Historians have underestimated Sidney Blumenthal's achievement in his biography of Lincoln

Historians in the News
tags: Lincoln, biography, Sidney Blumenthal

Historian Steven Hahn, writing last May in The New York Times on the first volume of Sidney Blumenthal’s political life of Abraham Lincoln, “A Self-Made Man,” said that Blumenthal’s next volume on Lincoln “might serve as a vital hub around which new perspectives on the 19tth century could be devised. This is possible. … But I have my doubts.” Hahn and other historians who seemed to be searching for reasons to belittle Blumenthal’s achievement must now dispel their doubts.  

The most written-about human being in history has had the greatest body of literature about him emerge in the last 25 years. Garry Wills’ “Lincoln at Gettysburg” (1992), Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” (2005), and James McPherson’s “Tried by War: Lincoln as Commander in Chief” (2009) concentrated on particular aspects of Lincoln’s career. The greatest single-volume biography, David Herbert Donald’s “Lincoln” (1995), focused on Lincoln’s personal life. All are indispensable.

Blumenthal is the first historian to define Lincoln solely through his political evolution. “Wrestling With His Angel 1849-1856” — the title is taken from Genesis 32, in which Jacob wrestles all night with an angel — places Lincoln squarely in the storm of U.S. politics between the Mexican War (which ended in 1848) and the Civil War that resulted from the struggle over whether the vast new tracts of territory won from Mexico should allow slavery.

The author takes a daring chance that could not be taken in a standard biography: Lincoln is scarcely mentioned in nearly the first third of the book.  When he finally emerges, it is not like Athena springing fully formed from the head of Zeus. The political Lincoln was forged by adherence to the ideals of Henry Clay, the senator from Kentucky and secretary of state, who was Lincoln’s “beau ideal of a statesman”; Lincoln attended one of Clay’s speeches “lying on the ground and listening for two hours as he whittled sticks.” Another powerful influence was Massachusetts senator and twice Secretary of State Daniel Webster, “the most eloquent orator of his age, already immortalized for famous addresses against [Sen. John C.] Calhoun and his states’ rights acolytes.” As the end of the decade approached, Calhoun, who had done so much to create the atmosphere that would lead to war, moaned as he lay dying, “The Union is doomed to dissolution, there is no mistaking the signs.” 

Lincoln’s rise is measured against and contrasted with Sen. Stephen Douglas of Illinois, “the most racist state in the North,” and Jefferson Davis, senator from Mississippi, secretary of war under Franklin Pierce, and, finally, president of the Confederacy. “The parallel lives of these two men,” Blumenthal writes, “would define Lincoln’s.” ...

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