The Making of a Politician: Sidney Blumenthal on His New Biography of Abe Lincoln (Interview)

tags: Abraham Lincoln, interview, Sidney Blumenthal

Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based writer and attorney, and the features editor of the History News Network ( His articles have appeared in HNN, Crosscut, Salon, Real Change, Documentary, Writer’s Chronicle, and others. He has a special interest in the history of conflict and human rights. You can find his other interviews here.  His email:

Lincoln the politician and Lincoln the Great Emancipator were not antithetical sides of the same person or antithetical stages in the same life, but one man. -- Sidney Blumenthal, A Self-Made Man

There’s an American mythology about Abraham Lincoln that portrays him as saintly and far above the grimy rough-and-tumble world of politics.

Now Sidney Blumenthal, an acclaimed journalist and political advisor to President Bill Clinton and Secretary Hillary Clinton, dispels the notion of a Lincoln too noble for politics in the first volume of his planned four-volume work on the sixteenth president, A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1849 (Simon & Schuster).

As this book reveals in fascinating detail, the young Lincoln fully embraced the world of politics, reveled in the messy give and take, and sparred energetically with his opponents—employing skilled oratory and acute knowledge of human nature peppered with sharp moments of wit, sarcasm and ridicule.

Mr. Blumenthal humanizes the man who became one of our greatest presidents, a man who came from poverty and youthful slavery as an indentured servant for his father until he turned 21 years old. It’s a stunning story that continues to inspire: how the backwoods youth with only a few weeks of formal education became an accomplished lawyer, a brilliant politician, and an extraordinary leader and statesman.

In A Self-Made Man, we learn fascinating details of Lincoln’s self-education and intellectual growth, his mastery of works from the Bible and Shakespeare to philosophy, history and law. Wherever he wandered, Lincoln found mentors and borrowed books, and his devotion to learning continued through his life.

Further, Mr. Blumenthal plumbs the roots of Lincoln’s hatred of slavery that began in childhood, forged in anti-slavery Baptist churches he attended with his family. He later opposed the Mexican War, a war of choice based on mendacity; he stood up for women’s rights, attacking the polygamy of Mormonism, a practice he compared to slavery; and he abhorred the nativism that eventually found form in the anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party. The book also explores Lincoln’s personal life: his bouts of melancholy and self-doubt; his relationship with his politically savvy and encouraging wife Mary Todd Lincoln; his separation from his own family.

Mr. Blumenthal offers a fresh view of Lincoln informed by his experience as a White House political advisor and as a prominent political journalist. His book has won wide praise for its exhaustive research, rich detail, and lively writing, including laudatory remarks from Lincoln experts and other historians such as James McPherson, Harold Holzer, Jean Edward Smith, Michael Beschloss, Jon Meacham, and Lincoln scholar Allen Guelzo, who called A Self-Made Man a “great book” with a “miracle of detail” on Lincoln’s political activism.

Mr. Blumenthal’s other books include The Clinton Wars; The Rise of the Counter-Establishment; The Strange Death of the Republican Party; How Bush Rules; and The Permanent Campaign. In addition to his service as a political advisor, he is a renowned journalist and has been national staff reporter for The Washington Post, Washington editor and staff writer for the New Yorker, senior writer for The New Republic, and has contributed to many other publications.

Mr. Blumenthal graciously responded to an array of questions about his new book by telephone from his office in Washington, D.C.

Robin Lindley: What inspired you to undertake years of work on your multi-volume life of Abraham Lincoln?

Sidney Blumenthal: I didn’t know when I began that I would do all of this work, but I fell down a rabbit hole.

I always had an interest in Lincoln that was something of an obsession, even as a boy, growing up in Chicago and visiting Springfield on a kind of pilgrimage and reading the Sandburg biography.

This book began as quite a different project. When I finished The Clinton Wars, I began a book on race, politics and presidents. It was to be a historical work, and I did an enormous amount of work on it. I wrote a long proposal that could be published in its own right. It was thirty thousand words or more. It would have traced since FDR through Reagan how the identities of the parties changed under the impact of race and civil rights movements and politics.

