Allen C. Guelzo Reviews Sidney Blumenthal's Latest Installment of His Biography of LincolnHistorians in the News
tags: books, book reviews, Lincoln, Sidney Blumenthal
Allen C. Guelzo, a senior research scholar at Princeton University, is a Civil War historian and three-time winner of the Lincoln Prize.
All the Powers of Earth is the third installment of Sidney Blumenthal’s ongoing multivolume chronicle of “the political life of Abraham Lincoln.” It is sharply focused on the four years between 1856 (when Abraham Lincoln attached himself to the new anti-slavery Republican Party) and 1860 (when he was elected president, triggering the secession of the southern states and the Civil War). Between those dates, Blumenthal never allows the intensity of Lincoln’s story to flag for a moment. Partly, this is a product of Blumenthal’s relentless, exquisitely paced style. But even more, it reflects the fury of the four turbulent years that marked the apex of the national controversy over slavery.
That controversy had been brewing at least since the Constitutional Convention in 1787, when the Founders made a series of fatal concessions to slavery, guided by the expectation that this blot on the face of American liberty would fade of its own accord. Instead, slavery rebounded, and by the middle of the nineteenth century, southern slave states were ready to demand that portions of the western territories be guaranteed for slaveholding. The northern states that had gradually abolished slavery balked at such a concession, and by 1856, both sections were already coming to blows over slavery’s expansion. In 1856, a de facto civil war broke out in Kansas and a U.S. senator was nearly beaten to death on the Senate floor. Illinois Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas tried to placate both North and South with his doctrine of “popular sovereignty” (leaving it up to the settlers of the territories to legalize slavery if they wished), a platform he thought would carry him to the presidency.
In 1858, however, Lincoln challenged Douglas for his Senate seat, arguing in a famous series of debates that no amount of popular sovereignty could make a moral wrong like slavery right. Although Lincoln came up short in the Senate race, two years later he and Douglas faced each other again, now for the presidency, and this time Lincoln prevailed. From the moment of Lincoln’s triumph, the bloody tide of civil war curled relentlessly toward the American shore, as the southern states declared their secession from the Union and the creation of an independent Confederacy.