The Emergence of Abraham LincolnRoundup
tags: Abraham Lincoln, Sidney Blumenthal, 1619 Project
Sidney Blumenthal is the author of All the Powers of Earth, The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln 1856-1860, A Self-Made Man, and Wrestling with His Angel, the first three volumes in his five-volume biography. He is a former assistant and senior adviser to President Bill Clinton and senior adviser to Hillary Clinton. He has been a national staff reporter for the Washington Post, Washington editor and writer for the New Yorker, and a contributor to the Washington Monthly.
The following is adapted from a speech the author gave at the Lincoln Forum in Gettysburg on November 17 at which he was awarded its first book prize.
It’s always important to know about Lincoln, and today it is urgent. As Lincoln said in his “House Divided” speech, “If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it.”
The house divided, the incitement of demagogues, appeals to anti-immigrant nativism and racism, a reactionary Supreme Court, a dysfunctional presidency, and the breakup of the old parties—all of these Lincoln confronted in his rise to the presidency.
No one else in the crisis combined Lincoln’s political skill, his force of logic and argument, his sense of when to step forward and when not to step forward prematurely, the clarity of his principles, and his subtlety and practicality in achieving them. At every step of his way, in order to destroy the greatest concentration of wealth and political power in the country—the Slave Power—he had to create new instruments of power, from the Illinois Republican Party to the Union Army. Through his leadership he had to summon “all the powers of earth” to save democracy and overthrow slavery.
Lincoln begins in virtual obscurity, forgotten after one term in the Congress, roaming county courthouse to courthouse in the Eighth Judicial District of central Illinois in the company of an entourage of traveling lawyers like an itinerant troupe of Victorian Shakespearean actors. Lincoln is mainly pressing the claims of small debt collectors or defending against them and studying Euclid’s geometry at night by candlelight.
Suddenly, the crisis begins. In 1854, he was, as he said, “aroused…as he had been never before.” His perpetual rival since he had entered Illinois politics, Senator Stephen A. Douglas, a master demagogue who envisioned himself as the living spirit of the age, desperate to win the Democratic presidential nomination, wanted the credit for sponsoring the first transcontinental railroad, which would have to be constructed across the territory of the great plains, not yet organized into states. Douglas cut the deal in the Kansas-Nebraska Act with the great Southern beasts of the Congress and President Franklin Pierce to erase the Missouri Compromise prohibiting slavery above a certain northern latitude. Whether the territories and eventually states would be free or slave, said Douglas, would be up to the settlers. They could have slavery if they wanted. He called it “popular sovereignty.” Douglas believed his calculated indifference to slavery squared a political circle. Instead, his plan set off the mini-civil war of “Bleeding Kansas.”
Lincoln still thought of himself as a member of the Whig Party, which had split north and south with a sizeable section drifting into the anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party, also known as the American Party. That party’s platform demanded that only native-born Protestants should hold public office. Lincoln didn’t join the Republican Party at first. It was not yet a party. The people calling themselves Republicans in 1854 in Illinois were a small group of radical abolitionists. The Free Soil Party, a broader antislavery organization than those calling themselves Republican, had attracted six percent of the vote in Illinois in the previous presidential election of 1852.
State by state the Republican Party gradually organized, a fragile coalition of former Whigs, Democrats, abolitionists, Free Soilers, and some errant Know Nothings, held together on one common issue: opposition to the extension of slavery.
Now, the prelude to the Illinois Republican convention, ten days that shook the nation: On May 19thand 20th Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, the abolitionist champion, delivers a jeremiad on “The Crime Against Kansas.” On May 21st proslavery Missouri Ruffians sack the free state town of Lawrence, Kansas. On May 22th Sumner is caned nearly to death while seated at his desk on the floor of the Senate by Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina. To this day Sumner’s caning has been described as a response to his alleged personal insults of Southern members of the Senate. But Sumner’s real offense, his unforgiveable offense, was openly, repeatedly and relentlessly to discuss the ultimate forbidden subject, the rape culture of slavery, which was also personal to the Southerners.
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