‘A Self-Made Man’

A SELF-MADE MAN: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1849. By Sidney Blumenthal. Simon and Schuster. 576 pages. $35.

The first of a multivolume biography, this compelling book tells what might be to some readers a familiar tale of Lincoln’s early years, but they will find that story cast in an intriguing new light.

Blumenthal concentrates on all that went into Lincoln’s preparation for political leadership during his first 40 years.

Until he was 21, Lincoln worked in servitude to his father, who often hired him out to neighbors and garnished all his hard-earned wages.

“I used to be a slave,” Lincoln later remarked, by which he meant he was not free to choose his employment and enjoy the fruits of his labor.

Everything that became of Lincoln flowed out of this resentment: his determination to educate himself, his aspirations for status as a lawyer and politician, and, above all, his abhorrence of slavery.

Lincoln’s early thirst for knowledge was born of an ambition to transcend his fate as the son of a luckless dirt farmer. Young Lincoln was fascinated with Shakespeare and the Bible, but Blumenthal emphasizes it was the works of radical free thinkers such as Tom Paine (“The Age of Reason”) and Constantine de Volney (“The Ruins”) that informed his political education.

In Paine and Volney, young Lincoln learned about the insidious delusions of religious dogma, the evils of slavery and tyranny and man’s capacity for reason and progress, ideas that sustained everything he stood for as a future leader.

Though Lincoln learned from the Bible and from the antislavery sentiments of Baptist congregations in his neighborhood, he remained a religious skeptic. Lincoln was an “infidel,” his critics would say, and he was. For Lincoln, religious dogma and superstition were part of the society he wanted to escape.

Though celebrated in 1860 as the humble rail-splitter, young Lincoln sought jobs as a storekeeper and lawyer to escape the drudgery of manual labor. Lincoln’s law practice became another means of honing his political skills.

In hundreds of courtroom trials across rural Illinois, both as observer and performer, Lincoln learned to marshal evidence, construct logical arguments and employ his sharp wit and humor to win judicial favor and best his trial adversaries.

Lincoln’s marriage in 1842 to Mary Todd, a Southern belle from a wealthy and politically eminent family in early Illinois, was also a strategic element of his political ascendance. The marriage awarded the status he craved, but more than that: Mary became an indispensable political partner.

Blumenthal’s Mary Lincoln, isn’t the crazed, jealous woman so often depicted but, rather, a smart, strong-minded woman with a savvy grasp of politics and an abiding faith in her husband’s political future. As for Lincoln, he is portrayed as a proto-feminist who respected Mary’s counsel at a time when women were supposed to keep their opinions on politics to themselves.

Lincoln’s concern for women’s rights is also evident in a fascinating chapter on the Mormon War in Illinois. Fleeing persecution in New York and Ohio, the Mormons made Nauvoo, Ill., the seat of their rapidly growing empire, and they allied with powerful Democrats, including Stephen Douglas, Lincoln’s future rival.

Lincoln and his fellow Whigs viewed Joseph Smith as a tyrannical charlatan who was setting up an anti-republican theocracy and using religion to dupe young women into “celestial marriage” (polygamy), which Lincoln recognized as a thinly disguised form of sexual slavery.

The Mormon fracas is one of several examples skillfully employed to drive home the author’s central point that from an early age Lincoln developed a moral and political revulsion toward slavery. His antagonism drew on something more than humanitarian empathy for enslaved Africans; slavery violated Lincoln’s core values of freedom, opportunity and self-rule. To be a slave was the opposite of the self-made man.

As a politician, however, he was not always sure what exactly must be done to end slavery. During his term in Congress (1848-49) he took every opportunity to register his opposition to slavery and to President Polk’s war with Mexico, which he and other Whigs saw as a deceitful gambit to expand slavery.

The volume ends with Lincoln at the end of his term in Congress. Had it not been for Mary’s staunch opposition, he might have gone off to Oregon Territory to take a patronage job. Instead, he returned to Springfield and to retreat into obscurity for nearly a decade before arriving on the national scene as the formidable voice of the new Republican Party.

As the current season of political tumult passes before us, with Donald Trump ascending to the leadership of a very different Republican Party, Sidney Blumenthal’s magnificent biography of the GOP’s first and most revered president beckons readers, in Lincoln’s memorable words, to ponder “where we now are ... and whither we are tending.”

There are other Lincoln biographies filled with memorable anecdotes about this remarkable man, but what distinguishes Blumenthal’s work is his trenchant analysis of Lincoln’s political education.

This is the improbable story of a man who rose out of the most humble of circumstances and prepared himself to lead a nation, not by aggrandizement of wealth, not by ambition for power as such, but by self-education in the basic principles of democracy and by inculcating in himself the better angels of our nature.

Reviewer Don H. Doyle is McCausland Professor of History at University of South Carolina and the author of “The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War” (Basic, 2015).