The third of a projected five-volume political biography, this one dealing robustly with Lincoln’s political ascent, ending with his election to the presidency in 1860.
Blumenthal—who has served as a senior adviser to both Bill and Hillary Clinton and the Washington editor for the New Yorker—has published two earlier volumes in his series (Wrestling With His Angel, 2017, etc.). Here, the author continues to establish himself as the definitive chronicler of Lincoln’s political career. The years 1856-1860 were tumultuous ones in American history, and Blumenthal astutely examines many seminal events: slavery’s fracture of the country, the 1856 assault on Sen. Charles Sumner, the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates, John Brown’s deadly attacks at Pottawatomie Creek, 1856, and Harpers Ferry, 1859, Lincoln’s transformative Cooper Union speech in 1860. Some crucial characters appear throughout, including Frederick Douglass, Emerson and Thoreau, Dred Scott, and John Wilkes Booth, who was present at Brown’s hanging and at some of Stephen A. Douglas’ presidential campaign appearances. Some facts will surprise readers with only a modest knowledge of Lincoln. For example, he didn’t like to be called “Abe” (he preferred “Lincoln”); listeners were sometimes put off by his voice, which could be high and squeaky; and he was masterful behind the scenes of his campaigns—he was, Blumenthal reminds us continually, a politician. Some will probably be surprised to learn that he did not leave his home in Springfield during the entire campaign and that he received less than 40 percent of the popular vote. The Democratic Party had split—North and South—thus assuring Lincoln’s victory. Blumenthal’s explorations of all of these elements are stunningly thorough, both wide-angled and microscopic. He quotes from newspapers, books, speeches, congressional transcripts, and numerous other sources. At the beginning, he includes a timeline of major events and cast of major characters.
As essential as any political biography is likely to be.