A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Vol. I, 1809 – 1849 by Sidney Blumenthal. Simon and Schuster. 2016.
The Politicians and the Egalitarians: The Hidden History of American Politics by Sean Wilentz. W.W. Norton & Co. 2017.
Two excellent books, the first minutely detailed, the second done in broad strokes of the historian’s brush, but illustrated with telling specifics. Both show how the struggle for freedom and equality in the United States has succeeded when idealists have found a successful political leader, with the skill to get things done through government action.
Blumenthal traces the process by which Abraham Lincoln went from poor white settler on the western frontier to well established lawyer and politician, on the cusp of turning his conviction that slavery was unjust and should be confined to the states where it already existed, into full blown opposition to slavery everywhere. Blumenthal’s second volume, Wrestling with his Angel, covers the years 1849-1856, when this conviction became more firmly set, and Lincoln joined the nascent Republican Party.
Part of the pleasure of this book is the details of Lincoln’s political activity during the ferment of the 1830s and 40s, the age of the Jacksonian Democrats and Whigs. I wrote about some of this earlier, in my post about Joshua Gidding’s The Exiles of Florida. In those days local party-affiliated newspapers provided outlet for the kinds of extravagant political commentary that thrives today on Facebook, and the partisanship was, if anything, even more violent, with dueling still sometimes practiced and plenty of plain old brawling. Lincoln was no simple country lawyer, telling homely stories about widows and lost horses, but an accomplished political satirist with a knack for vicious caricature, much of it printed anonymously. He had some fights, though he seems to have generally avoided them.
One of the most interesting sections for me was the account of the Mormons in Illinois and Missouri during this period, just before the migration to Utah. Their penchant for violence, even if cast as self defense, and the methods used to gain and keep adherents, make all but the nastiest of today’s cults seem not so bad. Lincoln and Illinois politicians both courted and feared these fanatics, eventually turning against Joseph Smith and accepting his murder with little indignation. This sort of mob violence became more common as politics became more polarized, leading up to the destruction of anti-slavery newspaper offices and, in one famous case, the murder of the editor.
Lincoln’s experience with politics up to 1848 was mostly in party caucuses and the Illinois legislature, with a single term in the House of Representatives. There, he was an active supporter of efforts to counter what was beginning to emerge as the Slave Power, the unified southern bloc that was determined to expand slavery as far as possible. Unlike many of the founding generation, who at least paid lip service to the idea that slavery was incompatible with the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, these men argued that it was a positive good and that southern society was morally superior to that of the North. Lincoln estimated that he had voted at least fifty times in the House for the Wilmott Proviso, an amendment that would have banned slavery in the new territory acquired in the Mexican War.
I’m looking forward to reading the next volume.
Wilentz’s book covers the same history as Blumenthal’s book in essays on Lincoln, Andrew Jackson and Frederick Douglas. There’s also one on John Brown. Besides these, he writes about Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. He briefly touches on many others who can be classified as either egalitarian idealists or politicians who fought for freedom and equality. Throughout, his central point is that idealism by itself accomplishes nothing: only when joined to astute political manipulation can it take concrete form. Besides this, he challenges specific authors who have seen in men like Lincoln and Johnson sudden epiphanies that led them to do great and good things despite their basically rotten political nature. He argues strenuously that these men’s core beliefs in freedom and equality grew up naturally as they matured and rose to power, often at odds with other ideas and attitudes, but never appearing by magic at the singular moment.
Wilentz thinks that a deep seated American distrust of party politics, from the early founders like Washington and John Adams to the vast numbers of citizens who today claim to be independents, is fundamentally wrong headed. He thinks that partisanship, even as parties form and dissolve and change their spots, like the modern GOP, are essential to the progress that we have made since 1787. From 1860s and 70s Republicans, to the 1960s and 70s Democrats, he cites the ways powerful party leaders were able to pass such vital legislation as the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, the wage and hour laws, the progressive income tax, Social Security, the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. These are the changes that make a real difference in the lives of ordinary people, and we ought to be alarmed when politicians and judges begin to chip away at their protections, but we can only resist effectively by petitioning and protesting in ways that lead to concrete political action. Wilentz uses John Brown to argue that violent protest is generally counter-productive in American politics. The Homestead Strike is another example he gives to show how reactionary forces take any hint of violence (in that case, threats by anarchists) as a pretext for even more violent repression, to the great loss of those trying to achieve real gains.
Reading Wilentz’s broad depiction of the sweep of the American struggle for freedom and equality makes me want to go even deeper into these causes. I have loved Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson, despite his bias against the man, and as a high schooler I enjoyed delving into labor history, including one of my idealist heroes, Clarence Darrow, through such books as his own Attorney for the Damned (1957). I need to learn more about periods such as Reconstruction and about areas Wilentz does not discuss, like women’s rights. There is no lack of fascinating and inspiring history along these many and various paths.