Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Q&A with Sidney Blumenthal

Sidney Blumenthal, photo by Ralph Alswing
Sidney Blumenthal is the author of the new biography A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1849. His many other books include The Clinton Wars and The Rise of the Counter-Establishment. He is a former senior advisor to both Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, as well as a former reporter for The Washington Post and editor and writer for The New Yorker. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: You begin the biography with a quote from Lincoln in 1856: “I used to be a slave.” Why did you choose to open with that quote, and what do you think it says about Lincoln?

A: I seized upon that quote—it’s been mentioned in passing by other historians—I thought it explained the central facts about his identity and development. He did believe he was a slave to his father, Thomas Lincoln, a semi-literate farmer…

He had a difficult relationship with his father, and felt he freed himself from him. He rented him out as a laborer until he was 21. Lincoln was an indentured servant, a form of slavery. His father [discounted] his education and believed it was more than a waste of time; he prevented young Lincoln from learning a trade.

When Lincoln left his family and began life on his own…he was a new man, he was himself. I believe Lincoln felt he emancipated himself.

I also find an interesting aspect in his rhetoric. Many people looked at Lincoln’s words. What I find interesting is that while almost all the abolitionist figures of the time spoke about slavery in terms of the most outrageous practices, to arouse the horror of the audience, Lincoln, while he feels no less, often takes the point of view of the slave.

He often writes about the captive, what the world looks like from his point of view. From the beginning of his [abolitionist] statements to the end of his presidency, he says something very similar.

Most people would consider it un-Lincolnian, they think of him as a tempered, wise figure, but actually Lincoln began his political career known as a slasher from the Whig party. He still had the style of sarcasm, taking down his opponents….If slave owners like slavery so much, they should try it themselves.

Q: Of Mary Lincoln, you write that “there would have been no Lincoln without Mary.” What do you see as her role in what he became?

A: The conventional view of her now has been that she was this volatile woman who created a difficult marriage—she embarrassed him, she was a kleptomaniac, she went on mad shopping sprees. People say they understand it, she had [many] tragedies.

But it doesn’t account for Mary Lincoln in the beginning, who she was and what Lincoln thought of her. Lincoln’s marriage to her was part of the making of Abraham Lincoln. She was classes above him.

He described her—it’s astonishing to him that she had fallen in love with him and married him because he was a poor nobody. She was well educated, she went to finishing school, and was from a prominent political family.

Her father was a business partner of Henry Clay in Lexington. Lincoln viewed Clay as his idol, and modeled himself on Clay. Clay was the one who came up with the phrase “self-made man” to describe himself, and Lincoln thought of himself in that mold.

It’s highly relevant that Mary Todd was the most political woman he ever met. She was described as a violent little Whig when she was a child. She knew Henry Clay. She was not silent in mixed company with her political opinions, which was not considered proper, but she was of a high class and didn’t care.

The two together steadied each other. Lincoln…comes from nothing, gets involved in political situations where he was viewed as a failure, he breaks up with Mary Todd, exposes himself to ridicule, has a nervous breakdown. He was very sensitive about his social inferiority…

She saves him from his worst fears and gives him a family, social respectability, and a high place, revolting against her family to do so. They regarded Lincoln as a plebeian….

She referred to their marriage as Our Lincoln Party. She was totally devoted to his political destiny. He was fiercely ambitious; she was more ambitious for him than he was.

There are times when he thinks he should take positions she thinks are beneath him. At one point he wins a seat in the state legislature, and she says he would have to quit it and run for Senate. He does and loses….

Another time after his congressional career he doesn’t get the patronage job he wants and is offered a job as territorial governor of Oregon. Mary Lincoln says no way are we going out there in a covered wagon!

She understand her social role…how to smooth over rough relations with senators. She was very experienced, knowledgeable and clever. A great companion to him who was often unfairly depicted.

Q: You mentioned the concept of the “self-made man,” which is the book’s title. How was this chosen?

A: I chose a title because this volume is a Lincoln portrait of an impoverished, neglected, abused boy who becomes a man largely through his own choices and will power, who was on the verge of becoming the recognizable Lincoln.

We see him here going through every small step and stage, and developing and learning through trial and error, learning every manner of political skill.

He enters, at the end of the volume, his political wilderness at the end of his term in Congress. But he has created himself, so when circumstances strike, he responds to them.

Q: Why did you end this book at 1849?

A: I wrote a whole work to the end of four volumes, and had written about a million words. The volumes will be published one a year. Then I realized what I had done, my sense of what was involved—I was dissatisfied with volume one and started over and rewrote it.

I turned it in to Alice Mayhew [at Simon & Schuster], who said they couldn’t publish a work of almost 1,400 pages. It had to be published as two volumes, so it got split in half.

When volume two is published, you’ll see—it goes from 1849-1856 with Lincoln having emerged from the period as Lincoln, and creating the Illinois Republican Party and taking on his perennial rival Stephen A. Douglas on the issue of the expansion of slavery.

