In 1849, after serving one term in the U. S. Congress, Abraham Lincoln returned home to Springfield, Illinois, to resume his law practice. In retrospect, Lincoln portrayed himself during the years after his return as virtually retired from politics. But as an astute and well-connected political strategist, concerned about the future of the country, he also remained involved in public life. He and his law partner, William Herndon, had the best private library in town, subscribed to many newspapers and journals from around the country, and both regularly wrote anonymous editorials for a Whig Party newspaper. As Herndon pointed out about Lincoln, “He was always calculating, and always planning ahead. His ambition was a little engine that knew no rest.” In his magnificent Wrestling With His Angel: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Vol. 2, 1849-1856, Sidney Blumenthal explores in superbly researched and beautifully written detail the crucial period when “Lincoln’s public and private statements” began to reflect “a moderate politician with radical thoughts.” Events in Washington and elsewhere threatened to tear the country apart over the extension of slavery in the West. And the Whig Party, for years Lincoln’s political home, was collapsing and the Republican Party was being established.
Lincoln’s personal experience also shaped his thought. A turning point came in autumn of 1849 when he was in Kentucky, a state that was supposed to be an example to guide other Southern states to move slowly toward emancipation. Instead, he saw the ruthlessness of the pro-slavery forces crush the benevolent paternalism and gradual emancipation plans of Lincoln’s political hero, Henry Clay. Several months later the Compromise of 1850 passed the Congress and President Millard Fillmore proclaimed it a “permanent settlement” of the extension of slavery question. The landslide victory of Franklin Pierce in 1852 seemed to confirm this judgment. But not for long.
Excerpts from Lincoln’s speeches and other writings reflect his deep understanding of the racist undercurrents of his time and the strong tensions between and among various political groups. His outstanding abilities as a thinker and his elegant mode of expression are also revealed. The best example of this is a speech delivered in Springfield in 1854, almost 17,000 words in published form, probably the longest he ever delivered, which laid the foundation for his politics through 1860. Lincoln delivered the speech several times and in longer versions. It is an early (that is before the more celebrated Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858), devastating critique of Stephen A. Douglas’s defense of slavery and, among other points, presented his understanding that the founding generation tolerated slavery only by “necessity,” because it already existed and went to great lengths to limit it with the goal of ending it. The excerpts from the speech and Blumenthal’s masterly description and analysis of it make for great reading.
The first volume of Blumenthal’s projected four-volume biography, A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1849, was widely praised by Lincoln scholars and many other reviewers. This second volume, by a writer with years of experience as a political journalist and presidential advisor, is also extremely well done, and anyone interested in Lincoln’s political career will want to read it.