Blumenthal’s New Book Reads A President Well — And Gives A Fair Shake To His Wife
WASHINGTON — It’s high Lincoln season, bittersweet as it can be in remembrance of the slain Civil War president. Into the spring mix, noted author and journalist Sidney Blumenthal brings a breathtaking new view of Abraham Lincoln in his forthcoming book, “A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln.” (Yes, that Sidney Blumenthal of email fame and furor, a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton and earlier, to President Bill Clinton.)
This timely work also comes forth as the nation watches the Republican Party in wonder, perhaps coming apart as it slouches toward Cleveland, where its 2016 convention will be held. It will not be pretty, the presidential nomination tug of war between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.
Lincoln’s first party, the Whigs, self-destructed over slavery’s expansion. The Republican Party invented itself and rose in its wake, in Wisconsin. What do you know. In this volume, Blumenthal covers the first 40 years of Lincoln’s life, including his two years in Congress — as a Whig. Lincoln later joined the newly formed Republican Party in the 1850s and became its standard-bearer, winning in 1860 and 1864. He lived to be 56.
Antebellum America — say, the 1830s to the 1850s — was not a pretty prospect either, darkened by mob violence on the streets as a counterpoint to stemwinders in the Senate — all over slavery.
Blumenthal deftly enlivens the antebellum scene’s characters better than any other author, seeming to make the statues speak: those of Kentucky’s famed orator Henry Clay; South Carolina’s zealot John Calhoun; and “The Little Giant” Stephen Douglas, Lincoln’s diabolical rival who courted the same Southern belle in Springfield, Illinois. The young lady was Mary Todd.
“Old Man Eloquent” John Quincy Adams was the ex-president who found his political lifework, as a ferocious foe of slavery, in the House. Lincoln had looked up to the Southern gentleman Clay, as a “beau ideal,” until he was invited to his grand home and felt “he betrayed a consciousness of superiority that none could mistake,” as a friend put it.
“Cast-iron” Calhoun, as an English visitor put it, is painted as the Senate zealot who presaged the Civil War, developing the doctrine of states rights to justify secession. Looking back, President Andrew Jackson said his only regret was not having Calhoun hanged.
Jackson owned slaves, of course: The “Slave Power” was real.
Lincoln took slavery personally, Blumenthal explains, drawing on a simple line in a political speech in the record all along: “I used to be a slave.” For the author, that disarming line contains multitudes and breaks news in history. Lincoln’s father Thomas hired out his strong son for hard labor — for wages which the dirt-poor farmer father kept before Lincoln turned 21. The young Lincoln hated it.
As a slave, Frederick Douglass did the same thing in Baltimore, where he worked on the waterfront as a caulker. Every week, he turned his wages over to his master. On the prairie, Lincoln’s keen sense of justice awakened. The future Great Emancipator got an ugly look at the American “peculiar institution.” Knowing their lot was worse, still he identified with the plight of slaves.
This is a central insight, even epiphany; nothing politicizes like direct personal experience. In this first of three volumes, Blumenthal reaches deep into why Lincoln hated the “peculiar institution” of slavery — well before he dreamed of emancipation. For his intellectual self-education, he read the English political thinker, Thomas Paine.
More books have been written about Lincoln than just about anybody, and I know that tower well. Besides, Lincoln and I walk and talk all the time under the cherry blossoms. Surely, he’d be glad Blumenthal gave his adored wife Mary her due. Savvy, refined, sassy and smart, from a politically prominent family — Mary was the catch, the engine that drove them to the presidency. Blumenthal is one of too few Lincoln authors to grasp that.
We are on the cusp of the cruel day Lincoln died: April 15, 1865. A shot in the dark at Ford’s Theatre staged a scene from his favorite play, “Macbeth,” the murder of the good king. Lincoln knew the tragedy by heart, as if he could foretell his fate.
Last April, I was at Ford’s for a misty night of speeches, songs, poems and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Today, I’m happy to have a fresh look anew at the man — in life, in his younger days.
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Photo: Abraham Lincoln. Wikimedia Commons.