Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln
The 2016 Republican primary process led not simply to the selection of a person who has never before held elective or appointive office and who campaigns by insulting much of the party’s leadership, but also to a series of jarring shifts on economic, social, and security positions. Much as Americans think of their political system as a stagnant contest between two parties, great parties have succumbed in the past. Indeed, Sidney Blumenthal’s new four-volume Political Biography of Abraham Lincoln focuses on just such a process. In the first volume, A Self-Made Man, we can trace not just the early political life of Lincoln, but also the final phase of the Whig Party, which at the volume’s close is set for the cathartic developments that will tear the party apart, creating the field upon which the Republican Party would rise.
Sidney, how did you come to the topic of Lincoln? This is a well-plowed field in American history writing. There is an immense amount of published biographical material on Lincoln, and even a great deal of discussion of Lincoln’s politics. What brought you to this subject?
I’ve always been fixated on Lincoln, since I was a boy taken to Springfield from Chicago, where I grew up. I thought about writing a book on race and presidents, FDR through Reagan, and how the political parties had been transformed by the idea of race. I kept falling deeper and deeper into the past to get to the bottom of things and fell down a rabbit hole to Lincoln and decided to stay there. I went all the way to the beginning. It is said that there’s nothing new to say about Lincoln, but I believe there’s a lot to say, not only in terms of original interpretation but also material to find. Part of that is the result of new technology involved in the research. Whole university libraries have been put online in recent years—books that were hard to find are now easily accessible, as well as journal articles. At the same time I have unique experience as somebody who has lived long in Washington, as a journalist and having served in government, worked with the president in the White House, and been involved in campaigns and elections. I believe that I’m able to go through much of the material at a granular level and see things in it that many academic historians are unable to detect because they have not lived their lives in American politics as I have.
Did you also look at new primary materials?
I did. I’ve written four volumes through to the end, about a million words. I’ve been in the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and other repositories of original documents. I have all sorts of new materials that I know that I have unearthed, including relating to the assassination—but we’ll have to wait for 2019, when that volume is published.
Let’s start with a quotation from Lincoln you place right at the beginning: “I used to be a slave.” What did Lincoln mean by that? And why do you use that at the beginning of your book?
I’ve taken a statement that Lincoln used when he announced his new identity as a Republican in 1856: “I used to be a slave.” It’s a striking way to identify himself as human property. I believe that this statement tells us a lot about the self-made man and his self-making. He considered himself to have been held in bondage by his father, Thomas Lincoln, who himself was an oppressed man. Thomas Lincoln fled from Kentucky to Indiana to escape from slavery. He had to compete for wages against slaves; he was forced to go on slave patrols with the local militia; he had his farm stolen from him with the complicity of local authorities. And he belonged, as I discovered, to small emancipationist primitive Baptist churches in Kentucky, and that antislavery background filtered into Lincoln’s beliefs from the beginning. Lincoln felt he was oppressed by his father, sought to escape from his father; his father used him as, in effect, an indentured servant, collected his wages until he was twenty-one; he settled his family on a farm in Illinois and went his own way. His father considered reading a form of laziness and used to abuse him for it. Lincoln was protected by his stepmother. He was a curious boy; he wandered around; he found people with libraries and spent few weeks in a formal school. “I used to be a slave” is a statement of his self-conception and what he escaped from. Almost all of his abolitionists take the point of view of the pulpit and try to elicit outrage from their audience about the depredations of slavery and condemn the slaveholder. Lincoln takes another point of view; he sees things from the perspective of the slave. Lincoln was never an abolitionist, but he describes himself as naturally antislavery, which goes back to the roots of his family belonging to those churches and his escape from Kentucky, but Lincoln’s antislavery belief was also rooted in his own identity. So that statement is not only an astonishing one, for him to identify himself with the lowest of the low, but also highly revealing from someone who almost never talked about the details of his humiliating past of extreme poverty, ignorance, and abuse.
So you view this as essential to the political Lincoln as well?
The identity of Lincoln is completely connected to the political Lincoln, the man who became a professional party politician, the man who used the professional skills he acquired along the way to end slavery.
Right at the heart of this volume is a story of the fading and failure of the Whig Party. What was Lincoln’s relationship to the Whigs, and what role did he play in the party’s last stage and disintegration?
