Sidney Blumenthal -- Yes, that Sidney Blumenthal -- has a projected 4 volume biography of Lincoln

Historians in the News
tags: Lincoln

Advance Praise

“In this compelling first volume of what will no doubt be a landmark biography of perhaps our greatest president, Sidney Blumenthal brings his formidable storytelling and analytical gifts to the task of creating a lasting portrait of Lincoln. In this Blumenthal succeeds wonderfully well, giving readers an engaging, clear-eyed, and insightful account of Lincoln's early years, clearly charting the sixteenth president's intellectual and political development. The book is at once timely and timeless.”

—Jon Meacham, author of Destiny and Power and Thomas Jefferson

“With riveting prose, solid command of the sources, and a genius for conveying time, character, and atmosphere, Sidney Blumenthal has accomplished the unimaginable: he has crafted an extraordinarily fresh account of the rise of Abraham Lincoln, master politician. I don’t think there is a better, more eminently readable account of Lincoln’s political rise in the entire literature.”

—Harold Holzer, winner of the Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize, author of Lincoln and the Power of the Press

“A veteran of modern political wars, Sidney Blumenthal has written an astute account of Lincoln the politician whose apprenticeship in that profession was a necessary prelude to his greatness as a statesman in the Civil War. Set in context of the transition in national political issues from the Second Bank of the U.S. and the tariff in the 1830s to the Mexican War and slavery by the end of the 1840s, this book offers new insights into Lincoln's life and career.”

—James McPherson, author of The War that Forged a Nation

“Sidney Blumenthal’s A Self-Made Man provides an intricate network of personal detail about the first forty years of our sixteenth president. Compelling, deeply researched, and superbly written, it provides a definitive account of how Lincoln became the man he was.”

—Jean Edward Smith, author of Grant and Bush

“Sidney Blumenthal has brought us a vivid, riveting, beautifully-written and strikingly original portrait of America’s greatest President during his early years, which enhances both our understanding and admiration of how this truly self-made man ultimately became one of the towering leaders of all time.”

—Michael Beschloss, author of Presidential Courage

“Lincoln again? Not to worry. Just stand back and let this first volume of a planned four-volume treatment reveal its glowing qualities. Political insider, reporter, and author Blumenthal’s particular emphasis is on Lincoln’s path as a politician, which the author sees as defining his character and activities from an early age…A fascinating perspective during a presidential election cycle.”

Booklist, starred review

“A consummate political observer keenly dissects the machinations of Lincoln’s incredible rise to power.”

Kirkus Reviews

“In this engrossing life-and-times study of the formative years of Abraham Lincoln (1809–65), before he became a national figure, political journalist and historian Blumenthal takes the reader deep into Illinois and national politics to locate the character and content of Lincoln's ideas, interests, and identity, and to understand his driving ambition to succeed in law and politics. In doing so, the author makes the important point that Lincoln gained empathy and understanding of ‘the people’ from his own self-awareness and need to escape his own origins of relative poverty and hard struggle. Lincoln not only embodied the Whig principle of ‘the right to rise’ but believed it as the lodestar of liberty. Blumenthal also suggests that Lincoln's genius was in knowing how to temper idealism with pragmatism and thereby to realize such lifelong hopes that ‘all men everywhere’ might be free… [Blumenthal] effectively shows that the president's Illinois was a proving ground for the politics of expansion, economic development, nativism, anti-Mormonism, and slavery that both reflected and affected national concerns. Lincoln, the self-made man, is revealed as tried-and-true, ready for the troubled times that came in the years leading up to the Civil War.”

Library Journal

Sidney Blumenthal—bestselling author, award-winning journalist, and former senior advisor to Bill and Hillary Clinton—presents the first book in a multi-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln as a political genius, A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1849 (on sale May 10, 2016).  Drawing on copious research as well as Blumenthal’s unique experience in politics, this is a fresh, sweeping, richly detailed portrait of Lincoln that boldly alters our perspective on major aspects of his life, including the origins of his opposition to slavery, the character of his wife and his marriage, his legendary rivalry with Stephen Douglas, his idolization and betrayal of Henry Clay, his matchless use of political oratory, his close relationship with journalism, and even his ardent love of theater.  Above all, however, Blumenthal advances his view of Lincoln as one of the most astute and enthusiastic professional politicians the United States has ever produced.

Moreover, Blumenthal robustly refutes the common mythology of Lincoln as too noble for politics.  He writes: “Lincoln above politics was not Lincoln. . . .  Lincoln did not believe that politicians were unsavory creatures he felt compelled to associate with out of duty.  He did not hold himself above the political give-and-take or dismiss the deal-making, or ‘log-rolling,’ as it was called, as repugnant to his higher calling.  He did not see politics as the enemy of his principles or an unpleasant process that might pollute them.  These notions were wholly alien to him.  He never believed politics corrupted him.  He always believed that politics offered the only way to achieve his principles.  And he never thought of politics as separate from who he was.  He discovered the promise of American life—and created the man who became Abraham Lincoln—through politics itself.” [p. 9]

“I used to be a slave.”

Blumenthal’s account begins and ends with a startling confession that Lincoln himself made publicly the year he became a Republican: “I used to be a slave.”  Lincoln did not disclose what prompted him to make this incredible statement, but Blumenthal explains.  Until he was twenty-one years old, his father had rented him out to neighbors in rural Indiana at a price of ten to thirty-one cents a day, to labor as a rail splitter, farm hand, hog butcher, and ferry operator.  His father collected his son’s wages, making Lincoln in effect an indentured servant, a slave.

