Friday, November 15, 2019

Q&A with Sidney Blumenthal

Sidney Blumenthal, photo by Ralph Alswing
Sidney Blumenthal is the author of the new book All the Powers of Earth: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1856-1860. It's the third in his series of biographies of Lincoln, preceded by Wrestling With His Angel and A Self-Made Man. 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: What do you see as the key to Lincoln’s state of mind during the 1856-1860 period?

A: Lincoln’s state of mind changed over time. He began this period [indicating that] politics were almost completely out of his mind—which I don’t believe. When Stephen A. Douglas proposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which potentially would open the area to slavery, he [became more involved].

But the Whig Party had disintegrated. He had no vehicle. He wrote to [his friend Joshua] Speed and others to say, I’m a Whig, but there’s no Whig Party. It took until 1856, when he invented the Illinois Republican Party.

His state of mind changed as the crisis heightened. It began with Douglas opening the question of slavery again, and led to Lincoln being completely committed and galvanized to a political cause. He realized he needed to make a new political organization.

He asked, How do I hold this together, with its disparate factions? How do I articulate what the politics of the moment are as things are changing?

Events kept intervening. Suddenly there was the lightning bolt of the Dred Scott decision. Lincoln thought the situation was more radical—he was thinking there could be a second Dred Scott decision that could nationalize slavery, not just in the South but in the North.

Lincoln was completely engaged, working on this problem. He was never out of politics. Even when he lost [to Douglas for Senate] in 1858, he recovered very quickly, and said the cause must go on.

In one letter he said there would be another explosion, and he was right: John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry. There was always something that accelerated the crisis. Each time he was both in the forefront of the political organization and at the same time internally figuring out how to respond.

Q: How would you define the relationship between Lincoln and Douglas during this period?

A: Lincoln had always been in competition with Douglas, since the 1830s, even before the 1840 campaign when the Whig Party came together and Lincoln really became a Whig. Douglas always rose above him.

Some of it was personal, dealing with Douglas’s own personal qualities. He was highly intelligent, ambitious, ferocious, and ruthless. He had legislative skill, and was a master demagogue. He had the ability to bring along other people, partly by corrupting them.

In this period, Lincoln was wandering around his judicial district, and was suddenly compelled forward—and it was Douglas who was the trailblazer. Everywhere Douglas went, Lincoln went. Lincoln initially had a sense of inferiority. Douglas was above him, was one of the leading figures of the time, was dominant in Illinois. Lincoln was now competing with him.

In the beginning of Lincoln running for Senate in 1858, Lincoln’s friend Jesse Fell, an industrialist and great reformer, proposed to Lincoln that he debate Douglas. Lincoln found himself standing under balconies where Douglas was speaking. He was not equal to Douglas, and tried to goad Douglas into debating him.

Douglas had an exclusive train on which he went from town to town. Lincoln would follow him. There are description of Lincoln jumping over fences following the crowd. Eventually, he got Douglas to debate.

Q: How would you describe Lincoln’s views toward slavery during the four years before his election as president?

A: Lincoln was always anti-slavery. Before the Kansas-Nebraska Act, everyone in party politics felt slavery had been taken off the national agenda by the Compromise of 1850. Suddenly it was put back on, and it divided the parties. It was the ultimate reason it smashed the Whigs and led to the crackup of the Democratic Party.

Lincoln was opposed to the extension of slavery. He believed slavery had to be dealt with politically. He believed the Constitution had an anti-slavery background and that there were means of doing this.

Q: Given today’s political climate, what do you hope readers take away from this biography?

A: I hope they learn about Lincoln as a man who became a great political leader, and about how he developed qualities of leadership that put him not above politics but in the middle of it.

Lincoln developed as a human being through his extraordinary life, rising through poverty, seeing America as it developed as a new nation, maturing from a raw frontier character into somebody who was incredibly self-disciplined and deeply working on himself to possess the skills required to understand the realities he faced. He anticipated what those were, and persuaded people to his position.

He understood, having encountered this through his political life, the facets and dangers of demagogues. He was in constant friction with Douglas, who was a master demagogue and knew how to manipulate falsehoods. Lincoln learned how to cope with that.

He thought about public opinion, not that it was some neutral thing. He said at various points that it’s been debauched by demagogues, and his dealings with people had been poisoned.

And then there were larger forces he had to deal with. The title of the book is his definition of the slave power. “All the powers on earth” converge to keep slaves in [bondage]. How does he undo that? He has to create the instruments of power himself.

He created a party, he worked with others—but he was the key. He was working on himself all the time, thinking things through at a personal level, a political level, and a moral level. And he captured the full dimension of the crisis, and brought people along. He didn’t shrink from the crisis and the threat to democracy.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on book four. When book three ends, Lincoln is elected, and immediately South Carolina secedes. Four begins with the politics of secession. It will go through Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: If Lincoln were alive today, he would understand that political parties change. He would not recognize the Republican Party to be his Republican Party. He would see it as a combination of the forces that he had to contend with that were opposed to him.

What they have become is the opposite of Lincoln’s Republican Party. They’ve taken on the coloration of the Democratic Party of the slave power, and the Know-Nothing nativist party, both at once. Some Know-Nothings were not pro-slavery, and some of the Democrats were not nativists. This Trump Republican Party is the worst of everything from the past that Lincoln had to deal with. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Sidney Blumenthal.

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