Magazine article The Washington Monthly

A Springfield Education: Sidney Blumenthal's Elegant Chronicle of Abraham Lincoln's Political Apprenticeship

Magazine article The Washington Monthly

A Springfield Education: Sidney Blumenthal's Elegant Chronicle of Abraham Lincoln's Political Apprenticeship

Article excerpt

The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln: A Self-Made Man, 1809-1849

by Sidney Blumenthal

Simon & Schuster, 576 pp.

Politicians have never been shy about writing about themselves, even when it seemed that all they could expect from the public was a polite nod. The Civil War era abounded in such political selfies, among them George W. Julian's Political Recollections 1840 to 1872, John Sherman's Recollections of Forty Years in the House, Senate and Cabinet, David Turpie's Sketches of My Own Times, Albert Riddle's Recollections of War Times: Reminiscences of Men and Events in Washington, 1860-1865, Alexander McClure's Recollections of Half a Century, and, of course, Ulysses S. Grant's Complete Personal Memoirs.

But from Abraham Lincoln, the central figure of nineteenth-century American politics, nothing autobiographical could be extracted except for two brief campaign sketches he grudgingly produced for John Locke Scripps and Jesse Fell. "There is not much of it, for the reason, I suppose, that there is not much of me," he explained. So, in Lincoln's case, the formula was reversed: he wrote next to nothing about himself, but the politicians wrote an abundance of volumes about him--Isaac Arnold's The History of Abraham Lincoln, and the Overthrow of Slavery (1866), Indiana Senator Albert J. Beveridge's Abraham Lincoln: 1809-1858 (1928), the Pennsylvania power broker Alexander McClure's Abraham Lincoln and Men of War Times (1892), the member of Parliament Lord Charnwood's Abraham Lincoln (1916), Congressman Paul Simon's Lincolns Preparation for Greatness: The Illinois Legislative Years (1972), and the presidential candidate George S. McGovern's Abraham Lincoln (2008).

The ongoing attraction of Lincoln for the political class is a remarkable phenomenon, especially considering that few political figures from a century and a half ago can hold out much in the way of practical political lessons. After all, Lincoln presided over a government that allotted him a White House staff of just six, functioned on a budget that (even at the height of the Civil War) consumed only 1.8 percent of GDP, employed only thirty-three people as the entire staff of the State Department, and was informed by only fifteen specialized bureaus (as opposed to 513 in 2010). The average American's exposure to the operations of national politics in i860 tended to occur at just two times--elections and mail delivery.

Nevertheless, the story of Lincoln has never seemed to have so powerful a hold, or to command the devotion of so many students and biographers, as today. And continuing the tradition of politicos, and not just academics, attempting serious Lincoln biography, Sidney Blumenthal presents us with a book (the first of a planned three-volume project) that takes the political Lincoln as its single, preoccupied theme.

Blumenthal will be best recognized as the onetime tiger of the Clinton administration--personal confidante to President Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, then senior advisor to Hillary Clinton during her 2008 bid for the Democratic nomination, and a paid consultant for the Clinton Foundation. This may seem like an odd fit for writing about the politics of the first Republican president. But the skeptical should drop their shields. This is a splendid book, and on a Lincolnian theme--the political Lincoln--that was in sagging need of a facelift.

Ever since Lincoln's death, Lincoln biography has followed two paths: the first, pioneered by Lincoln's law partner, William Herndon, looks to find a "real" Lincoln in the inner man. This has been no small task, for not only was Lincoln stinting in his autobiographical essays, he was also an intensely private man who kept no personal diary and limited his personal correspondence almost entirely to business matters. But Herndon had a treasure trove of personal observations of Lincoln to draw upon, and he assiduously acquired a wealth of reminiscences from more than 200 Lincoln contemporaries whom he tracked down and interviewed in the years after Lincoln's death. …

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