Conversation — August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

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.


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“The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip,” Ronald Reagan said in 1989. He was speaking to a thousand British notables in London’s historic Guildhall, several months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Reagan proclaimed that the world was on the precipice of “a new era in human history,” one that would bring “peace and freedom for all.” Communism was crumbling, just as fascism had before it. Liberal democracies would soon encircle the globe, thanks to the innovations of Silicon Valley. “I believe,” he said, “that more than armies, more than diplomacy, more than the best intentions of democratic nations, the communications revolution will be the greatest force for the advancement of human freedom the world has ever seen.”

At the time, most everyone thought Reagan was right. The twentieth century had been dominated by media that delivered the same material to millions of people at the same time—radio and newspapers, movies and television. These were the kinds of one-to-many, top-down mass media that Orwell’s Big Brother had used to stay in power. Now, however, Americans were catching sight of the internet. They believed that it would do what earlier media could not: it would allow people to speak for themselves, directly to one another, around the world. “True personalization is now upon us,” wrote MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte in his 1995 bestseller Being Digital. Corporations, industries, and even whole nations would soon be transformed as centralized authorities were demolished. Hierarchies would dissolve and peer-to-peer collaborations would take their place. “Like a force of nature,” wrote Negroponte, “the digital age cannot be denied or stopped.”

Illustration (detail) by Lincoln Agnew
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Ihave had many names, but as a sniper I went by Azad, which means “free” or “freedom” in Kurdish. I had been fighting for sixteen months in Kurdish territory in northern Syria when in April 2015 I was asked to leave my position on the eastern front, close to the Turkish border, and join an advance on our southwestern one. Eight months earlier, we had been down to our last few hundred yards, and, outnumbered five to one, had made a last stand in Kobanî. In January, after more than four months of fighting street-to-street and room-by-room, we recaptured the town and reversed what was, until then, an unstoppable jihadi tide. In the battles since, we had pushed ­ISIS far enough in every direction that crossing our territory was no longer a short dash through the streets but a five-hour drive across open country. As we set out to the north, I could make out the snowy peaks in southern Turkey where they say Noah once beached his ark. Below them, rolling toward us, were the wide, grassy valleys and pine forests of Mesopotamia, the land between the Euphrates and the Tigris where our people have lived for twelve thousand years.

The story of my people is filled with bitter ironies. The Kurds are one of the world’s oldest peoples and, as pioneers of agriculture, were once among its most advanced. Though the rest of the world now largely overlooks that it was Kurds who were among the first to create a civilization, the evidence is there. In 1995, German archaeologists began excavating a temple at Göbekli Tepe in northern Kurdistan. They found a structure flanked by stone pillars carved with bulls, foxes, and cranes, which they dated to around 10,000 bce. At the end of the last Ice Age, and seven thousand years before the erection of Stonehenge or the pyramids at Giza, my ancestors were living together as shamans, artists, farmers, and engineers.

Fighters of the YJA-STAR, the women’s force in the PKK, Sinjar, Iraq, November 2015 (detail)
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To get oriented here is difficult. The light is flat because the sky is overcast. The sun’s weak rays create only a few anemic shadows by which to judge scale and distance. Far-off objects like mountain peaks have crisp edges because the atmosphere itself is as transparent as first-water diamonds, but the mountains are not nearly as close as they seem. It’s about negative-twelve degrees Fahrenheit, but the wind is relatively calm, moving over the snow distractedly, like an animal scampering.

[caption id="attachment_271890" align="aligncenter" width="690"]True-color satellite image of Earth centered on the South Pole during winter solstice © Planet Observer/Universal Images Group/Getty Images. True-color satellite image of Earth centered on the South Pole during winter solstice © Planet Observer/Universal Images Group/Getty Images.[/caption]

Four of the six people living here are in their tents now, next to their cookstoves, two by two, warming up and preparing their suppers. I’m the fifth of the group, almost motionless at the moment, a hundred yards south of the tent cluster, kneeling on a patch of bluish ice in the midst of a great expanse of white. I’m trying to discern a small object entombed there a few inches below the surface. Against the porcelain whites of this gently sloping landscape, I must appear starkly apparent in my cobalt blue parka and wind pants. I shift slowly right and left, lean slightly forward, then settle back, trying to get the fluxless sunlight to reveal more of the shape and texture of the object.

A multiple-exposure photograph (detail) taken every hour from 1:30 pm on December 8, 1965, to 10:10 am on December 9, 1965, showing the sun in its orbit above the South Pole, Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station © Georg Gerster/Panos Pictures
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In all sincerity, I like Americans a lot; I’ve met many lovely people in the United States, and I empathize with the shame many Americans (and not only “New York intellectuals”) feel at having such an appalling clown for a leader.

However, I have to ask—and I know what I’m requesting isn’t easy for you—that you consider things for a moment from a non-American point of view. I don’t mean “from a French point of view,” which would be asking too much; let’s say, “from the point of view of the rest of the world.”On the numerous occasions when I’ve been questioned about Donald Trump’s election, I’ve replied that I don’t give a shit. France isn’t Wyoming or Arkansas. France is an independent country, more or less, and will become totally independent once again when the European Union is dissolved (the sooner, the better).

Illustration (detail) by Ricardo Martínez

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The prepositions you’re most likely to encounter after the title of a poem are “for” or “to” and sometimes “after”—“for my daughter”; “to Bobby”; “after Pound”; etc. They signify dedication, address, homage, imitation. In the recent poems of Fred Moten, we encounter “with,” a preposition that denotes accompaniment. The little difference makes a big difference, emphasizing collaboration over the economy of the gift, suggesting that the poet and his company are fellow travelers, in the same time zone, alongside each other in the present tense of composition. (Given Moten’s acclaimed critical work on jazz, the “with” is immediately evocative of musical performance, e.g., “Miles Davis with Sonny Rollins.”) Not all “withs” are the same—there is a different intimacy in the poem “fifty little springs,” which is “with aviva,” Moten’s wife’s Hebrew name (which means springtime), than there is in “resistances,” which is “with” a critic and an artist, interlocutors of Moten’s. (The poem “13. southern pear trees” has no preposition after the title, but is excerpted from another responding to the work of Zoe Leonard, and so is still a work of fellowship.) The scale of that “with” can be small (“with aviva, as if we were all alone”) or vast (“with everybody we don’t know”), but either way the poem becomes an instance of alongsidedness instead of belatedness; the poems request, with that subtle prepositional shift, that we think of ourselves as participants in the production of meaning and not mere recipients of someone else’s eloquence.

“Untitled,” 1989, by Zoe Leonard © Zoe Leonard (detail)

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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