In this volume, he becomes a Whig. He grows up in the Whig Party. This party system is just in development. The Democrats are rejuvenated through the new party machinery created by Martin Van Buren in alliance with Andrew Jackson, and in Illinois by Lincoln’s perennial rival, Stephen A. Douglas—crucial to everything that happens in his life. Lincoln rises as a Whig, the opposition party led by Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. Lincoln models himself on Clay, who invents the phrase “self-made man” to describe his own rise from rags to riches and almost the presidency. The Whigs differ from the Democrats in believing in a positive role for government in economic development, in what we call infrastructure today, canals and roads and ultimately railroads, related to government policy, to encourage manufacturing through tariffs. This was a party of town, respectable people, and reform. Complex contradictory parties held together that often waged campaigns around no principles whatsoever other than spoils—“to the victor belong the spoils,” as William L. Marcy, who was New York Democratic boss and a member of the Jackson Kitchen Cabinet, said, and Lincoln believed in that too. So we see the creation of this political party that has northern and southern wings. What we see towards the end of this book are all the issues which will rip the Whig Party apart, with Lincoln caught in the center, as a result of the Mexican War. Lincoln opposes the Mexican War, believing it was fraudulently started based on made-up incidents where the US was attacked by Mexicans, which turned out to be untrue. He proposed the “Spot Resolutions” to see where the spot was, and was called “Ranchero Spotty” by Douglas, the derisive term “ranchero” being a reference to a Mexican guerilla, and “spotty” referring to the resolution. So Lincoln was an absurd terrorist, according to Douglas. The Mexican War happens. Huge territory is claimed: California, Texas is annexed, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming. The question is whether it will be slave or free.
That’s it, isn’t it? The Mexican view of these events is that it was all about slavery. This was a war of aggression by the Southerners to expand the territory available for slavery.
This is the view adopted by many American political leaders as well, including Senator Thomas Hart Benton. And Lincoln eventually adopts this view. This is seen as part of a grand plan, even a conspiracy, in Lincoln’s rhetoric, to create a vast empire of slavery, throughout the West, which annexes Cuba, the Caribbean, much of the balance of Mexico, and many other Latin countries. This was the view, and it was not incorrect. It was set in motion when John C. Calhoun, the great figure representing the slavocracy and the slave power, managed to insinuate himself as secretary of state during the John Tyler Administration, and set about distorting documents to create the impression that the British want to seize Texas as a free territory against slavery, falsely, and create a war fever that plays itself out in the administration of James K. Polk. Some of this has its contemporary resonance.
Was it Lincoln’s view that the Whig party failed because it lacked a comprehensive program, with basic values, with a platform?
Lincoln was elected to one term in the Congress. He began serving in the aftermath of the Mexican War. And these issues were raised in its aftermath. Lincoln voted for the Wilmot Proviso, which was a proposal that stipulated that all the territory gained from Mexico must remain free. He voted for it many times, but it never passed. Lincoln, attempting to create a consensus position on the antislavery side hammered out, in consultation with the leading abolitionists in the house a proposal for emancipation in the District of Columbia. It was aborted and never presented, but it was his first emancipation proclamation. This volume ends in 1849, when Lincoln ends his first term in the Congress and enters the political wilderness not knowing what’s going to happen. In 1854, led by Stephen A. Douglas as a senator, Congress passes and President Pierce signs the Kansas–Nebraska Act, opening up those territories to settlers who would decide for themselves whether each territory would be free or slave. And that of course opened up Bleeding Kansas, where settlers from each side poured in and began a pitched battle killing each other. So what happens with that is the Whig Party splits in northern and southern wings and is never reconciled. As the party comes apart at the seams, another political party forms based on opposition to immigration, the American Party, as in “Make America great again.” This party’s chief idea is that only native-born Protestants are qualified to hold public office. Lincoln sees that many members of the Whig Party are drawn to the Know Nothings, and in the next volume you’ll see Lincoln practicing the most subtle and complex politics in order to undermine, behind the scenes, the Know Nothings, in order to be able to forge a broad antislavery coalition that becomes the Republican Party out of the ruins of the Whig Party. So in this volume, Lincoln becomes a Whig and then ultimately faces the issues that will tell his party apart.
Let’s go back to Stephen Douglas. You write that Lincoln’s forward movement was always in pursuit of Douglas. Why “in pursuit”?
Stephen A. Douglas arrives from Vermont and transforms himself in Illinois. He is a self-made man. He rises higher and faster than Lincoln. They live in a very small world in Illinois. They are the two rivals from the beginning, from the 1830s. They debated on stages continually. Douglas was the co-owner and an editor of the main newspaper in Springfield. Lincoln was a co-editor of the chief Whig newspaper in Springfield. They fought wars with each other, literally, with each of their sides battling in the streets at night. At one point an editor was stabbed. Things went to court and eventually were settled. These were rough-and-tumble politics. Illinois was a largely Democratic state; it was the most racist state in the north. The only Whig district was around Springfield, where Lincoln lived, his political base. There was no northern Illinois to speak of. Chicago virtually did not exist until the 1850s, when it boomed because of the Illinois Central Railroad, which was created by Stephen A. Douglas through an act of Congress. He became very wealthy as a result because he owned all the right-of-way real estate along Lake Michigan in Chicago that he sold to the Illinois Central.