As Blumenthal demonstrates, Lincoln grew up in an atmosphere far more suffused with antislavery sentiment than has been generally understood—in his father’s cabin, the newspapers and books he read, the men he chose as his mentors, the conversations and debates he joined in country stores, and the politics of Indiana pitting the party of “the People” against the party of “the Virginia Aristocrats.”  Although never an abolitionist, he was, as he insisted, “naturally antislavery.”  In addition to his deep personal identification with the predicament of America’s slaves, and the shocking spectacle of slaves for sale in New Orleans, Lincoln was strongly influenced by the Primitive Baptist antislavery dissidents in backwoods Kentucky and Indiana, whose churches his parents attended.  His never-ending self-education, which started with his immersion in the Bible, Shakespeare, and the freethinking works of Thomas Paine and French philosophes, was the intellectual foundation for his profoundly felt condemnation of Southern Christian pro-slavery theology.

In Blumenthal’s account, the development of Lincoln’s anti-slavery views was hardly a straight line, but was caught up in the political currents of his time.  As a congressman, he lived in a boardinghouse known as “Abolition House,” where he experienced the appalling invasion of slave catchers who came to seize one of the waiters as a fugitive slave.  Undoubtedly, he knew the house’s secret: that it was a station in the Underground Railroad.  He denounced the Mexican War as fraudulently started—which ultimately cost him his seat in Congress—and voted numerous times for the Wilmot Proviso against the expansion of slavery into territories taken from Mexico.  With the quiet assistance of the leading abolitionists in Congress, he drafted a bill for emancipation in the District of Columbia.

“There would have been no Lincoln without Mary.”

Although countless words have been written about the foibles and frailties of Mary Todd Lincoln, Blumenthal argues vigorously that Lincoln’s marriage was indispensable to his rise, his sense of destiny, and his equilibrium.  Lincoln, he reminds us, was an almost comically awkward suitor who had a nervous breakdown over his inability to deal with the opposite sex.  Mary Todd was a rare woman of the Southern upper class who loved politics, and did not hesitate to offer her strong opinions at a time when women were supposed to remain silent and deferential on the subject.

If anything, Blumenthal contends, Mary was more ambitious for her ambitious husband than he was.  His alliance with her gave him more than the social standing he desired.  She steadied him, pushed him forward, defended him, and never lost faith in his star.  She referred to their union as “our Lincoln party.”  It is true that she was high-strung, threw temper tantrums, and made embarrassing scenes.  But she also gave Lincoln a family, respectability, a proper home, and she passionately believed in him.  “There would have been no Lincoln without Mary,” Blumenthal writes, “and he knew it.  He remained smitten and in wonder that she had selected ‘a poor nobody.’” [p. 6]

“Lincoln’s forward movement was always in pursuit of Douglas.”

Lincoln’s political and personal rivalry with Stephen Douglas is one of the most celebrated and consequential in the American history, and Blumenthal shows how integral it was to Lincoln’s rise.  Indeed, from his earliest days until his presidency, Lincoln measured himself against his rival and obsessive object of envy, the “Little Giant.”  The most influential figure in Illinois, a power in the U.S. Senate, and a perennial presidential hopeful, Douglas was wealthy from his real estate investments in Chicago and a Mississippi plantation.  For nearly a quarter of a century, before they faced off in a battle for a U.S. Senate seat in 1858, Lincoln and Douglas were fierce combatants in a contest that began with street brawls and a knife fight between their partisans in the muddy streets of Springfield.  “Lincoln’s forward movement,” Blumenthal writes, “was always in pursuit of Douglas.” [p. 3]

Emerging from the crack-up of the Whig party as “Lincoln’s man”

Blumenthal concludes his narrative with the aftermath of the end of Lincoln’s sole term in the U.S. House of Representatives.  Passed over for a plum patronage job in Washington, he returned to Illinois and his prosperous private law practice.  For the biblical length of seven years, he wandered in the political wilderness, traveling on a horse named Bob from county courthouse to county courthouse.  While sharpening his skills as a lawyer before juries and reading Euclid late into the night to deepen his understanding of logical argumentation, he also unsuspectingly gathered around him the network of political men who would help lift him to the presidency, his team of loyalists.  Meanwhile, the Whigs, the party of his fervent lifelong attachment, were breaking apart.  But from the Whig crack-up emerged a man of greater maturity and depth, the man we recognize as Abraham Lincoln, as did his own ideal self-conception as “Lincoln’s man.”

Yet it was the unique political demands of his historical moment that crystallized his genius, according to Blumenthal.  “The coming of the Civil War was the making of Lincoln,” Blumenthal writes.  “Of course, he did not anticipate that it was coming even as events were preparing him for it.  That did not make him passive, just living in history.  It was through his self-education that he developed himself intellectually for the task he could not imagine.  The war was a political struggle by other means, a politics for dominance over the United States lasting decades in which secession was provoked finally by his election.  It was through his life in politics, beginning in the back rooms of post offices and general stores, that he slowly learned the elements of leadership, became president, and then waged the war, transforming it into a revolution, remaking the Constitution, ending slavery—the greatest expropriation of property in human history—and establishing the framework of a new American nation that is still at issue.” [pp. 19-20]

The first volume of Sidney Blumenthal’s brilliant, original, and provocative history of Lincoln’s evolution as politician and leader, A Self-Made Man shows us America’s perhaps greatest president in a new and invigorating light.  In the midst of the current presidential campaign, which threatens to shatter the party Lincoln helped to found, it is sure to have special resonance.

About the author:

Sidney Blumenthalis the former assistant and senior adviser to President Bill Clinton, and senior adviser to Hillary Clinton.  He has been a 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 numerous other publications.  His books include the bestselling The Clinton Wars, The Rise of the Counter-Establishment, and The Permanent Campaign.  Among his films, he was the executive producer of the Academy Award- and Emmy-winning Taxi to the Dark Side.  Born and raised in Illinois, he lives in Washington, DC.

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