The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1856-1860

By Sidney Blumenthal Simon & Schuster.
784 pp. $35

On June 16, 1858, Abraham Lincoln addressed a convention of Illinois Republicans who hoped he would unseat Stephen A. Douglas as one of the state’s two U.S. senators. His opening struck at the heart of national political tensions. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” he insisted, “. . . this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.” The audience knew that Lincoln wished to place slavery “in the course of ultimate extinction” and cheered him — though some party leaders thought his comments might alienate conservative voters. Although the speech probably hurt his prospects against Douglas later that year, Lincoln always stood by it.

The “House Divided” speech appears about halfway through “All the Powers of Earth: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1856-1860,” the third installment of Sidney Blumenthal’s projected five-volume series on the 16th president. By far the longest of the books to date, it covers Lincoln’s rise to national prominence in the turbulent political crosscurrents of the late 1850s. The searing question of whether slavery would spread to Kansas and Nebraska provided the national backdrop against which Lincoln, while pursuing a successful legal career, maneuvered for political advancement. His “House Divided” speech, his debates with Douglas in the Illinois senatorial contest later that year and his address at New York’s Cooper Union on Feb. 27, 1860, marked crucial points that set the stage for a run at the Republican presidential nomination. The Democratic Party’s fracturing at its national convention, held in Charleston, S.C., in April 1860, imbued Republicans with a sense of great opportunity. By the time the young party’s delegates gathered in Chicago’s “Wigwam” in May, Lincoln had established himself as a reasonable alternative to candidates deemed either too radical, such as William Henry Seward of New York, or too conservative, such as Edward Bates of Missouri. Four nominees eventually contended for the presidency that year: Douglas as the regular Democrat, John C. Breckinridge as the Southern Democrat, John Bell on the Constitutional Union ticket and Lincoln. With less than 40 percent of the popular vote but a solid majority in the electoral college, Lincoln triumphed, triggering South Carolina’s secession and a famous headline in the Charleston Mercury that closes Mr. Blumenthal’s account: “The Union Is Dissolved!”

Drawing on published materials, the online papers of Abraham Lincoln, two dozen newspapers and selected digital sources, Blumenthal works in furrows deeply plowed by gifted historians such as Allan Nevins, Roy F. Nichols and David M. Potter. His subtitle is a bit misleading because “All the Powers of Earth” often strays from Lincoln. Rather than a focused political biography, Blumenthal’s text fits within the genre of “life and times” studies. Indeed, Lincoln figures tangentially or scarcely at all in roughly half of the book’s 35 chapters, including the first 11 that deal at length with the Kansas-Nebraska Act’s impact in Congress and elsewhere. For readers unaware of the major personalities and events of the late 1850s, this broad framing provides useful context for Lincoln’s actions. Blumenthal brings a number of key actors to life, among them Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, John Brown, Seward and a host of lesser-known figures. The chapters on Brown in Kansas and at Harpers Ferry; on Sumner’s crusade to bar slavery in Kansas, which resulted in his being viciously assaulted on the floor of the Senate in May 1856; and on Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney’s Dred Scott decision in March 1857 are models of clarity and descriptive power.

Blumenthal captures the essence of Dred Scott’s potential impact in just a few sentences. Taney’s decision opened all federal territories to the peculiar institution, “remanding Dred Scott to slavery” and attempting “to remand the Republican Party beyond the pale. Its reason for existence, opposition to the extension of slavery in the territories, was ruled to have no basis in the law.” At the same time, Taney nullified Douglas’s “doctrine of popular sovereignty that would grant a territory the right to determine whether it would be free or slave.” Taney thus “destroyed the always shaky ground on which Douglas stood,” Blumenthal writes. “Dred Scott was an instrument of judicial power for multiple political ends.”

Lincoln emerges as a perceptive, ambitious and practical politician who found himself in search of a new affiliation after the demise of the Whigs following the election of 1852. Blumenthal neatly sums up the problem: “Lincoln was a man of the party, a thorough partisan, but now without a party.” Rejecting the nativist American or Know Nothing option, Lincoln labored to entice old Whigs into the emerging Republican Party. A firm believer in the Whig economic program that supported internal improvements (public works), protective tariffs where needed, a national bank and other measures that fostered a free-labor-based capitalist economy, he increasingly found himself caught up in heated political bickering about slavery’s expansion. Prohibiting slavery in federal territories lay at the heart of the Republican Party’s first presidential platform in 1856 and dominated much of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Not an abolitionist, Lincoln nonetheless steadfastly opposed slavery, expected its eventual demise if sealed off from the territories and insisted that basic guarantees of the Declaration of Independence applied to black as well as white people (though not calling for complete social and legal equality).

Blumenthal observes that he wrote the book with “at least one eye wide awake to the whirlwind that bears more than a passing resemblance to the gathering storm that led to Lincoln’s election” — a storm that featured “the manipulations of demagogues . . . anti-immigrant nativism and racism, a dysfunctional presidency, and the breakup of the old parties.” Exposing new “facts and facets” regarding Lincoln, he adds, can “illuminate both past and present crises.”

Strong echoes of contemporary political wrangling abound in Blumenthal’s narrative, stamping it a clear product of its time.

For example, Democratic luminary Douglas swaggers through the book as a principal, and strikingly familiar, villain. Capable of “astounding feats of oratorical bombast,” he “bellowed in floor performances of name-calling, illogic, flying spit and sweat, accompanied by shouting in a drumbeat. . . . Imposing and intimidating, the Little Giant’s heights of demagogy highlighted his underlying anxiety.” Douglas lied about Lincoln and even fired salvos against members of his own party. One accusation aimed at pro-democracy forces in Kansas affords “a perfect illustration of his inimitable demagogic style: daring innuendo, false equivalence, bullying, absurd hypotheticals, and inverted meanings.” Similarly, Blumenthal titles the chapter dealing with John C. Frémont’s Republican candidacy in 1856 “The Birther Campaign,” an anachronistic choice of language that distracts from a serious discussion of mid-19th-century politics.

Readers relatively new to the topic will applaud Blumenthal’s skills at biographical portraiture, incisive evocation of political infighting and deft touch with the compelling episode. Anyone seeking historical drama with overt ties to modern politics should turn the pages of “All the Powers of Earth” with special satisfaction. Even those conversant with previous literature, though finding very little new in the book, are likely to enjoy at least parts of the well-crafted narrative.