But I kept falling deeper into the past, trying to understand the roots of it all. Very quickly, I found myself naturally at Lincoln, and then doing a great deal of reading and work on the Civil War. I had to get back to the very beginning to really grasp how all of this happened.

Then I wrote and wrote the first volume and thought I may as well keep going. I kept going all the way through the war and the assassination and then a lot about Reconstruction.

Then, when I realized what I had done and how I had done it and had a sense of the issues I was dealing with and the architecture of the whole work, I realized that volume one was inadequate. I basically threw it out and began from scratch. I wrote it in almost a long breath, and that volume came out to more than 1300 pages. My editor at Simon and Schuster, Alice Mayhew, told me it was too long to publish. But she didn’t want to cut it, so it became two books, and what was originally a trilogy became four books.

The book that has just been published is the first part of part one, but it’s rounded out. I really wanted to get to the beginnings of Lincoln and the world around him. He is directly and indirectly influenced by all sorts of politics and religious developments from primitive Baptist churches his parents belonged to that were emancipationist to the Mormons and the Illinois Mormon War that dominated Illinois politics in the 1840s and culminated in the murder of the prophet Joseph Smith. And there was the rise of highly-organized political parties based on patronage, party discipline, party conventions and candidates, which Lincoln grew up in and was very much part of. I wanted to understand not only how Lincoln developed but also how these larger questions that consumed him developed and emerged and how he engaged with them.

Robin Lindley: There are thousands of books on Lincoln and I wondered what you hoped to add about him.

Sidney Blumenthal: I think I bring to bear a unique experience. I have been a journalist in Washington for a long time, and not many journalists write about Lincoln. And I’ve worked in the White House and had been closely involved with President Clinton. And I’ve been involved with elections. It’s a set of experiences that inform what I do in approaching Lincoln.

As I understand Lincoln as a politician to the marrow of his bones, I also understand Lincoln’s intellectual development and how he responds to and is a participant in the events of his times. And none of these things are separate. He is of a piece. I’ve approached Lincoln as a one of the first men of the first generation of professional politicians in America, an entirely new class.

There’s also some interpretation. I did find that his antislavery feelings were somewhat shrouded or mysterious from the beginning, as some historians have said. He said he was “naturally antislavery” in one of his autobiographies and I located this, and others have. I found more details from his semi-literate parents and their religious affiliation. I connected this to his character and drew out from his statement that he used to be a slave to his relationship with his father, which affected his sense of himself, his aspirations, his ambitions, his feelings about his family, his relationship with his wife, his understanding of himself as a Whig, a partisan warrior, a politician in relation to reform movements, his ideas of respectability, of how he dealt with his inner sense of inferiority, all the way up to his ideology of free labor and how he approached it. And beyond, there’s a deeply rooted idea of emancipation and a sense of self-emancipation. It goes well beyond a simple version of being self-made.

Robin Lindley: You certainly correct some of my misconceptions about Lincoln’s early life and debunk popular myths. Your account of Lincoln undermines the notion of him as a saintly person who felt above politics.

Sidney Blumenthal: Lincoln at one point, in his eulogy of [Henry] Clay—his ideal, who he didn’t support for the presidency in 1840 because Clay wasn’t electable and didn’t support in 1848 for the same reason, and yet still attributed him a model--in his eulogy, Lincoln said that Clay never spoke except for a practical purpose. I believe that Lincoln followed that example. While his words are plain and eloquent and he had a uniquely American way of expressing himself. In his unadorned manner, he was a very deliberate thinker about the political effect of every phrase that he expressed.

Lincoln was not writing out of his aesthetic sense or simply to write something that might be beautifully done or artful. He was always cognizant of many levels of politics surrounding him simultaneously and trying to have an impact, in one way or another.

