tv Sidney Blumenthal Wresting With His Angel SC CSPAN November 24, 2017 12:55pm-1:45pm EST
miracle of american creation. [applause] the library of congress is the greatest library in the world. no question. and we did it. and if you ever get down about american culture, you might like to remember there are still more public libraries in this country than there are starbucks. [applause] >> david, thank you very much. it's been a great conversation. >> thank you. >> thank you very much. [applause] thank you. [applause] >> thank you very much.
[inaudible conversations] >> the morning. i'm the editor of the washington post sunday outlook section which is our home for ideas, essays and arguments and personal narratives and also, thankfully our home for our nonfiction book coverage.er the post is very happy to have been a charter sponsor of the national book festival for many years. before we get started, couple quick orders of business. i want to remind everybody
they can help support the festival which is a really cool event. all information is in your program.nd after sydney women blumenthal finishesr there'll be q&a, time permitting. in addition he will be doing a book signing downstairs from 12 until one. in my decade and a half of living in washington, a lot has changed. one thing that hasn't changed is that the city is very much ain place of sect and sometimes these groups, the journalists and the politicians and operatives in the policy scholars and the lobbyists and the diplomats and thed advocates, sometimes they have symbiotic relationships and sometimes parasitic ones and sometimes they don't interact at all, but rarely does somebody's passed between them and almost never with the facility and the adaptability
and the skill of blumenthal. sidney started his career as a journalist as a new republican washington post. he worked with to my alma a mater's and then he covered washington for the new yorker which is generally regarded as the summit of analytical and narrative political coverage in d.c. in his work as a journalist before, he was an early detection system for problem we all know very well. he coined the term. [inaudible] then, he went into the administration and he served as president clinton's comes icomes here were his portfolio disrupted every political issue in the white house. afterward he returned to journalism where he worked and wrote books about the clinton and bush and ministrations. now he has gotten into his
most ambitious project yet, using abraham lincoln with the robert carol treatment. i can't think of an american political figure more relevant to contemporary to break date. theli first of the four volumes of the series of a self-made man started at the beginning, and i remember you reading the coverage when it first came out. we gave it a nice review. now, he has just dropped, wrestling with his angel, the second volume which covers 1849 - 1856. it's the battle against douglas and the rise of a new party, the republicans. he could not have picked a better moment for a book about political realignment. now, please help me invite him up here to talk aboutt. it. sidney blumenthal. [applause]
>> it's great to be here. thank you for those kind remarks. i am honored to be here at the library of congress national book festival. last night, at the first event , i had a conversation with david mccullough who just finished up next door and said we really need lincoln now. he said we need them all. [applause] the library of congress building, one of the most magnificent buildings in the country, did not used to be such a distinguished address. it used to be the location of a row of boarding houses facing the capital inhabitedou by congressman.
about the political life of abraham lincoln. o this volume i've entitled "wrestling with his angel," taking it from the strip jacob from the bible, of jacob wrestling through a long night. with an angel, or himself and emerging don as somebody else having resolved himself and assuming a new identity. he takes a new name, the name he takes is israel. and something like that happened with lincoln but it happened in his wilderness years. years lasting from 1849 to 1856, and he assumed a new identity. so let me pretend to be dickens for a minute. the more time i have spent with abraham lincoln, the more i have
come to understand that his words and actions with a careful result of his intent self-discipline. the silences that his law partner william henry herndon and his friends described as his melancholy were also a mask for his concentration, intellectual absorption and focus. his depression and is of the feelings deepened his self-awareness and spurred his self-education which informed his acute understanding of human nature and politics. even when his life seemed to have been reduced to insignificance, he was scanning the horizons and interpreting science. the young lincoln in his first formal speech at the springfield museum for young men in 1838 saw the importance of a crisis to
come. at what point then, he said, is the approach of danger to be expected? i answer, if it ever reaches us it must bring up amongst us. they cannot come from abroad. if destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. now, "wrestling with his angel" describes lincoln's dark knight. lincoln coming to his revelation of a a house divided from whice emerged as the recognizable lincoln of history picky wouldmi be that man until his assassination. after abraham lincoln one term in the congress and his return to his spare law office in springfield, he stared into the distance for long periods of time. his partner recalled him breaking one of his prolonged silences with a cry of anguish, the political world was dead,
