By the time Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated as president in 1861, Africans and their descendants had been enslaved in North America for about 250 years. Slavery had survived wars and revolutions, economic upheavals, and a variety of governments. Fifteen presidents had come and gone, as had more than thirty Congresses, and not one of them had made a serious effort to undermine slavery. Yet within a mere eighteen months of taking the oath of office, Lincoln announced the emancipation of three million slaves in the southern states, sounding what Eric Foner called “the death knell of slavery.” Why did Lincoln move so fast? Why did he so quickly commit the United States to the complete destruction of a slave system that, until his election, had not only survived but flourished for a quarter of a millennium?
It is one of the virtues of Sidney Blumenthal’s account in The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln that it does not approach this question by reference to Lincoln’s biography alone. The details of Lincoln’s life are woven throughout the two volumes so far published. (There are two more to come.) But the one thousand pages we already have take us only up to 1856, when Lincoln joined the newly formed Republican Party, and the documentation of his life until that point is too scant to fill so much space. What Blumenthal has given us instead is a sprawling account of the larger political history of the United States, within which he places the details of Lincoln’s biography. These two volumes are a study less of Lincoln’s political life than of his political world. It was a world dominated for decades by an increasingly intractable debate over slavery.
Approaching his subject in this way leads Blumenthal down a number of obscure byways that, at first glance, seem to be of no great relevance to Lincoln’s political life. There are long stretches during which Lincoln disappears completely. An entire chapter is devoted to a lively account of the politically charged history of Mormons in Illinois in the 1840s. Another covers the 1853 whirlwind tour of the United States by Louis Kossuth, the Hungarian freedom fighter. The text contains engaging mini-biographies of dozens of characters, some of whom were dead by the time Lincoln was first elected to office.
Every presidential election campaign is reconstructed; every candidate for every party’s nomination is introduced. It’s easy to get lost in the details of local politics in Springfield, Illinois; the philosophical writings of Comte, Volney, and Thomas Paine; lawsuits in Lexington, Kentucky; or the shady financial deals of Stephen Douglas. The first volume, A Self-Made Man, feels particularly baggy, and I confess that I was halfway through the second, Wrestling with His Angel, before I could discern the broad outlines of Blumenthal’s impressive intellectual project. There is…
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