A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1849 by Sidney Blumenthal. Simon & Schuster, 2016. Cloth, ISBN: 978-1476777252. $35.00.
In the first book of his multi-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln, Sidney Blumenthal chronicles the early life and political development of the venerated sixteenth president of the United States. As his title suggests, Blumenthal joins with several other recent biographers and historians in emphasizing the centrality of politics in the rise of Abraham Lincoln’s career as a politician and prominent Illinois lawyer. In analyzing Lincoln’s early life, Blumenthal makes much of Lincoln’s intense internal struggles and insecurities as a young man, along with his escape from his early years as a self-described “slave” living with a demanding father. When he became a member of the ascendant Republican Party following the demise of the Whigs, Blumenthal writes that the lanky backwoods lawyer finally emerged as “the Abraham Lincoln identifiable in history” (5).
While the works of historians and biographers such as Richard Hofstadter and David Herbert Donald have portrayed Lincoln as fundamentally unprincipled or passive, Blumenthal sees Lincoln as—above all else—a political man. “Ultimately,” Blumenthal argues, “Lincoln became the master of events because he was the master of politics”; his conception of politics was inseparable from his conception of democracy (9, 11-13). These qualities would continue to define Lincoln during his rise to the presidency and as the embattled commander-in-chief during four years of Civil War.
In highly readable prose, Blumenthal—who brings considerable experience in and knowledge of the contemporary political world to his work—deftly guides readers through the first forty years of Abraham Lincoln’s life, placing special emphasis on Lincoln’s political development. Not surprisingly, for Blumenthal (and for other biographers before him), Lincoln’s decades-long political rivalry with Stephen A. Douglas features prominently throughout the narrative. With his singular focus on politics, writes Blumenthal, “Douglas was as single-minded and unvarnished in his ambition as Lincoln,” and the impassioned political rivalry between the two Illinoisans played a crucial role in elevating Lincoln to the presidency (161).
In exploring the Lincoln-Douglas rivalry, Blumenthal shines light upon the Mormon War of 1844-45 in Illinois, considering how this conflict became yet another platform upon which the two politicians battled for political supremacy. For readers unfamiliar with this episode in Illinois history, Blumenthal demonstrates how it represented “a little examined chapter of their rivalry that would carry larger lessons for the future” (236). Lincoln, for example, used the Mormon War as a device to attack Douglas’s vaunted program of popular sovereignty during their famous senatorial contest. Blumenthal also emphasizes the finer points of nineteenth century local politics and Lincoln’s sagacity as an Illinois politician, showing how Lincoln devoured political newspapers and often wrote anonymous newspaper articles attacking state and national democratic opponents.
Perhaps the greatest strength of Blumenthal’s biography rests in his careful reading of a number of Lincoln’s most important speeches and writings. Take, for example, Lincoln’s Springfield Lyceum Address of 1838, which Blumenthal insists has been “more misinterpreted” than any other Lincoln speech (173). Much of the context and impetus for Lincoln’s speech surrounded the sensational 1837 death of the abolitionist Elijah P. Lovejoy, who was murdered by an Illinois mob for printing abolitionist material in a state quite hostile to abolitionist doctrine. Some historians have seen Lincoln’s Lyceum address as anticipating his future actions as a forceful executive during the Civil War. But Blumenthal argues that the “shadowy dictator in the wings” foreseen by Lincoln was in fact Stephen A. Douglas (182). Whatever readers may make of this interpretation, Blumenthal’s analysis of this and other early Lincoln writings certainly emphasizes the centrality of politics within Lincoln’s life.
In the end, Blumenthal offers a readable and engaging narrative of Lincoln’s early life and political rise that might best appeal to those unfamiliar with Lincoln and the Civil War era. Those already well-versed in Lincoln biography, however, are unlikely to find much new substance here. It remains to be seen whether subsequent volumes of Blumenthal’s opus-in-progress will add something new to our understanding of Lincoln and his world.
Robert O. Faith is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Akron and author of “Public Necessity or Military Convenience? Reevaluating Lincoln’s Suspensions of the Writ of Habeas Corpus During the Civil War,” forthcoming in Civil War History.