Lincoln the Politician

The president most known for his moral vision was also a master political operator. 

All the Powers of Earth is the third installment of Sidney Blumenthal’s ongoing multivolume chronicle of “the political life of Abraham Lincoln.” It is sharply focused on the four years between 1856 (when Abraham Lincoln attached himself to the new anti-slavery Republican Party) and 1860 (when he was elected president, triggering the secession of the southern states and the Civil War). Between those dates, Blumenthal never allows the intensity of Lincoln’s story to flag for a moment. Partly, this is a product of Blumenthal’s relentless, exquisitely paced style. But even more, it reflects the fury of the four turbulent years that marked the apex of the national controversy over slavery. 

All the Powers of Earth:
The Political Life of
Abraham Lincoln, 1856–1860
by Sidney Blumenthal
Simon & Schuster, 784 pp.

That controversy had been brewing at least since the Constitutional Convention in 1787, when the Founders made a series of fatal concessions to slavery, guided by the expectation that this blot on the face of American liberty would fade of its own accord. Instead, slavery rebounded, and by the middle of the nineteenth century, southern slave states were ready to demand that portions of the western territories be guaranteed for slaveholding. The northern states that had gradually abolished slavery balked at such a concession, and by 1856, both sections were already coming to blows over slavery’s expansion. In 1856, a de facto civil war broke out in Kansas and a U.S. senator was nearly beaten to death on the Senate floor. Illinois Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas tried to placate both North and South with his doctrine of “popular sovereignty” (leaving it up to the settlers of the territories to legalize slavery if they wished), a platform he thought would carry him to the presidency. 

In 1858, however, Lincoln challenged Douglas for his Senate seat, arguing in a famous series of debates that no amount of popular sovereignty could make a moral wrong like slavery right. Although Lincoln came up short in the Senate race, two years later he and Douglas faced each other again, now for the presidency, and this time Lincoln prevailed. From the moment of Lincoln’s triumph, the bloody tide of civil war curled relentlessly toward the American shore, as the southern states declared their secession from the Union and the creation of an independent Confederacy. 

Surprisingly, Lincoln makes one brief appearance in Blumenthal’s account on page 6 and does not afterward resurface in any meaningful way until page 183. Blumenthal is writing the political life of Lincoln, and it’s vital for him to lay out the details of the political stage on which Lincoln would operate. All the Powers of Earth opens with a lengthy crawl through the miserable presidency of Franklin Pierce, under whose watch came the hideous breakdown of order in the new territory of Kansas. Pro-slavery Missourians crossed the border to stuff ballot boxes and rode through anti-slavery settlements to arrest and intimidate voters; anti-slavery fanatics like John Brown replied by invading pro-slavery settlements and massacring unarmed civilians in the middle of the night. The attention Blumenthal pays to these table-setting horrors may seem excessive. But it situates us so deeply and thoroughly in the meltdown of political reason that Lincoln’s long-delayed appearance comes almost as a plank to the drowning swimmer.

There are few saints and many sinners in All the Powers of Earth. Chief among the sinners is Douglas. Like many of his fellow Jacksonian Democrats, Douglas turned a political blind eye to the influence of slaveholders in his party. He saw nothing repugnant in allowing slavery a free place at the American table and, according to the rules of popular sovereignty, a free door to the western territories if the territories so desired. Douglas’s aggressiveness won him election to the Senate and the nickname “the Little Giant.” It also earned him a reputation as a prairie demagogue. Elite southern politicians used him but disdained him; northern opponents of slavery raged against him as a sellout. But he remained popular with northern Democrats, especially in Illinois, which was a strongly Democratic state. Ultimately, Blumenthal deems Douglas a gross political miscalculator, one who sold his soul to the Slave Power and then tried vainly to bargain with it. 

Douglas is not alone in political duplicity. Blumenthal describes James Buchanan, president from 1857 to 1861, as “a boilerplate partisan,” whose “manner was courtly, his image dignified,” but who was myopically content to fiddle while the republic burned down around him. John Brown, whose abolitionist impulses might have commended him to Blumenthal, was in reality a suicidal freak with a “fixation on” transforming himself into “the crucified warrior.” 

