Detailed history traces Lincoln’s political evolution

“Wresting with His Angel: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, 1849-1856” by Sidney Blumenthal (at right), Simon & Schuster, 581 pages, $35 

By Repps Hudson, Special to the Jewish Light

In this second of his planned four-volume set of books on the evolution of the thinking of Abraham Lincoln, Sidney Blumenthal tracks the frustrations and intellectual struggles of the nation’s 16th president as he tries to strike a balance between his political ambitions and the ever-present issue of slavery, particularly as it could spread into the American West from the South.

Blumenthal has given readers much to consider as he traces Lincoln’s thoughts through contemporary newspaper articles, letters and diary entries. As serious historians and Lincoln buffs know well, “The Great Emancipator” held varying and sometimes contradictory views about the fate of nearly 4 million African slaves in the South, as well as the border states, including Missouri.

Lincoln realized, as did many who opposed slavery, that integrating Africans in American society in every way – making them equal under the law – would be an enormous challenge should they ever be freed.

At times, he favored the colonization movement, returning blacks and former slaves to Africa. At other times, he agonized over ways to keep the Southern slave states in the union as he deeply opposed the act of one human being enslaving another.


Blumenthal is interested in the evolution of Lincoln’s thought in the highly significant 1850s, as the United States headed toward civil war. Citizens debated and quarreled in Congress, newspapers, speeches and rallies over whether slavery, as many in the Southern states wanted, would be introduced and supported by federal law in areas that would eventually enter the union. The to-be-settled territories of Kansas and Nebraska figure prominently in this debate.

This book ends in 1856, two years before Lincoln, of the newly created Republican Party, challenged Sen. Stephen Douglas, Democrat of Illinois, for his seat. That race was defined largely by the seven Lincoln-Douglas debates held in 1858 in each of the seven congressional districts of Illinois. The debates framed the fundamental issues of the day as Douglas defended the right of enfranchised men to vote to decide whether they wanted their future states to be free or to allow slavery. 

Lincoln came to strongly oppose Douglas’s position, as defined in the Kansas-Nebraska Act that Congress passed in 1854. That law, to allow slavery in the states that would emerge from the Kansas and Nebraska territories, was in effect a nullification of the Missouri Compromise of 1820.

The Missouri Compromise allowed Missouri to become a state in 1821, joining as a slave state. Maine, a part of Massachusetts, joined the union as a free state and said that no state above the latitude of 36 degrees 30 minutes in the Louisiana Purchase territory could be a slave state. The Kansas-Nebraska Act wiped out the latitude limit.

Douglas and his allies in Congress wanted, however, to allow slavery in the Western territories. Lincoln’s thinking was evolving as his Whig Party was dying and the Republican Party he would lead was being born.

In an excellent chapter entitled “The Blood of the Revolution,” Blumenthal explains in detail how Lincoln conceived and delivered a speech in the Hall of Representatives at the Illinois State House to refute Douglas’ arguments. This was well before the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and Blumenthal notes that the speech, almost 17,000 words long, was to lay “the foundation for his policies through 1860,” the year he was elected president in a four-way race.

“His overriding aim was to establish opposition to the extension of slavery as the centerpiece of the emerging politics,” Blumenthal writes. “….From the beginning of his career he had been unusual if unheralded in his efforts to square the circle of his antislavery convictions with viable politics….He defined the morality of slavery, and explained how the moral factor could not be separated from slavery as a form of property and basis of Southern political power, nor from its imperial ambition.”

Known as a close friend and former aide of Hillary Clinton, Blumenthal provides a useful reminder of how deeply divisive slavery was before the Civil War. Echoes of those divisions continue to this day.

A positive feature of this book is the interesting black-and-white pictures of many of the men who figured in the national debate, all stiffly posing, as was the style in the pre-Civil War period. A drawback may be the tedious going for readers who are not history buffs or Civil War experts. As does history itself, Blumenthal gives us a lot of names to remember and follow.