out of the Confederate army, that turns out to be slave property.
One of the greatest sins of postwar reconciliation and the tenacity of the “Lost Cause” was the erasure of African Americans from history. In the myth-making that followed Appomattox, with human bondage extinct and its practice widely reviled, the Civil War was transformed into a sectional war of white brother against white brother, and blacks were relegated to roles as bit players. The centrality of slavery was excised from the record. In the literature, blacks were generally recalled as benign servants loyal to their masters, like the terrified Prissy in Gone with the Wind screeching “De Yankees is comin!” in distress rather than the celebration more likely characteristic to that moment in real time. That a half million of the enslaved fled to freedom in Union lines was lost to memory. Also forgotten was the fact that by the end of the war, fully ten percent of the Union Army was comprised of black soldiers in the United States Colored Troops (USCT)—and these men played a significant role in the south’s defeat. Never mentioned was that Confederate soldiers routinely executed black men in blue uniforms who were wounded or attempting to surrender, not only in well-known encounters like at Fort Pillow and the Battle of the Crater, but frequently and anonymously. As Woodward reminds us, this brand of murder was often unofficial, but rarely acknowledged, and almost never condemned. Only recently have these aspects of Civil War history received the attention that is their due.
And yet, more remarkably, Marching Masters reveals that perhaps the deepest and most enduring erasure of African Americans was of the huge cohort that accompanied the Confederate army on its various campaigns throughout the war. Thousands and thousands of them. “Lost Cause” zealots have imagined great corps of “Black Confederates” who served as fighters fending off Yankee marauders, but if that is fantasy—and it certainly is—the massive numbers of blacks who served as laborers alongside white infantry were not only real but represented a significant reason why smaller forces of Confederates held out as well as they did against their often numerically superior northern opponents. We have long known that a greater percentage of southerners were able to join the military than their northern counterparts because slave labor at home in agriculture and industry freed up men to wield saber and musket, but Woodward uncovers the long-overlooked legions of the enslaved who travelled with the rebels performing the kind of labor that (mostly) fell on white enlisted men in northern armies.
A segment of these were also personal servants to the sons of planters, which sometimes provoked jealousy among the ranks. Certain letters home plead for just such a servile companion, sometimes arguing that the enslaved person would be less likely to flee to Union lines if he was to be a cook in an army camp instead! And there were occasionally indeed tender if somewhat perversely paternalistic bonds between the homesick soldier and the enslaved, some of which found wistful expression in letters, some manifested in relationships with servants in the encampments. Many soldiers had deep attachments to the enslaved that nurtured them as children in the bosom of their families; some of that was sincerely reciprocated. Woodward makes it clear that while certain generalities can be drawn, every individual—soldier or chattel—was a human being capable of a wide range of actions and emotions, from the cruel to the heartwarming. For better or for worse, all were creatures of their times and their circumstances. But, at the end of the day, white soldiers had something like free will; enslaved African Americans were subject to the will of others, sometimes for the better but more often for the worse.
And then there was impressment. One of the major issues relatively unexplored in the literature is the resistance of white soldiers in the Confederate army to perform menial labor—the same tasks routinely done by white soldiers in the Union army, who grumbled as all those in the ranks in every army were wont to do while nevertheless following orders. But southern boys were different. Nurtured in a society firmly grounded in white supremacy, with chattel property doomed to the most onerous toil, rebels not only typically looked down upon hard work but—as comes out in their letters—equated it with “slavery.” To cope with this and an overall shortage of manpower, legislation was passed in 1863 mandating impressment of the enslaved along with a commitment of compensation to owners. This was not well received, but yet enacted, and thousands more blacks were sent to camps to do the work soldiers were not willing to do.
The numbers were staggering. When Lee invaded Pennsylvania, his army included 6000 enslaved blacks—which added an additional ten percent to the 60,000 infantry troops he led to Gettysburg! This of course does not include the runaways and free blacks his forces seized and enslaved after he crossed the state line. The point to all of this, of course, is that slavery was not some ideological abstraction for the average rebel soldier in the ranks, something that characterized the home front, whether your own family were owners of chattel property or not. Instead, the enslaved were with you in the field every day, not figuratively but in the flesh. With this in mind, sounding a denial that slavery served as a critical motivation for Confederate troops rings decidedly off-key.
While slavery was the central cause of the war, it was certainly not the only cause. There were other tensions that included agriculture vs. industry, rural vs. urban, states’ rights vs. central government, tariffs, etc. But as historians have long concluded, none of these factors on their own could ever have led to Civil War. Likewise, southern soldiers fought for a variety of reasons. While plenty were volunteers, many were also drafted into the war effort. Like soldiers from ancient times to the present day, they fought because they were ordered to, because of their personal honor, because they did not want to appear cowardly in the eyes of their companions. And because much of the war was decided on southern soil, they also fought for their homeland, to defend their families, to preserve their independence. So Shelby Foote might have had a point. But what was that independence based upon? It was fully and openly based upon creating and sustaining a proud slave republic, as all the rhetoric in the lead-up to secession loudly underscored.
Marching Masters argues convincingly that the long-held belief that southern soldiers were indifferent to or unacquainted with the principles that guided the Confederate States of America is in itself a kind of myth that encourages us to not only forgive those who fought for a reprehensible cause but to put them on a kind of heroic pedestal. Many fought valiantly, many lost their lives, and many were indeed heroes, but we must not overlook the cause that defined that sacrifice. In this, we must recall the speech delivered by the formerly enslaved Frederick Douglass on “Remembering the Civil War” with his plea against moral equivalency that is as relevant today as it was when he delivered it on Decoration Day in 1878: “There was a right side and a wrong side in the late war, which no sentiment ought to cause us to forget, and while today we should have malice toward none, and charity toward all, it is no part of our duty to confound right with wrong, or loyalty with treason.”
For all of the more than 60,000 books on the Civil War, there still remains a great deal to explore and much that has long been cloaked in myth for us to unravel. It is the duty not only of historians but for all citizens of our nation—a nation that was truly reborn in that tragic, bloody conflict—to set aside popular if erroneous notions of what led to that war, as well as what motivated its long-dead combatants to take up arms against one another. To that end, Woodward’s Marching Masters is a book that is not only highly recommended but is most certainly required reading.
Transcript of The Civil War (1990) docuseries, Episode 1, “The Cause:” https://subslikescript.com/series/The_Civil_War-98769/season-1/episode-1-The_Cause
Comments by James M. Lundberg: https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/06/civil-war-sentimentalism/240082/
Speech by Frederick Douglass, “Remembering the Civil War,” delivered on Decoration Day 1878: https://www.americanyawp.com/reader/reconstruction/frederick-douglass-on-remembering-the-civil-war-1877/