Is it an intellectual rivalry?
It’s a political rivalry but also an intellectual rivalry. It consummates not only in the senate campaign of 1858 with the famous debates, but also in the 1860 presidential contest. The key to the Lincoln-Douglas rivalry is that Douglas rises higher than Lincoln. He becomes a judge on the state Supreme Court. He becomes a senator, a very powerful senator. He runs at the age of thirty-nine for president in 1852. He is the rising man, the leader of a movement called Young America; he’s the coming man. Lincoln is left in the dust back in Illinois. Eventually, Lincoln gets himself elected in a safe Whig district to Congress. He does it through a manipulation of the convention system, edging out a competitor to take the seat. But Douglas is the master of Illinois; Lincoln is envious of him, derides him, and opposes him on many issues, economic issues involving a government role funding infrastructure, but also on the question of slavery. Douglas tries to insinuate himself to the Southerners, to win them over, but he never succeeds. Even though he is the owner also, as a senator from Illinois, of a large plantation in Mississippi, which his wife owned. Douglas is himself a slaveholder. He tries to play all angles against the middle, but he is so ambitious, so young, so supercharged that the Southerners don’t trust him. They believe he is out for himself and is never going to be one of them. Lincoln is still in Illinois. That is Lincoln’s great strength. Eventually Douglas has to return to Illinois to run, and Lincoln always remains his rival, stands up and confronts him over the Kansas–Nebraska Act. In his challenge of Douglas, Lincoln finds his winding path to national power.
What about Lincoln’s relationship with his wife, Mary Todd? You write, “There would have been no Lincoln without Mary. He remained smitten and with wonder that she had selected a ‘poor nobody.’” But of course history sees things differently. She has tended to be seen as a drag rather than a help in his career.
I take a different view of Mary Todd. We tend to look at her as someone who created embarrassing scenes for Lincoln, who was a kleptomaniac, who was ultimately declared insane and put in an asylum. He saw her as the most political woman he had ever seen. She came from a Southern upper-class family. Her father, Robert Todd, is a friend and ally of Henry Clay, who was Lincoln’s beau ideal. She has been to a finishing school. She speaks French. He is in awe of her; he breaks up with her; they reconcile and marry. Lincoln was an unsteady but a wildly ambitious personality. He had a series of breakdowns, some of them over his awful relations with the opposite sex, which he couldn’t figure out at all . . . that exacerbated his very sensitive feelings about his social inferiority and the idea that he was standing exposed before Springfield and the state and revealed to be nobody and nothing, just a pathetic bumpkin. In marrying her, he gains social respectability, social mobility, a family, a home, and a wife who is utterly devoted to his political advancement. She refers to their marriage as “our Lincoln party.” She pushes him constantly. When he aims for a lower office, he is doing himself a disservice, and she pushes him forward. She understands political roles, and she understands the social life of politics. She is there to play it with him. She makes Lincoln possible.
As you’ve been interviewed, you get some perfunctory questions about your book, but the interviews then devolve into questions about the Clinton emails and current politics.
Cable TV is full of hyperventilating about Hillary’s emails.
We can only have one issue a week.
The Chicago media interviews were very interesting, no emails, but talking about Lincoln instead. Maybe because he’s from Illinois. But some TV shows want to ask the most superficial questions and go straight to the emails, about which I don’t really comment. At Politics and Prose Bookstore I was followed by Republican trackers, paid agents of America Rising, an oppo group that has targeted me and other private citizens. Tracking has become part of campaigns—recording what a candidate says in public. But this is unique, tracking a private citizen at cultural and literary events. They stood up and sought to ask questions that were tendentious and calculated to negative comments about me, highly distorted and filled with falsehood. My response was to identify them as Republican trackers, ask them to give names, the organization they were from and how much they were paid. This was all young men: Does your mother know you’re out working for Donald Trump? It’s telling that today’s GOP is down to disrupting a discussion of the life of Abraham Lincoln.
Tell us about the next volume.
Volumes will appear every year in the spring through 2019. Next volume is Lincoln in the wilderness to the founding of the Illinois Republican Party, the collapse of the Whigs, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the rise of the antislavery coalitions. How he puts together the Illinois party. The next book goes to Gettysburg. Then the next book goes to the end of the war, assassination, and Reconstruction through 1876, covering what happens to the legacy of Lincoln without Lincoln.
That’s a theme we could carry forward to the current day.