A country bitterly divided, dealing with issues of demagoguery, nativism and political dysfunction. That could describe the current state of national affairs, but Sidney Blumenthal says those very conditions produced arguably the nation’s greatest president: Abraham Lincoln.
Blumenthal’s new book is called “All the Powers of Earth: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln,” and it’s the third volume in a five-book series on Lincoln, covering his rise from obscurity to the presidency during the years 1856 to 1860.
A Chicago native, Blumenthal served as the former senior adviser to President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton. He has reported and written for The Washington Post, The New Yorker and The New Republic.
He joins us in discussion.
Below, an excerpt from the book.
In 1850, the Union was proclaimed to have been saved again in a great compromise that removed slavery as a controversy from national politics. President Millard Fillmore declared it nothing less than “the final settlement.” The issue tearing the country apart, whether the vast territory conquered in the Mexican War would be slave or free, was no longer to be a matter of debate. “We have been carried in safety through a perilous crisis,” Franklin Pierce announced at his inauguration on March 4, 1853.
The Compromise of 1850 admitted Texas as a slave state and California a free one, and avoided determining the status of New Mexico until far into the future. Only a few agitators trying to shield fugitive slaves from being returned to their masters under the new federal law continued to be nuisances. Slavery as a question that would divide the country was now safely consigned to the past as it had once before.
Most importantly, this new compromise left sacrosanct the Compromise of 1820, the Missouri Compromise, the original “final settlement.” The Missouri crisis had aroused all the issues and arguments revived in the crisis in the aftermath of the Mexican War. The admission of Missouri as a state would increase the proslavery bloc in the Senate to a four-seat majority. Its admittance would also establish a precedent for admitting further Western states as slave states. The Northern objection was mirrored in Southern fears that the entire West would be denied to slavery and the balance of power inevitably shifted. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams wrote in his diary that the Missouri problem was “a flaming sword . . . a mere preamble—a title page to a great tragic volume.” He believed it was based in the Constitution’s “dishonorable compromise with slavery,” a “bargain between freedom and slavery” that was “morally vicious, inconsistent with the principles upon which alone our revolution can be justified.” He prophesied that “the seeds of the Declaration are yet maturing” and that its promise of equality would become “the precipice into which the slave- holding planters of his country sooner or later much fall.” In the Senate, the Southerners’ anxiety that slavery might be prohibited in the territories assumed a hostility congealed into ideology against the egalitarian premise of the Declaration of Independence. Senator Nathaniel Macon of North Carolina, the former Speaker of the House, posed the question, “A clause in the Declaration of Independence has been read declaring that ‘all men are created equal’; follow that sentiment and does it not lead to universal emancipation?” The Declaration, Macon stated, “is not part of the Constitution or of any other book” and there was “no place for the free blacks in the United States.” Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky managed to hammer together a narrow majority for a compromise that brought in Maine as a free state to balance the slave state of Missouri and established a line restricting slavery north of 36°31’ latitude excepting Missouri. The debate inspired a sense of panic in Thomas Jefferson retired at Monticello. “This momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union.”
Jefferson’s nightmare hung over the Senate debate of the Compromise of 1850, filled with frightful images of death, premonitions of catastrophe, and curses of doom if slavery were allowed to persist as a vital issue. The Great Triumvirate of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun, the representative political men of their age, hurled lightning bolts from their Olympian heights. Henry Clay, young Abraham Lincoln’s “beau ideal of a statesman,” who invented the power of the Speaker of the House, who as a senator crafted the Compromise of 1820, who served as secretary of state, and who was nearly elected president, warned that the nation stood “at the edge of the precipice before the fearful and leap is taken in the yawning abyss below, which will inevitably lead to certain and irretrievable destruction.” Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, the Godlike Daniel, the voice of “liberty and Union, one and inseparable, now and forever,” whose framed picture hung in Lincoln’s law office, cautioned, “Secession! Peaceable secession! Sir, your eyes and mine are never destined to see that miracle. The dismemberment of this vast country without convulsion! . . . Sir, he who sees these States, now revolving in harmony around a common center, can expect to see them quit their places and fly off without convulsion, may look the next hour to see the heavenly bodies rush from their spheres and jostle against each other in the realms of space without producing a crash of the universe.” John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, whose stunning career included every office—congressman, senator, secretary of war, vice president, secretary of state—but the one he coveted most—president of the United States—sat wrapped wraithlike in a black cape on the Senate floor. The great nullifier, who insisted the states had preeminent authority over the federal government, objected to any compromise that would thwart the extension of slavery anywhere in the country, an “injustice” which he called the “oppression” of the South. “No, sir,” he prophesied, “the Union can be broken.” Calhoun’s acolyte, Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, in opposing the admission of California as a free state, threatened, “If sir, this spirit of sectional aggrandizement, or if gentlemen prefer, this love they bear for the African race, shall cause the disruption of these states, the last chapter of our history will be a sad commentary upon the justice and the wisdom of our people.” Calhoun died less than a month after his final appearance in the Senate. Clay and Webster were dead within two years. The old order passed. By then Secretary of War Jefferson Davis was the power behind the president.
Two years earlier, in 1848, a different sort of warning was delivered in the House of Representatives from a backbench congressman, Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, in a bloodcurdling speech that attempted to get to the root of the crisis created by the Mexican War. Lincoln called himself “a Proviso man,” after the Wilmot Proviso, an act that would prohibit slavery in all the seized territory, which he voted for numerous times but that never passed the Congress. Opening the West to slavery had roiled politics for a decade. In 1844, Lincoln had supported Henry Clay’s presidential campaign against the annexation of Texas, which Clay called “wicked.” Clay lost to James K. Polk of Tennessee, who launched the Mexican War that gained territory that would become the states of California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming. The balance of political power between North and South, slave states and free, hung on whether slavery would be extended into what was called the Mexican Cession or halted in its tracks.
Lincoln the “Proviso Man” rose to challenge the narrative of the war in order to undermine the legitimacy of slavery extension. He insisted that the origin of the war was fraudulent and demanded the evidence for the “spot” where it began. Lincoln the devotee of Shakespeare described President Polk as a Macbeth-like despot, “deeply conscious” of his guilt and stained by blood he could not wipe away—“he feels the blood of this war, like the blood of Abel, is crying to Heaven against him . . . and trusting to escape scrutiny, by fixing the public gaze upon the exceeding brightness of military glory—that attractive rainbow, that rises in showers of blood—that serpent’s eye, that charms to destroy.” Polk’s message on the war that had opening the issue of the extension of slavery, said Lincoln, was “the half insane mumbling of a fever-dream.”