Lincoln’s political contemporaries who understood him thought he had the keenest understanding of human nature and politics. Gustavus Fox, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, used the word “cute” to describe him. That’s a political word and means someone who is exceedingly clever in politics. Lincoln was that and his personality served him in that way while he enormously enjoyed the company of politicians and newspaper people who were a form of politicians even as they are today, whatever they say.

Lincoln had an inner reserve as [his law partner and biographer William] Herndon and many others commented on. From that, with every hurdle, he was always closely assessing everyone around him. It was not that he was wary or skeptical. It was that he was figuring them out in the larger situation.

Without those skills, which were human skills, and political skills are human skills, he wouldn’t have been able to achieve what he did. There’s a direct connection between his always growing in his understanding of politics and the larger world around him, about which he paid the closest attention.

Robin Lindley: This may be a stretch, but it seems that President Clinton shared this special understanding of human nature. President Clinton is known for an emotional intelligence that goes beyond what most politicians possess.

Sidney Blumenthal: I’m very hesitant to compare anybody to Lincoln because Lincoln was unto himself.

But President Clinton paid very close attention to people. An example would be [House Speaker] Newt Gingrich who is an interesting psychological case study of someone who wants desperately to be taken seriously and is incredibly needy. And I think Clinton understood him. He was able to work with him in such a way that, when Gingrich returned to the House Republican Conference after being with Clinton, they would become infuriated with him because they thought he had conceded too much to Clinton. They decided they didn’t trust Gingrich, and they sent him only to be with Clinton with minders and never to be alone with Clinton. They thought Clinton understood Gingrich too well, and that Gingrich was too psychologically vulnerable to somebody like Clinton. That’s an interesting case study.

Lincoln used humor and storytelling to persuade, cajole, entertain, but also to assess people.

Robin Lindley: I appreciated his skilled use of irony, sarcasm and ridicule.

Sidney Blumenthal: Yes. Lincoln early on was “The Slasher,” and he was used by his party, the Whig Party, to “take down”—in the phrase they used—prominent, venerable opponents who could be humiliated on a platform by a quicker, younger man.

He altered his manner over time, but he learned how to do that and never forgot how to do that. That skill was always in him even if he tempered how he used it later in life.

Robin Lindley: Lincoln’s literacy and skills as a reader, lawyer and statesman are incredible in view of his extremely limited formal education. What did you learn about his education?

Sidney Blumenthal: It’s staggering to realize that Lincoln had only a few weeks of formal education at what was called a frontier “blab school” where a teacher would make students memorize and recite passages. That was it.

The rest of his education was on his own. His father discouraged him and even punished him for reading. He was protected by his stepmother. That’s one reason he loved her so much. She protected him from the oppression of his father who was himself an oppressed man.

Lincoln’s reading was connected to his wandering. In one of his autobiographies, he called his father a “wandering labor boy.” That’s also a self-description. That’s what Lincoln was in Indiana. His father was renting him out as an indentured servant, as a slave, until he was 21.

But he was wandering around finding older men, mainly lawyers, who had personal libraries and he would read his way through them. That’s how he discovered the law, the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, his first histories of the United States. He became an aficionado of Shakespeare. He had the Bible under his belt from attending churches in his childhood. But then he revolts against it. He read Tom Paine’s Age of Reason and Volney’s Ruins—an early anthropological critique of religion as myth by a French philosophe. That’s an unusual book now. Lincoln would always recommend Volney.

He continued his self-education all the way through. His law partner had undoubtedly the largest private library in Springfield.

Lincoln was also a reader from a very early age of newspapers and this was a very important element of his education. He was known as a phenomenon at the time. He was called a “newsboy,” and those were young people who avidly read newspapers. In a way, newspapers were one of the earliest forms of social media. They were handed person to person and copies were not thrown out usually. Many people would read one copy early on. When the Louisville paper arrived, that was precious.

Interestingly, in Lincoln’s early life, these newspapers ran very little if any local news. That was assumed to be a matter of oral transmission. The local papers printed an enormous amount of national news and included whole excerpts from the speeches in Congress. That’s how Lincoln first encountered that kind of language, the art of oration. He could quote to his children not only parts of the Bible but also from the speeches of Clay and Webster and so on that he had read in the newspapers.

