Sidney Blumenthal: Abraham Lincoln: The Great Campaigner

Roundup: Historians' Take

Sidney Blumenthal, journalist, author, historian, and former senior adviser to President Clinton, is completing a book titled The Man Who Became Abraham Lincoln: How He Won the Civil War and Was Assassinated.

The latest Lincoln boom—kicking off with the bicentennial of his birth in 2009 and the continuing sesquicentennial of the Civil War—shows no sign of abating. It may not even reach its apogee with the release immediately post-election of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, a biopic starring Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role. Spielberg, according to a source familiar with the production, has deliberately withheld the film until the current, divisive presidential campaign is over in order to prevent Lincoln from being seized upon to score political points.

But lifting Lincoln above the fray doesn’t remove him from politics. While the political Lincoln may be difficult for us to acknowledge at a time when politics and partisan commitments are widely denigrated, Lincoln’s presidency demonstrates that partisanship and political ruthlessness can be used to advance the highest ideals. And there were no clearer cases than during his 1864 battle for reelection (without which the slave-owning South would almost certainly have triumphed) and subsequent effort to pass the 13th Amendment, which at long last purged slavery from the Constitution. In the end, Lincoln became the master of events because he was the master of politics.

The mythology of Lincoln as too noble for politics began at the moment of his death, with his body sprawled across a small bed in a house across from Ford’s Theatre, where he was shot. At the president’s last breath, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton famously pronounced, “Now he belongs to the ages.” Every age since has invented its Lincoln. Martyred on Good Friday, Lincoln the Christ has rivaled Lincoln the Common Man and Lincoln the Idealist in America’s collective imagination....

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