Many of the important characters in volume one, like John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay extend into volume two and become more important, and William Seward. And many of the abolitionists we see in volume one become even more important in volume two…

Q: So how would you compare the Lincoln of 1849 with the Lincoln as president?

A: The biggest differences--Lincoln in 1849 was a stalwart Whig. He becomes a Republican. The party disintegrates beneath him. He came to the realization the he has to join and help form a new political party.

He has to do so not only dealing with the issue of slavery’s expansion into the West, but in relation to a virulent new anti-immigrant party called the American Party, as in Make America Great Again.

Lincoln has to find out how to defang the anti-immigrant party. He acts behind the scenes. Part of the reason I write about the world of Abraham Lincoln and the characters in it—the people he deals with, he was very cognizant of their political background and it matters a lot that none of them began that way [as Republicans].

Two, there’s the question of slavery. At the end of this volume Lincoln is in a lame-duck session of Congress he’s in, and tries to craft a consensus abolitionist bill after a proposal to limit slavery in the Western territories is defeated. He never gets the bill to the floor of the House.

Lincoln’s antislavery position gets harder and firmer and he develops deeper arguments. Beginning with the Kansas-Nebraska acts sponsored by Stephen A. Douglas in 1854, from then on Lincoln is completely engaged with the issue of slavery. That is central to his presidency.

Another difference…he was a Whig, there was never a Republican president, and he was the first Republican president. His election precipitates secession. Lincoln had promised he would put slavery on a course of ultimate extinction.

The Whigs had the idea that a presidency is controlled by powerful congressional leaders…Lincoln has a completely different idea of the presidency. He believes in a strong presidency, he was in a war situation, and one of the two portraits he keeps in his office is Andrew Jackson—a strong president.

He believes with Jackson in the view of the constitution as expressed [by Jackson] that the nation created the states, not the states creating the nation. The U.S. is not a compact that could be dissolved. Lincoln draws on the war powers of the presidency, first developed by John Quincy Adams, on that idea he drew for emancipation…

Q: Why did you decide to write about Lincoln’s life?

A: I’ve always been interested in Lincoln, obsessed since I was a boy. I grew up in Chicago, and was taken to Springfield—it was an important event in my sense of American history. I always had a picture of Lincoln in my room. I hung it in my office when I worked in the White House.

After I had written a memoir and history of the Clinton administration, I began a book on recent presidents. I would begin with FDR through Reagan [looking at the issue of race]. In getting at the root, I [came to Lincoln] and fell down the rabbit hole. I went to the beginning. I had to figure out all out from the start. I didn’t want to leave, and I stayed with Lincoln…

Q: What do you think Lincoln would say about this year’s presidential campaign?

A: I’ve always been frustrated that I couldn’t interview people about Lincoln for my work. I’m glad they left memoirs! We know some things about Lincoln’s beliefs and convictions, the nature of his politics. Lincoln took very strong stands against slavery.

I don’t think he would be supportive of a candidate who began his political career challenging the idea that President Obama was not an American, birtherism.

Lincoln was famously dubbed in a vicious pamphlet Abraham Africanus the First, as a black man. He was accused of promoting miscegenation. That strain found its expression in birtherism, promoted by Donald Trump.

Lincoln hated the anti-immigrant movement of his day. He said those who despised immigrants were trying to oppress the white people in the same way slave owners oppressed Negroes….It’s unimaginable that Abraham Lincoln would support someone who traffics in racism and nativism.

Q: Where are you with your work on Lincoln at this point?

A: I’ve submitted volume two to my editors, and am rewriting volume three, which covers from 1856 to Gettysburg, a big stretch of time. Volume four is done, except I will tweak it. I have to account for some new scholarship. It goes from Gettysburg through winning the war, through the assassination.

I have a lot on the assassination including new research, and post-assassination politics—I go through Reconstruction through 1876 to account for what happened to Lincoln’s legacy without Lincoln. I have about a year’s worth of work.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: There are several things people would be very interested in in this book. One, I have a discussion of the Mexican War in this book. It establishes a framework and the issues that [led to] the Civil War…I go into the diplomacy and politics of the war. John C. Calhoun as secretary of state manipulated the diplomacy to lead to war to attempt to expand slavery in continental America.

I go into great detail on what’s called the Illinois Mormon War and how it affects the rivalry of Lincoln and Douglas—Douglas was for and Lincoln against the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith--and how central it was to Illinois politics in the 1840s. It leads to the murder of Joseph Smith and the exile of the Mormons to the Great Salt Lake.

As president, Lincoln signs an anti-bigamy act that essentially outlaws Mormonism as it was. He considered it an emancipation proclamation for women, but couldn’t enforce it and didn’t have another army to send to Utah.

Lincoln’s views on women—in his first campaign for state legislature, he spoke in favor of rights for women, and he married a woman who was very outspoken. The book has a lot that might be revelatory to people, even people who know a great deal about Lincoln.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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