The United States had the greatest circulation of newspapers of any western nation and had, in the North, the greatest literacy rate of the western world. The newspapers were an important educational institution as they arose in the form they did in the nineteenth century. They were also partisan institutions, in one way or another attached to a movement or a political party and they expressed that point of view.

As I show, Lincoln was more or less the co-editor of the Sangamo Journal in Springfield. There were many anonymous editorials, and he presided over the editorials for decades.

Robin Lindley: Thank you for reminding me of the role of newspapers then. You bracket the book with Lincoln’s comment “I was a slave,” and you stress that he saw slavery from the point of view of a slave. Can you say more about Lincoln’s indentured servitude to his father and how that came about?

Sidney Blumenthal: Lincoln’s father, Thomas Lincoln, was a crucial figure in Lincoln’s life. His half-brother Mordecai inherited the family wealth and became wealthy and a kind of squire. He raced horses, owned land, and traded slaves. He received this [inheritance] through the practice of primogeniture that had existed since feudalism even in the United States then.

Thomas Lincoln had to make his way through some sort of labor. He was never formally educated and was semi-literate. He was a carpenter and he was forced to compete against slaves for wages. According to Ida Tarbell, an early Lincoln biographer whose research I found valuable, Thomas Lincoln was anti-slavery and was married by an anti-slavery preacher who was a follower of Tom Paine. She located the names of preachers he listened to and what they said, and I researched further about their careers as emancipationists.

In any case, Thomas Lincoln had a farm that was basically expropriated unfairly through legal machinations by an absentee landlord living in Philadelphia. He fled across the Ohio River to Indiana, a free state, and started farming there. He wandered from place to place. He was never successful. Relatives described him as easy-going, but he was often harsh with young Abe. He did not believe in education. He saw education as an obstacle to learning a trade that would enable his son to get by in the world. He saw education as a waste of time and reading as a form of laziness. He would punish his son for reading.

Lincoln was a naturally bright, inquisitive boy with curiosity about the world around him. He read newspapers and books about other people who had wider experiences, and he felt himself oppressed by his father.

Interestingly, Lincoln made his comment “I was a slave” in 1856. But Lincoln was reticent and didn’t like to talk about himself and didn’t like to talk in detail about his earliest background: his impoverishment, his abandonment, his loneliness, his stunted upbringing, his father. All of this creates a ferocious aspiration on his part to escape this and become a most respectable person and a professional person and to rise as high as he could.

He left his father when he was 21 after the family had gone to Illinois. His father and family went one direction and he famously went down the Sangamon River and landed in New Salem as he began his new life alone.

It’s not exactly an accident that he married up to the most socially prominent woman he knew who was also the most political woman he knew. That’s who Lincoln was.

Back to 1856, he said “I was a slave,” and then he made a joke and said, “And now I am so free they let me practice law.” And the audience laughed. But that was a searing experience for him growing up and he did feel he was a slave. And he often talked about slavery from the point of view of a slave, which is very different from the rhetoric of abolitionists who adopted a Protestant-Evangelical rhetoric through which they sought to arouse outrage and convert their audience.

Lincoln does something else. He talks often empathetically about slavery. In 1856, when he said, “I was a slave,” he had just become a new man. He became a Republican. The extension of slavery had been an issue for him when he was in the Congress and before, but now it was the central issue of his life. He was, in a sense, further free to make this remark, and yet it’s still burning so that it requires him to apply the kind of ointment of humor to it.

Robin Lindley: That adds to the understanding of Lincoln’s deeply rooted anti-slavery sympathies. Many writers have described Mary Todd Lincoln as unbalanced and a detriment to Lincoln. However, you capture a tempestuous but very loving relationship where each partner supported and encouraged the other.

Sidney Blumenthal: There are other historians who appreciate Mary Lincoln more than the stereotype of her like Ruth Painter Randall.

