Lincoln Plays to Win

Article excerpt

Byline: Sidney Blumenthal

Some consider politics a dirty word. But the 16th president was a master of political ruthlessness for the sake of the highest ideals.

The latest Lincoln boom--kicking off with the bicentennial of his birth in 2009 and the continuing sesquicentennial of the Civil War--shows no sign of abating. It may not even reach its apogee with the release immediately post-election of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, a biopic starring Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role. Spielberg, according to a source familiar with the production, has deliberately withheld the film until the current, divisive presidential campaign is over in order to prevent Lincoln from being seized upon to score political points.

But lifting Lincoln above the fray doesn't remove him from politics. While the political Lincoln may be difficult for us to acknowledge at a time when politics and partisan commitments are widely denigrated, Lincoln's presidency demonstrates that partisanship and political ruthlessness can be used to advance the highest ideals. And there were no clearer cases than during his 1864 battle for reelection (without which the slave-owning South would almost certainly have triumphed) and subsequent effort to pass the 13th Amendment, which at long last purged slavery from the Constitution. In the end, Lincoln became the master of events because he was the master of politics.

The mythology of Lincoln as too noble for politics began at the moment of his death, with his body sprawled across a small bed in a house across from Ford's Theatre, where he was shot. At the president's last breath, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton famously pronounced, "Now he belongs to the ages." Every age since has invented its Lincoln. Martyred on Good Friday, Lincoln the Christ has rivaled Lincoln the Common Man and Lincoln the Idealist in America's collective imagination.

The historical truth reveals one of the most astute professional politicians the country has produced. Many of Lincoln's contemporaries viewed him as little more than a provincial hack--"a vulgar village politician," as James Gordon Bennett's New York Herald put it. But they learned not to underestimate his political abilities. "He was the deepest, the closest, the cutest, and the most ambitious man American politics has produced," observed Gustavus Fox, his assistant secretary of the Navy. "Lincoln was a supreme politician," wrote Charles A. Dana, his assistant secretary of War. "He understood politics because he understood human nature."

The self-made man transformed himself through relentless political aspiration. In the words of his law partner William H. Herndon, "Politics were his Heaven, and his Hades metaphysics." From his first day as a state legislator to his last as president, he was in the middle of the dealmaking, or what was then called "log-rolling." Running for the legislature at the age of 23, he was unrelenting in his aspiration to higher office. "His ambition was a little engine that knew no rest," said Herndon. Lincoln became the Whig floor leader in the Illinois Legislature at 27 and was the state's leading Whig politician until he emerged as the unifying figure at the founding convention of the Illinois Republican Party in 1856.

Once he reached the White House, his survival and that of the nation depended on his political skill. Lincoln never believed that politicians were unsavory creatures he was compelled to associate with out of unfortunate necessity. He was not a plebeian saint who withheld himself from the give-and-take of the political game; neither did he feel it was a sordid distraction from his higher calling. He loved the relationships of politics--the fraternity, friendship, and humor. He badgered journalists for gossip they didn't report. If politics was his Heaven, it was also his school. He entered every legislative chamber and saloon, every political gathering and social party, every backroom and courtroom as a potentially invaluable learning experience. …