Abraham Lincoln, by contrast, is an island of calm in this white-capped sea of folly, a man who emerges from a youth of fustian, name-calling politics as a balanced, coherent personality with a “stark naturalness” and an “inner sense as a man of political destiny.” He deals frankly and evenhandedly with anti-immigration nativists in the Know-Nothing Party and with abolitionists and radical German Republicans. He quietly works to liberate John Shelby, an Illinois black man sold into slavery in New Orleans. Yet, at the same time, he protests that he has no intention of enraging white Illinoisans by promoting racial equality—even though Douglas sees that, in the long term, racial equality will be the inevitable outcome of Lincoln’s ideas. 

This was mistaken in some quarters for vacillation. It was, in fact, an exercise of what Blumenthal calls Lincoln’s “prescience,” a self-correcting mixture of high anti-slavery idealism and driving ambition. Ambition launches him at Douglas’s Senate seat in 1858, but his moral loathing of slavery allows him to soar to rhetorical heights in the ensuing debates, earning national notice. Lincoln squeezes the levers of the political locomotive as though he designed them, all the while insisting that the immorality of slavery and the need to curtail its growth are the nonnegotiable mandates of the Republican Party. In the end, his reward is to shock his own party’s East Coast establishment by snatching the 1860 presidential nomination out of the hands of the long-touted front-runner, William Henry Seward, a man who could never quite get ambition and idealism into the same exquisite balance as Lincoln. 

Blumenthal has enjoyed a career of his own in politics, as a onetime adviser to Bill and Hillary Clinton, and his political finesse gives his narrative a faultless sense of timing. Strange as it may seem to devote thirty-six pages to Charles Sumner’s caning, and fifteen more to John Brown’s murderous rampage, Blumenthal makes such wanderings dovetail perfectly, and not only with each other: it is at exactly the moment when the full impact of the Sumner and Brown outrages sink in that Blumenthal introduces the assembling, just a week later, of the Illinois Republicans’ state organizing convention, in which Lincoln would give the speech that relaunched his political career. 

This attention to political tick-tock—of how an event in one corner casts a beam into a greater event in another—gives us the sense of watching the crisis of 1860 unfold in real time. And it reminds us of something hopeful: that a great deal in politics is contingent, that it depends on choices, made at specific moments and in response to particular circumstances, and above all made fearlessly as matters of principle as well as matters of prudence. 

On the other hand, Blumenthal’s intensive sweep of the American political world has no eye for the intellectual Lincoln who so hugely admired John Stuart Mill and the heirs of Adam Smith. And Blumenthal may have let his penchant for the dramatic lead him to relay too credulously certain tales of questionable provenance. He recounts, for example,  the 1857 incident in which Douglas, angered by Buchanan’s support for a constitution drafted by pro-slavery legislators in Kansas, supposedly confronted the president at the White House. Buchanan warned Douglas that, in the days of Andrew Jackson, those who bucked the Democratic Party line were driven into political exile. “Mr. President,” Douglas insolently replied, “I wish you to remember that General Jackson is dead, sir.” This story has been repeated by historian after historian. But it’s a story that got its first telling in 1860 from Douglas himself, in a stump speech, with no corroboration, and was subsequently embroidered for good effect. Caveat narrator.

These are minor blemishes, however. Blumenthal has made an important contribution by carefully situating Lincoln in the political context of his time. Some Lincoln biographies are really about the “inner” Lincoln. Others position him in the social and professional web of his times. Comparatively little, however, has connected the lofty thinker, the striving westerner, and the pessimistic fatalist with the hands-on politician, either in Illinois or in Washington. And yet, practical politics was the environment in which Lincoln reveled. “Politics were his Heaven,” recalled Lincoln’s longtime law partner, William Herndon, and perhaps it requires someone who has gotten his hands deep in the raw mechanics of politics to write as well as Blumenthal has written about the political Lincoln.

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Allen C. Guelzo

Allen C. Guelzo, a senior research scholar at Princeton University, is a Civil War historian and three-time winner of the Lincoln Prize.