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'A Self-Made Man' follows Abraham Lincoln from youth to political hustler

Blumenthal's new biography of Lincoln – the first of a multi-volume project – is engaging, informative, meandering.

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    A Self-Made Man:
    The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Vol. I, 1809-1849
    By Sidney Blumenthal
    Simon & Schuster
    576 pp.
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Only a few weeks after Abraham Lincoln was elected president on a Republican ticket in 1861, rebels fired on Fort Sumter and a bloc of Southern States seceded from the Union, precipitating the Civil War, the first and only such conflict any US president had ever encountered. The new president was suddenly faced with an array of problems no chief executive had ever faced, from a fractious press to a predatory black market to, not incidentally, the need to direct the US military to defeat the Southern armies in the field.

This was a fierce and unforgiving learning curve. It was the ultimate political education, but it lies well beyond the final pages of Sidney Blumenthal's new book A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1849. Readers wondering why they should pick up yet another Lincoln biography can rest assured that Blumenthal – whose resume includes high-profile gigs as journalist, author, film producer, and adviser to both Clintons – has turned out a book that is both engaging and informative, despite the fact that both its title and the subtitle are odd shades of untrue.

Despite the popular folklore that's grown up around him, Lincoln was not a self-made man politically but rather a thorough if maladroit creature of first the Illinois Whig Party and then the Illinois Republican Party machines. He campaigned conventionally for bigger political fish than himself, and he used his (admittedly self-taught) writing skills to churn out reams of conventional political agitprop. And since 1809 was the year of his birth in Kentucky, it can hardly be called the start of his political life.

Blumenthal rightly states that about Lincoln the budding lawyer that “he became a lawyer to advance himself as a politician,” but even in law he wasn't exactly self-made, having benefited from the crucial patronage of his well-connected first law partner John Stuart in Illinois in the late 1830s.

Blumenthal's book spends five chapters – over a hundred pages – on a lively, densely-researched history of Lincoln's pre-political life, his relationships with his parents, his early loves and mental development, and so on. The book touches ground by recounting Lincoln's first public speech, at the Springfield Lyceum in 1838, an event Blumenthal recounts with gusto.

But then we're off-topic again, with chapters containing lengthy discussions of John Quincy Adams and his fight against the pro-slavery Gag Rule, Lincoln's courtship of and marriage to Mary Todd, and, most bizarrely, an energetic history of the founding of Mormonism. The titanic populist struggles of legendary political figures like Clay and Calhoun are recounted at length. Even the incident of a narrowly averted duel between Lincoln and James Shields in 1842 gets several pages of background and dramatization. All excellent storytelling, but arguing that any of it has much to do with the political life of Abraham Lincoln is quite a stretch.

The first segment of "A Self-Made Man" deals very engagingly with some aspects of Lincoln's formative years, his law practice, his early adult friendships, and the slow building of his confidence as a public speaker, a process that began with that Lyceum speech, which Blumenthal characterizes as “the earliest template for the method of nearly all his future major speeches,” noting that he “never delivered a speech that did not have political intent.”

The book is full of thought-provoking observations about the factors that went into Lincoln's makeup (about his writing, for instance: “'Blood' dripped from Shakespeare's works, especially Macbeth, Lincoln's favorite, and it would drip endlessly from Lincoln's speeches”) and liberal with entertaining asides (one such gem: “There are few people who hate high-minded Bostonians more than swamp Yankees.”) There's the occasional banality like “He was settled but unsettled,” but for the most part, the book is enormously readable.

Blumenthal makes a very convincing case that Lincoln's celebrated debating rivalry with Stephen A. Douglas was in many ways the fundamental political founding of the man. “From his earliest days until the presidency, Lincoln measured himself against his rival and obsessive object of envy,” he writes. “If any man from Illinois would be president, it was Douglas. Lincoln's forward movement was always in pursuit of Douglas.” And yet the Lincoln-Douglas story doesn't commence in earnest until nearly 200 pages into a book purporting to be a political life of its subject.

"A Self-Made Man" is being billed as the first volume in what will be a sprawling multi-volume biography of Lincoln, hence its termination point in 1849, with Zachary Taylor newly installed as President and political hustler Lincoln busily lobbying for federal appointments. He succeeded on behalf of several of his friends but failed on his own behalf, perhaps because he wasn't exactly the most prepossessing individual in the capital city (Illinois Whig politician Major Nathaniel B. Wilcox remarked, “His whole appearance was decidedly shabby. He carried in his hands an old-fashioned carpet-sack, which added to the oddity of his appearance”).

He's leaving Washington empty-handed at the end of Blumenthal's book, headed for seven years in the out-of-office wilderness. Will the next book follow him there, recounting his adventures as a prairie lawyer, or will we jump forward to the US Senate years? Readers are in good hands either way.

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