'Wrestling with His Angel' follows Lincoln through his 'wilderness years'

Biographer Sidney Blumenthal finds a deeply fascinating story in an often overlooked period of Lincoln's life.

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    Wrestling with His Angel:
    The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1849-1856
    By Sidney Blumenthal
    Simon & Schuster
    608 pp.
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Sidney Blumenthal's multi-volume life of Abraham Lincoln, which began in 2016 with A Self-Made Man, continues with Wrestling with His Angel, a big book beautifully designed by Simon & Schuster,  covering the least likely part of Lincoln's life to attract the attentions of a biographer, the “wilderness years” that fill the time after the first exposure to national politics but before the return to the national stage.

Lincoln left Congress in 1849 and returned to Springfield, Illinois to practice law with his partner William Henry Herndon. The Whig Party to which he'd pledged his loyalty was fractured and on the brink of crisis, the country's politics were becoming increasingly feverous and violent on the question of slavery, and the doors to political advancement seemed to be closing one after another. Lincoln went back to Springfield having no idea whether or not he'd ever participate in national life again.

But the hunger was there. Herndon was fond of referring to Lincoln's ambition as a “little engine that knew no rest,” and there was very little meat for such an ambition to feed upon in the prosecution of a local law practice.  “Politics forgot about Lincoln,” Blumenthal writes, “but he did not forget about politics.”

In these pages, Blumenthal draws one vivid picture after another of these least-known years of Lincoln's life, years in which “he made his depression as well as every other feeling into instruments of self-discipline in a wilderness of political despair for a destiny he could not foretell.” Here we see Lincoln reading, Lincoln dealing with his family, and Lincoln reacting to the news of the world as it reached him, including the landslide victory that put Franklin Pierce in the US presidency in 1852, sinking the Whig Party and, through Pierce's signing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and his support for the Fugitive Slave Act, throwing gasoline on the flames of the American slavery debate. 

“A well-mannered Northern man with Southern sympathies, he was pliant under pressure,” Blumenthal writes of Pierce. “The grandiose ambitions and petty hatreds of others easily overwhelmed him as he turned to brandy for solace and [his Secretary of War] Jefferson Davis for guidance.”

It was a time of steadily-escalating political turmoil. “In the past, with one party arrayed against another, predictable partisanship prevailed from election to election,” Blumenthal writes. “But now the gyroscope of politics was smashed, the parties broken.” And while these tensions were filling the corridors of power, Lincoln was back in Illinois, sharpening his rivalry with Senator Stephen Douglas, the charismatic orator whose debates with Lincoln in 1858 would become the stuff of American political legend.

Douglas is in some ways the star of "Wrestling with His Angel"; he's magnificently, complexly portrayed throughout. For much of the period covered by Blumenthal's book, Lincoln saw Douglas as the winner in their rivalry, and – according to Herndon and others – the prospect agonized him, prompting many self-pitying outbursts about how horrible a thing it is for a man to have no impact on his own times.

The whole while that Lincoln was worrying about these things, he was growing, personally and politically, particularly on the question of slavery. Five days after John Brown and his rag-tag force killed five pro-slavery men in Kansas in May of 1856, Lincoln declared himself a member of the newly-founded Republican Party, and in 1858 he gave his famous “House Divided” speech on the besetting evil of his day and the great dangers he saw inherent in it. “By force of his character, mind, eloquence, he became our abolition leader,” a friend later wrote.

Herndon once gave Lincoln a biography of Edmund Burke, but he quickly grew impatient with it. “Biographies as generally written are not only misleading, but false.… The author of this life of Burke makes a wonderful hero out of his subject.… He is so faithful in his zeal and so lavish in praise of his every act that one is almost driven to believe that Burke never made a mistake or a failure in his life.” 

Readers of "Wrestling with His Angel" won't experience a similar frustration, or at least not to so great an extent. Blumenthal makes no secret of his affection for his subject; although intelligent and rigorous with its sources, this is a deeply sympathetic account of the Lincoln the man. But it's also unblinking in taking the measure of Lincoln the pragmatic politician, Lincoln the career politician whose personal ambition (that driving sense of competition with Douglas, for instance) lies at odds with the more standard hagiographies but fits perfectly with the epic, multi-faceted portrait Blumenthal is volume-by-volume assembling here.

"Wrestling with His Angel" ends on the closest thing a serious work of biography can come to a cliffhanger. Lincoln's political beliefs have been sharpened, and his political experience has grown enormously. It's a tribute to Blumenthal's art that he's managed to make a period in Lincoln's life that most biographers brush past in haste a deeply fascinating story in its own right.

 
 
 

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