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Sidney Blumenthal, Wrestling With His Angel: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, vol. 2, 1849–1856. Simon & Schuster, 608 pages, index, illustrations, $35.00.

The second volume of Sidney Blumenthal’s multivolume general Lincoln biography has now appeared. Wrestling With His Angel examines the years 1849–1856.

New single-volume studies of specialized Lincoln topics are familiar, but a multivolume general Lincoln biography is a rarity.

The current book is authoritative, the author’s knowledge of the subject being enhanced by his personal experience in politics, including a stint as an adviser to President Bill Clinton. Today’s political controversies differ from those of Lincoln’s time, but motivations and human nature are the same in the twenty-first century as in Lincoln’s era. Blumenthal’s participation in modern political struggle serves him well when describing experiences of Lincoln and colleagues.

Blumenthal has organized his book as a collection of documented essays, each focusing on a particular topic and comprising one chapter. The author’s wry humor peeks out from chapter titles inspired by works from assorted political leaders: “The Art of the Deal,” “The Consequences of the Peace,” “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Slavery,” titles seemingly deriving from works produced by Donald Trump, John Maynard Keynes, and Vladimir Lenin respectively. Each chapter from Blumenthal describes part of the environment in which Lincoln’s actions occurred. Taken as a whole, these essays demonstrate the depth of knowledge Lincoln needed to compete successfully with his rivals and opponents.

Blumenthal even sees political impact in Lincoln’s efforts at self-education, such as his study of Euclid producing “a series of ironclad logical proofs on the geometry of slavery.” Blumenthal notes that Lincoln was able to sweep aside the Slave Power’s portrayal of “dutiful masters and grateful slaves bound together in an ideal tyranny for the common good,” with Lincoln instead arguing, in Blumenthal’s words, that “protecting the rights of whites required recognizing the humanity of blacks.” Blumenthal portrays Lincoln as a mainstream politician seeking to demonstrate that regardless of moral questions raised by slavery, voters’ self-interest required them to fight the institution.

Blumenthal presents politicians of Lincoln’s time in ways easily understandable to contemporary readers. The author notes William Seward’s argument that the federal government obeyed the will of one percent of the population. And Blumenthal quotes U.S. Senator Henry Foote of Mississippi: “In less than a twelvemonth after Mr. Pierce’s induction into the Presidency every man of solid understanding . . . became satisfied of his utter incompetency . . . , and honest men everywhere were filled with mingled amazement and disgust at nearly all that was from time to time reported to them as occurring under the sinister auspices which clustered around him.” Blumenthal describes a menacing Jefferson Davis taking on a role as Acting President with Pierce’s complicity. And Blumenthal says U.S. Sen. John C. Calhoun “cast a malediction. He offered no evidence, but only conclusions. His speech was the antithesis of a factual presentation from which could be adduced certain conclusions. . . . His bleak insight was confirmed by his life’s disappointing experience and the history of the country, which to him had become one and the same twisted timber.”

Grimly, Blumenthal describes ignorant and incompetent persons unqualified to hold offices entrusted to them by the grace of American democracy, who brought on a war: “Authors of the catastrophe entered a dark passage by choice and design, with little regard for the possibility of miscalculation, or arrival of the unexpected.”

Writing a single book, let alone a four-volume epic, strains any author. All the more so for Blumenthal, who worked without research assistants, while participating in politics at an elite level. In those circumstances his interest in Lincoln, and his depth of understanding (anchored in primary sources and notable secondary ones), is astonishing. His notes demonstrate that the Internet has come of age for serious scholarly studies. Archival and printed sources that were nearly inaccessible when I began studying Lincoln are now just a few keystrokes away from researchers.

Admittedly, microscopic examination of any work having such scope may reveal an inconsequential flaw and, the field of scholarly Lincoln research being competitive, perhaps someone will use the occasional trivial glitch to argue that Blumenthal has stumbled somewhere. But even if an occasional passage in his four volumes falls short of perfection, the two volumes he has produced so far are abundant in excellence. They are well worth perusal by readers interested in the broad Lincoln story and who want to know more than a single general volume can provide.
Really abhor Blumenthal's politics but I give him his due, he is a very talented writer.
I agree with Jerry here.

Fancy writing often conceals what really happened in the past. As such, Blumenthal seems to use his "wry humor" to avoid seeing the times in which Lincoln lived, as the nineteenth century German historian Leopold Von Ranke put it, "wie es eigentlich gewesen ist," that is, as they actually were, in favor of making them fit some modern political interpretation. Nineteenth century Americans did not see their political problems from the perspective of twenty-first century historians. When we try to make them do so, we shift from history to propaganda. There is an awful lot of that, both in and out of the Surratt Society, and especially on the topic of Lincoln, one suspects.
How the heck did the Surratt Society get dragged into this?

I think I posted several years ago that I had lunch one day with Mr. Blumenthal and Terry Alford. Very interesting pair, and two authors who hold their cards very close to their chest. After two hours of trying to coax an opinion out of Mr. Blumenthal as to the assassination aspect, I came away with nothing. I hope I live long enough to read the volume that contains his interpretation of the deed.

I can say that he was/is very devoted to both of the Clintons. I was hoping to see more of his testimony in the Congressional hearings regarding Mrs. Clinton, but I don't think he got much press time.
Blumenthal will be appearing at the Gaithersburg, MD, Book Festival on May 20 to talk about his second book. C-Span will be broadcasting live. (I will be on a panel there as well, at a different time and sans C-Span.)
Susan, What panel will you be on?
(05-17-2017 10:36 AM)Susan Higginbotham Wrote: [ -> ](I will be on a panel there as well, at a different time and sans C-Span.)

Kudos, Susan!
(05-17-2017 11:06 AM)Gene C Wrote: [ -> ]Susan, What panel will you be on?

I'm going to be on a panel with Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamole at 3:15 p.,. They will be discussing their historical novel about Martha Jefferson, America's First Daughter, and I of course will be discussing Hanging Mary . But you'll have to show up in person to hear the three of us.

Sidney Blumenthal will be giving his talk at 2:15 p.m.

There will be quite a few authors there discussing a wide variety of books--hope some of you can make it!
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