CRF Blog

Lincoln: The Great Uncompromiser

by David De La Torre

In Lincoln: The Great Uncompromiser for The Nation, Matthew Karp reviews the first two volumes of Sidney Blumenthal’s biography of Abraham Lincoln: A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. I, 1809–1849 and Wrestling With His Angel: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. II, 1849–1856.

In this essential dramatic sense, the life of Lincoln is a biographer’s dream. WorldCat, an online catalog of global library holdings, lists nearly 24,000 books on Lincoln, more than the numbers for George Washington and Adolf Hitler combined. But his life also presents a formidable challenge: how to square Lincoln’s real and appealing ordinariness — “one rais’d through the commonest average of life,” as Walt Whitman put it — with his utterly extraordinary career. For his first 45 years, Lincoln cut many figures: dirt-poor farm boy in Indiana, hackish Whig politico in Springfield, prosperous railroad lawyer riding the Illinois circuit. But few of these roles, in a strict sense, had much to do with the colossal drama that tore the union apart and made Lincoln a world-historical symbol of emancipation.

In A Self-Made Man: 1809–1849 and Wrestling With His Angel: 1849–1856 — the first two installments of a projected four-volume study on The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln — Sidney Blumenthal approaches this dilemma with a winningly old-fashioned strategy. His study of Lincoln is not a pure biography so much as something that 19th-century readers would have understood as a “life and times”: a sweeping narrative of antebellum American politics in which our hero only intermittently dominates the action. Where other recent biographers have drilled inward, exploring the social universe of central Illinois or Lincoln’s own complex psychology, Blumenthal continually leaps outward, offering a detailed tableau of major events in state and national politics: the nullification crisis of 1832, the annexation of Texas in 1845, the Compromise of 1850. Lincoln’s major antagonist in Illinois, the Democratic leader Stephen Douglas, at times receives almost equal billing; a host of additional rivals and allies, from William Seward to Jefferson Davis, are given extended treatments of their own.

This deep context matters to Blumenthal, because his guiding biographical insight is that Lincoln the great statesman and Lincoln the piddling politician were the same man. Blumenthal has no patience for a mythology that puts Honest Abe somehow above and beyond the sordid realm of everyday politics. Lincoln, he writes, “never believed politics corrupted him. He always believed that politics offered the only way to achieve his principles.” If we are to understand Lincoln, Blumenthal argues, we must understand the world of antebellum political conflict: messy, rivalrous, jobbing, venal, and yet still an arena where momentous struggles over the American future were fought. “If it were not for Lincoln the politician,” Blumenthal explains, “Lincoln the Great Emancipator would never  have existed.” [more]