cover image A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1809–1849

A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1809–1849

Sidney Blumenthal. Simon & Schuster, $35 (608p) ISBN 978-1-4767-7725-2

In this first book of a multivolume reexamination of the 16th president’s life, Blumenthal (The Strange Death of Republican America), a longtime Clinton adviser and former Washington Post reporter, asserts that Lincoln saw politics as vital and even beneficial, not as a necessary evil. He stresses that “Lincoln the politician and Lincoln the Great Emancipator were not antithetical sides of the same person, or antithetical stages in the same lie, but one man.” This central thesis is not original, but Blumenthal explores the details more thoroughly than most others have before. Nonscholars are also likely to be surprised by some of the facts he presents, including that the frequently vilified Mary Todd was instrumental in advancing her husband’s career and prevented him from taking the job of Secretary of the Oregon Territory, which would have marginalized him as a political figure. The dry text is occasionally enlivened by sharp remarks: a comment about an 1837 speech on Lincoln by Edmund Wilson was “the sort of brilliantly intuitive literary insight that only lacks political comprehension, historical reference, and facts, and inspired a school of psychobabble.” Blumenthal’s argument that Lincoln’s self-education in politics “developed [him] for the task he could not imagine” will make lay readers eager to read the next volume. (May)