|Sidney Blumenthal, photo by Ralph Alswing|
Sidney Blumenthal is the author of the new biography Wrestling With His Angel: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1849-1856, the second volume of a projected four-volume biography of Lincoln. His many other books include A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1849, 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 write of Lincoln in the 1849-56 period, “Lincoln only seemed to be offstage. He did not disappear…” How would you describe Lincoln’s activities during this period?
A: In 1860 when Lincoln was running for president he dictated two autobiographies. He said he almost lost interest in politics [during this time]. But that’s not so. He was paying the closest attention to every single aspect of it.
He and his law partner William Henry Herndon occupied a small office above the post office. They also maintained the best library in central Illinois. Lincoln and Herndon got every current book on every subject from politics to science. They also subscribed to newspapers and journals.
Lincoln was devouring everything he could…he had only a few weeks of formal education, but he was constantly devoting himself to learning about the issues of the day. Having been in a dirt poor family with a father who failed at a succession of farms, he was somebody with incredible self-discipline, constantly making something of himself, particularly intellectually.
His law associates recalled him in boarding houses on the circuit staying up late at night reading Euclid. Why would he study geometry as a lawyer in central Illinois? Lincoln was trying to figure out how to be more logical, and he applied geometric laws to the arguments he’d make in his cases and in politics.
After his death, his two private secretaries discovered some fragments that had never been published. One is a discussion applying Euclidean logic to the antislavery argument, refuting the pro-slavery argument of the day.
Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: Wrestling With His Angel comes from the Bible, the story of Jacob, who wrestles through the dark night of the soul with an angel and emerges with a sense of who he is at the end, and adopts the new name Israel.
Lincoln doesn’t adopt a new name, but he’s wrestling with himself. It’s part of his self-discipline—how he can enter into the times, change things, become the man who can do that.
He leaves after one term in Congress and returns to his law office. Herndon recounts a conversation where Lincoln says the world is dead, he doesn’t know what he’ll do. He had no political prospects—what is to be done?
Q: So how did Lincoln change during this period from 1849-1856?
A: Lincoln had suffered setbacks and tragedies. His two-year-old son Edward died of tuberculosis. His wife refused to eat. Lincoln was famously depressed, and he had to encourage Mary Todd Lincoln out of her depression. He was riding his horse from county courthouse to county courthouse, trying to make a living. Still, he was active in politics. He was waiting.
In this book, I pay so much attention to the world around Lincoln. It bears on him; it shapes his mind. He’s watching Stephen A. Douglas, his great rival of decades. He sees himself coming up short against the Little Giant. He starts stalking him after Douglas passes the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 that opens the question of slavery up.
It leads to Lincoln coming out of isolation. Douglas is from Illinois. He’s a national figure, and this gives Lincoln the opportunity to come forward by challenging him. When Douglas returns, Lincoln follows him around the state. Douglas refuses [to debate] until 1858.
It leads to Lincoln delivering the first great speech in the state capitol, the basis for the politics that would carry him to the White House. Lincoln is preparing himself for the destiny he does not know.
Q: Can you say more about the relationship between Lincoln and Douglas?
A: Douglas is not thinking about Lincoln in this period, he’s thinking about Stephen A. Douglas. He was the most dynamic figure in American politics…he believes he embodies the spirit of the age, of Manifest Destiny. He wants to be president; he is a self-made man himself.
They were constantly butting heads over the great issues of the day, from the 1830s on. The Democratic Party is the dominant party in Illinois, and Douglas rises and leaves Lincoln in the dust.
He is envious and thinks Douglas has become a colossus and he has become small. When Douglas has to come back to earth after passing the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Lincoln starts stalking him. It’s part of the making of Lincoln.
Q: What role did political parties play during this period for Lincoln?
A: There was no idea of politics apart from political parties. Lincoln was a party man, and the party of Lincoln was the Whig Party, until it fell apart. He held onto the Whig Party longer than most. In 1852, [Democrat] Franklin Pierce was elected. [The Whigs] never ran a candidate for president again. It was shattered by the Kansas-Nebraska Act and broke into Northern and Southern wings.
Also...there was the nativist movement known as the Know-Nothings. They were a mass movement. Lincoln hated their politics. He had contempt for nativism, yet he held that as a private opinion.
To create a coalition against slavery, he believed the nativists had to be defeated and some brought into the coalition. He engaged in intricate politics in Illinois to do that.
Finally, in an organizing meeting of newspaper editors in 1856, he was invited, and the meeting leads to a call for a convention to found the Illinois Republican Party.
The meeting almost breaks up over nativism. An ally of Lincoln’s proposed an anti-nativist plank, and the nativists opposed it. Maybe there won’t be a Republican Party—but Lincoln says the answer is in the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal. On Lincoln’s authority, the question is resolved. The party was created state by state over this period.
Q: Where are you with the other volumes of your work on Lincoln?
A: I wrote originally all the way to the end and went back to the beginning and redid the first volumes. Now I’m rewriting volume 3. Volume 4 is done. I’ll go back over it, and put a gloss on it, but I feel pretty good.
Q: So what period does volume 3 cover?
A: It goes from the founding of the Republican Party to Gettysburg. It’s a long period. Volume 4 goes from after Gettysburg through Reconstruction. I deal with what happens to Lincoln’s legacy.
The scope of events is so epic—after Gettysburg, the rise of Grant, the Wilderness Campaign, the reelection campaign, the assassination, and so on. I think I have something to say.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I’ve written this book over years, and didn’t have in mind the situation we’re in today. You can always draw lessons from almost any period in Lincoln’s life, including the current period we’re going through.
I would say some lessons are that Lincoln understood that the crisis of democracy in the United States was not isolated to the United States. He was deeply affected by suppressed revolutions in 1848 in Europe, and chaired a meeting in Springfield urging support for those struggling in Europe.
He always thought of the struggle here for democracy as the front lines of that movement throughout the West. He says in an 1854 speech in the Illinois State Capitol that he hates slavery because it deprives us of just influence in the world. There are lessons there.
It is a period when parties are coming apart at the seams. Lincoln was able to emerge and become the leader of a new party because he was able to understand the new circumstances and articulate what they mean, and articulate them not only in a narrow way but in a historical way. New leadership arises through the ability to define events.
Not least is the lesson of the leader who is intensely self-disciplined.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Sidney Blumenthal, please click here.