Book review: “All the Powers of Earth: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Vol. III, 1856-1860” by Sidney Blumenthal Previous item Book review: “Song of... Next item Poem: Angels are out tonight

Book review: “All the Powers of Earth: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Vol. III, 1856-1860” by Sidney Blumenthal

“Long John” Wentworth, Chicago’s 6 foot-6-inch mayor, wanted to be Abraham Lincoln’s political boss. But Lincoln wasn’t biting.

In late April, 1860, the Illinois Republican wrote to a political colleague, “The taste is in my mouth a little.”  Yet, even as he acknowledged his embryonic presidential candidacy, Lincoln found himself having to settle a feud between Wentworth and state legislator Norman B. Judd.  He sided with Judd despite advice from his campaign manager Judge David Davis to back Wentworth.

He also had to get back into his camp two longtime supporters — Sen. Lyman Trumbull and Tribune owner Joseph Medill — who were flirting with other presidential hopefuls, Sen. William H. Seward of New York and U.S. Supreme Court Justice John McLean.

Less then three weeks later, Davis arrived in Chicago for the Republican convention, and, as Sidney Blumenthal writes in “All the Powers of Earth,” he “created a political machine overnight,” including Judd and the Tribune’s editors.  But not the city’s mayor.

“Wentworth was the outrider, angry that Lincoln had named Judd and not him as a delegate, and out of resentment and mischief sent the police on raids of the extensive whorehouses to arrest delegates.”

Talk about a low blow.

“Life and times”

This contretemps among Chicago and Illinois pols takes up no more than a handful of paragraphs in Blumenthal’s absorbing and richly textured examination of the five years in Lincoln’s political life that concluded with his election to the White House.  Yet, it is an example of the deep research, subtle nuances and agile writing that characterize the book.

“All the Powers of Earth” is the third installment of what Blumenthal is calling “The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln,” following “A Self-Made Man” (published in 2016) and “Wrestling with His Angel” (2017). 

In an earlier era, this multi-volume effort would have been named “The Political Life and Times of Abraham Lincoln” because each of the books, especially the latest, is a fine-grained account of the political landscape in which the future President developed.  In fact, Lincoln is almost totally absent from the first 179 pages of “All the Powers of Earth” — a full third of the book.

Douglas, Davis, Sumner and sex

Those early pages and many later ones are devoted, in large part, to three United States Senators — Lincoln’s longtime nemesis Stephen A. Douglas; Jefferson Davis, the de facto director of the Southern Directorate that ran the country through President James Buchanan; and Charles Sumner, the erudite, arrogant, moralistic scolder of slavery and slave-owners.

They are also devoted to a lot of sex.  It’s amazing the role that threats, taunts and facts about inter-racial sex played in the Congressional debates over slavery in the 1850s.  Southerners jeered that anti-slavery advocates such as Sumner were really after “amalgamation,” the taking a black woman as a mistress or, worse, a wife.  What, they railed, could be more horrible?

Well, the facts.  That’s what Sumner set out to present in speeches on the floor of the Senate, just a few feet away from slave-holding Southern Senators, and in other ways, such as going so far as to purchase — and free — Mary Mildred Botts, a seven-year-old slave girl who, to all appearances, was a white child. As Blumenthal writes:

“Sumner now provided through the incontrovertible evidence of photography a new level of fact-based argument, the visual proof of the ambiguity of race, showing a slave as the picture of a lovely white girl, not only possible but actual.  But the question of skin color was also a question of sexual domination.  Mulatto children were the offspring of masters and slaves.  Pointing to the nearly white skin of slaves, he revealed the lurid reality of sexual control…The Slave Power was sexual power: slavery was rape; slaveholders were rapists.  Shaming Southerners, Sumner excited hatred of himself to a fever pitch.”

And he paid for it. 

“The [present] whirlwind”

In a major Senate speech in May, 1856, Sumner spoke in great detail about the rapacity of slaveowners, laying bare, writes Blumenthal, “the sexual underside of slavery,” thus committing his greatest sin against the South. Three days later, U.S. Rep. Preston Brooks, a nonentity from South Carolina, walked onto the floor of the Senate where Sumner was writing at his desk and proceeded to pummel the Massachusetts Senator nearly to death with a thick gold-headed gutta-percha cane.  Sumner was so beat-up that he couldn’t return to the Senate for three years.

Although Senators are not cane-whipped by Representatives in today’s Congress, there is much about antebellum politics that echoes with modern-day America. Indeed, Blumenthal mentions in a note that, while writing “All the Powers of Earth,” he “could not avoid having at least one eye wide awake to the [present] whirlwind that bears more than a passing resemblance to the gathering storm that led to Lincoln’s election.”

Name-calling? Character assassination? Vituperation?  President Andrew Jackson mocked Buchanan and his close friend and housemate Sen. William Rufus King as “Miss Fancy” and “Miss Nancy.” Douglas argued that Sumner should be hanged for treason. Another Senator accused Sumner of fomenting a slave uprising, shouting, “He who counsels murder is himself a murderer.” Davis, who dismissed Douglas as vulgar white trash, told him during a Senate debate that he “altogether exalts himself above his level.”

And, of course, North and South were talking past each other then, much as Democrats and Republicans do today.

“A Policy of ‘don’t care’ “

Nonetheless, Blumenthal rightly avoids making any references in his text to modern-day America because, despite the parallels, it was a very much different time and political landscape.

Throughout the decade, Douglas sought to present himself as the one Northerner who could be acceptable to the South, but, in 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott case that slavery could not be restricted by federal action.  The Southern firebrands and the Northern abolitionists knew that this decision meant all of the U.S. was open to slavery.

Although Douglas tried to finesse the question, insisting in speech after speech that states could still ban slavery, he found himself maneuvered into a corner by Lincoln during their senate fight and went a step further, saying that it didn’t matter to him whether a state voted to be free or slave.

It was, as Lincoln later said in his breakthrough Cooper Union address, “a policy of ‘don’t care’ on a question about which all true men do care.” Here is where Lincoln made his name as a national figure and went to the heart of the moral question that had bedeviled the nation from its founding.

“LET US HAVE FAITH”

The Illinois Republican warned fellow party members and other Northerners against “groping for some middle ground between right and wrong” and issued what Blumenthal describes as “a crusader’s call to battle”:

“LET US HAVE FAITH THAT RIGHT MAKES MIGHT, AND IN THAT FAITH, LET US, TO THE END, DARE TO DO OUR DUTY AS WE UNDERSTAND IT.” 

Some readers of “All the Powers of Earth” may find themselves uncomfortable that Lincoln seems to play such a relatively small role in this third volume of his biography.  Yet, this is a book like one of those huge religious or history paintings with a cast of thousands swarming over the canvas.  Despite the seeming crowds and chaos, there is always one figure who brings everything into focus.

All the many characters in Blumenthal’s book, and all their speeches, and all their conniving and violence, all their political chess-play form the essential background against which to understand who Lincoln was at this moment in his life, what he did and why it was important.

A yes-or-no answer

And, as Blumenthal shows, what Lincoln did, particularly in that Cooper Union speech, was to bring focus to all of the chaos. Unlike today, there was for Lincoln and his times one single moral question that overrode all else.  And it demanded a yes-or-no answer. 

Southern leaders insisted that slavery was right and good. Lincoln at the Cooper Union insisted that it was wrong and evil — and challenged his nation to choose. 

And, over the next five years, a million people would die in a war over who was right.

Patrick T. Reardon

10.8.19

 

This review originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on 9.3.19.

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