But there is a stereotype of Mary Todd Lincoln. She’s depicted as a burden on her husband and a weight on him—someone who harasses him constantly and is another source of his endless and Job-like condition. In addition to dealing with the war, he also has to deal with Mary. But that’s not how he thought of it nor was it the essence of the marriage.

I don’t believe there would have been a Lincoln without Mary Lincoln. He was highly unstable himself. He had a nervous breakdown as a young man. He had risen fast in his world, but he still harbored an intense sense of inferiority because of his upbringing. He had cut himself off from his family and he sought to rise far above them. His manners were unschooled and he was awkward with women and in society. He was much more at ease entertaining groups of men, telling stories.

After his breakdown after his breakup of his relationship with Mary, he was very confused. He was treated by his doctor who was also his political associate, Anson Henry. Lincoln also conferred with someone who was the equivalent of a psychiatrist at the time in Cincinnati. This is virtually an unknown episode, and Lincoln wrote him a long letter about his psychological state of mind.

Lincoln and Mary were brought together by the editor of the Sangamon Journal, Simeon Francis and his wife, in a drawing room in their house. Lincoln and Mary engaged in a writing series of anonymous articles that attacked James Shields, an associate of Stephen Douglas. It’s a vicious satire. Shields challenged Lincoln to a duel. Lincoln clownishly suggested using broadswords. He practiced cutting weeds with broadswords. They actually did go to a site to have a duel that was stopped by a cousin of Mary Todd, John Hardin.

The conclusion of the farce is that Lincoln and Mary got married. It was a rushed marriage. Mary announced it to her family on the day of the marriage and they were very upset. They regarded Lincoln as a plebe, someone of a lower order, and believed she was making a mistake by marrying someone below her. She revolted against her family and married Lincoln. She saw him as a person of promise.

After he married Mary, it was a marriage of affection, and despite everything he never falls apart again. He even counseled her at the worst moments of her life when, for example, their second child Edward died at a young age and she was inconsolable.

She was also very political. She didn’t necessarily share all of his points of view, but the key thing that’s important with politics in the marriage is that he sometimes faltered because he underestimated himself. He underestimated himself because he wished for a more comfortable political position and somehow, at key moments, he shrank from rising incredibly enough, although as Herndon wrote, his ambition was like a resolution to do no less.

But Mary knew no rest, and she would push him forward. For example, in 1854, he ran for the state legislature after he had served in the U.S. Congress. He won a seat. She made him resign and run instead for a U.S. Senate seat because that, she felt, was where he belonged. Friends described him as upset, but he did it, and it was a very important experience for him. It set the stage for what came later.

As Lincoln said, both when he received the Republican nomination and on the night of the election as president, “there’s a little woman I must tell for whom this news is most important.” And it was.

I think Mary Todd was a volatile personality and she was difficult and he was not a perfect man and not a perfect husband. He was difficult given his long silences and she didn’t have an easy time either, but it was a marriage and the marriage worked and it worked for him from the beginning. Mary Todd referred to the marriage as “Our Lincoln Party.” The nucleus of that Lincoln party was two people.

Robin Lindley: Thank you for those insights. A psychiatrist who specializes in mood disorders, Dr. Nassir Ghaemi, wrote a book called A First-Rate Madness about great leaders who suffered from affective disorders such as major depression or bipolar disorder. He believed that Lincoln’s depression may have made him a greater leader in times of crisis.

Sidney Blumenthal: Lincoln’s ability to work through what some might call depression in the midst of the war showed not only a depth of emotional understanding but also a lifetime of experience in dealing with this problem.

Robin Lindley: Today, many people may not know about Lincoln’s opposition to the Mexican War in the 1840s. Opponents called it a war for territorial expansion that was based on lies. That war has resonance now, particularly in view of the Iraq War and the horrific aftermath.

Sidney Blumenthal: The Mexican War and its diplomacy were at the center of this volume. Lincoln arrived in the Congress when the war was over and James K. Polk, a Democrat, was president. Lincoln was a member of the “Young Indians,” a caucus of younger, rising Congressmen. They attacked Polk’s policies and Lincoln took a lead in calling for what was called “The Spot Resolution” in the belief that Polk had manufactured the story and the events of the origin of the war. That has an interesting resonance today with the Iraq War.

Lincoln engaged in this for political reasons. Obviously, he was establishing himself among his Congressional peers and was angling for an important position and hoped to bring down the Democrats in the next election. But he was also opposed to the extension of slavery. I deal with it at great length in the book through the career of John C. Calhoun who became the Secretary of State under Tyler, and helped set the stage for the Mexican War through his manipulations.

Calhoun of course was the great nullifier of South Carolina and he understood that, to advance the agenda of the extension of slavery and break down all of the barriers to slavery across the United States, and to bend the balance of power politically and economically within the country and create a slave empire in the hemisphere by annexing Cuba, for example, and other territories in the Caribbean, it was necessary to control and understand the levers of the federal government at the highest levels.

This was not a protest group. Calhoun had been Secretary of War, Congressman, Senator and Secretary of State. That was the model for Southern, proslavery people for their agenda for the extension of slavery—the Calhoun model of being inside and knowing how government worked, using the U.S. government for slavery. His most effective protégé was Jefferson Davis, the Secretary of War under Franklin Pierce. He was instrumental in enacting the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

The seizing of vast western territories from Mexico opened the question of the extension of slavery. Lincoln faced these issues while he was in Congress and faced them until he became president and they forced secession. He calls himself a “Proviso Man” and he voted several times for the Wilmot Proviso that would have prohibited slavery in the new territories.

This politics led Lincoln into alliances with abolitionists and other anti-slavery leaders who were more radical than he was in Congress like Joshua Giddings, his boarding housemate and Horace Mann who replaced John Quincy Adams in Congress and who founded the public school system in Massachusetts, and many others—all who become key to his career over time and vouched for his credentials against slavery to more radical abolitionists who were suspicious of Lincoln.

Lincoln was dubbed by his rivals, Stephen A. Douglas and Douglas’s press in Illinois, as “Ranchero Spotty.” Ranchero is a derogatory word for Mexican guerillas who were fighting [U.S. troops], and “spotty” for Lincoln’s Spot Resolution. So Lincoln was “Ranchero Spotty” as Douglas and the Democrats tried to smear him for his opposition to the Mexican War. Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner, was distressed by all of this and urged Lincoln to [retreat], and Lincoln refused to do so.

Lincoln devised a bill for the emancipation of slaves in the District of Columbia after other bills had failed. He did this with Horace Mann and Joshua Giddings, but he never actually proposed the bill because the atmosphere was so unreceptive. And then in January 1849, his career was over in the Congress.

He then mishandled his ability to get a patronage job. He returned to Illinois not knowing what to anticipate. His career in politics may well have been over, condemned to practicing law with William Herndon, who watched him while he often sat staring into the distance for hours at a time.

Robin Lindley: He could have been a governor in the Northwest.

Sidney Blumenthal: He was offered the position of territorial governor or secretary of Oregon. He turned that down largely because Mary Todd Lincoln was not going to have it. She wasn’t going to move herself to the edge of the continent and away from civilization as she understood it and feel that he was sentenced to a sort of eternal exile. He then began his practice in the Eighth Judicial Circuit of Illinois.

Robin Lindley: How do you think Lincoln would fit into the Republican Party today? As you note, he rejected nativist and anti-immigration policies. He was an early feminist who was concerned about women’s rights. Of course, he opposed slavery and pressed for equal treatment of all citizens. Now you have a Republican presidential candidate who advances racist and nativist policies. It seems the “Party of Lincoln” wouldn’t fit for Lincoln now.

Sidney Blumenthal: Lincoln was firmly opposed to the Know Nothings and nativism. He never publically denounced the Know Nothings, but privately denounced them vehemently. He saw the Know Nothings at a key moment during the formation of the Republican Party as a response to the anti-Nebraska forces that were creating a coalition to become the basis of a new party. He was confounded by how to handle this politically and combat the nativist movement. He had utter contempt for them and regarded their hatred of immigrants as like the slaveholder view of their slaves. He said that the nativists should go to Russia, which lacked the “base alloy of hypocrisy.”

And Lincoln worked behind the scenes against the Know Nothings, as I’ll show in my next volume, and that was instrumental in the creation of the Illinois Republican Party. I have some new documents on that.

Lincoln would have regarded Trump’s nativism as the latest expression of the worst of Know Nothing-ism and contrary to his fundamental views of the United States, the Rights of Man, and his sense of the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal.

Needless to say, he’d have no truck with racism or denigration of whole religions or trying to exclude whole peoples based on their religion or calling people of other ethnicities rapists.

Lincoln warned against Trump-like figures. His earliest formal speech [in 1838]—the Springfield Lyceum Speech—was after Elijah Lovejoy, the anti-slavery editor, had been murdered in Illinois for publishing his newspaper. There had been also a number of incidents of rampant violence, hangings, lynchings, and the killing of a free black in St. Louis. It was at the time the Illinois Anti-Slavery Society was organized. Lincoln was not part of that, but he denounced the breakdown of law and order.

In this speech, he attacked the idea of a figure who arrives on the scene and thinks he is above the system, above the Constitution, above the rule of law, above the political process. He would be motivated by his celebrity and fame, Lincoln said, and essentially be a narcissistic figure who burns for distinction. That’s a prescient warning against a Trump-like figure.

Lincoln himself also meant that to be a slashing attack on his rival Stephen A. Douglas, the “Little Giant,” who Lincoln was trying to cut down to even smaller size. That kind of warning still resonates.

Another thing, in his “House Divided Speech,” Lincoln said, “it will either become all thing or all the other.” And that applies to this election. The outcome will be all one thing or all the other. If the Democrat wins, it doesn’t mean we’ll all arrive in Utopia and everything will be easy, but it does mean that a president who is a Democrat will be naming the future Supreme Court, and that will remain for a generation to come. If Trump were to win, it would be all the other.

The idea that Lincoln posed of very stark choices isn’t always true in our elections, but it is in 2016.

Robin Lindley: The 1838 Lyceum speech in the wake of civil discord is timely now as we experience police shootings of unarmed black men as well as the murders of police officers. That speech showed that, even very early in his career, Lincoln was crafting powerful, well-reasoned speeches. There may be a perception that he was a backwoods hick who blossomed only in the presidency.

Sidney Blumenthal: Lincoln in this first speech, like all of his later speeches, took his time. He was quite deliberate in gathering his thoughts and reading as much as he could to give him ideas. This speech is an early reflection of that method of his.

Lincoln talks about mob violence and mob law and killings including a white anti-slavery editor and black man who was lynched, apart from the rule of law. He said that if that were allowed to happen, this government cannot last. That’s a pretty dark warning from Abraham Lincoln at a very early age and long before anyone was thinking about a civil war. It had to do with different circumstances, but this kind of lawlessness and incitement and violence sounds remarkably contemporary.

Robin Lindley: Lincoln resonates in so many ways still. Where are you in your Lincoln project now?

Sidney Blumenthal: I’ve finished volume two, which will be published next spring. It’s called The Man for the Time, 1849 to 1856. The title is taken from a phrase of Ralph Waldo Emerson on Lincoln. It deals with Lincoln creating the Republican Party and becoming the Lincoln we recognize today. That book is done. I’m rewriting a draft of volume three and I’ve basically finished volume four, but will do more work on it down the line. I’m looking forward to these volumes being published yearly.

Robin Lindley: You demystify the early Lincoln and humanize him in your book.

Sidney Blumenthal: I hope I can demystify Lincoln and bring him closer to people, which will not only help us to understand Lincoln but also the world around him, his times, the other political figures, and issues that, while very much of their time, still have their resonance today.

Robin Lindley: Thank you Mr. Blumenthal for your comments and insights, and congratulations on your new Lincoln biography.