herndon broke. rings were stagnant and all hope for progress in theng light of freedom seemed to be crushed out. lincoln was speculating with me about the deadness of things. and the despair which arose out of it and deeply regretted that his human strength and power were limited by its nature to rouse and stir up the world. he said, despairingly, sadly, how hard, oh, how hard it is to die and leave one's country know better that if one had never lived for it. the world is dead to hope. death to its own death struggl. made known by the universal cry, what is to be done? is anything to be done? who can do anything and how is it to be done? did you ever think of these things? almost assumes a abraham lincon
came back tou springfield, his wife, mary todd lincoln, turned him right around and send him on a mission to her hometown of lexington, kentucky, to serve as cocounsel to recover that todd family fortune, which was considerable. lincoln found himself thrust inton the vortex of his native state politics, turned into mortal kombat between anti-slavery and proslavery forces. the lawsuit and the politics were intertwined. so bear with me and follow these threads, if you will. for nearly ae decade, mary tods father, senator henry clays business partner and political ally had tried to rest that todd the state from a man known as
robert wickliffe, also called the old duke. he had married a todd cousin who held the statement passedd away. woodcliff was also the leader of the virulently proslavery movement in kentucky. john todd, running for the state senate against that movement, though a slaveholder himself, was demonized with the worst word that could ever be used against anyone in politics, abolitionist. in the middle of the campaign in july 1849, he dies of cholera. lincoln arrived to pursue the families case in october, just in time to observe the proslavery movement triumphantly, rewrite the estate
-- the state constitution to eliminate the kentucky law prohibiting the slave trade within its borders. lincoln lost the case and the todd family lost the estate to woodcliff. at the same moment that the political legacy of henry clay, lincoln's early ideologist of a statesman and mary's beloved father, were destroyed. if those events were not sufficiently embitter in bittee was another factor. it was a profound but concealed factor. from memoirs, journals and pamphlets of the time a mystery underlined that todd ayres versus wickliffe case images. it was that todd family secret. there was a living air. he was the grandson, the only child of her son who had died at a relatively young age, but this
air was not a person under the law. he was, in fact, a slave. and he had been emancipated and shipped to liberia. in 1878 this former slave, the invisible man of the story, and he had a name, alfred francis russell was elected vice president of liberia. and it 1883 he became president. so that made him mary todd's second relation to become a president. back in illinois from kentucky, lincoln spoke with john todd lewis got his first law partner, and early political mentor, a conservative old whig. the time was soon to come in which we must be democrats or
abolitionist, , said stewart. stewart wouldr eventually join the democrats. when that time comes, my mind is made up, lincoln replied. the slavery question cannot be compromised. lincoln expressed to me of his friends his anger at the rising slave power he had observed in kentucky. he was livid that an anti-slavery with a lawyer he knew there, samuel f miller, had been driven out of the state for his views. and president lincoln would appoint him to the supreme court. lincoln described, privately, young thoughtless and giddy headed kentucky slaveholders, the slave trudging behindge the, the most ostentatious and displaying property in the world. human property. lincoln would get excited on the
questions said one of his friends, and believe the pendency of the times was to make slavery universal. he told another friend, and a few years we will be ready to accept the institution in illinois, and the whole country will adopt it. the todd ayres case with its hidden history left lincoln smoldering in private until he emerged five years later but the time for lincoln to step forward had not come, not yet. a great revolution was required to bring abraham lincoln out of the wilderness. lincoln's orbit in these years revolved around the eighth judicial district of central y illinois. day after day with judge david davis andju our coterie. i i shall never forget the first time i saw mr. lincoln, recalled a criminal attorney who became
one of lincoln's closest colleagues and friends. and would be instrumental in his political campaigns. he came to the town of danville were lincoln was trying cases. this is hisin account. when i called at the hotel it was after dark and i was told lincoln was upstairs in the judges room. the region ripe in front of the judge of the court was usually a man of more or less gravity so he could not be approached with some degree of deference. i was not a little abashed therefore after i'd climbed the un-banister staircase to find myself so new the present and dignity of judge davis in his room i was told i could find mr. lincoln. in response to my ten the dodd, two voices responded almost simultaneously. come in. imagine my surprise when the door opened to find two men undressed. or rather dressed for bed,
engaged in a lively battle with pillows. tossing them at each other's heads. one, a low heavyset man who leaned against the foot of the bed and puffed like a lizard, and fit the description of judge davis. the other was aip man of tremendous stature, compared to davis you look as if he were eight feet tall. he was encased in a long indescribable garment. yellow with saffron which reached to his heels beneath which protruded two of the largest feet i had after that time been in the habit of seeing. this immense shirt, for short and most of income look as as f it had been carved out of flannel, and the piecess joined together without reference to measurement or capacity. the only thing that kept it from
slipping off the tall and angular frame itt covered was te single button at the throat. and i confess to its succession of shutters. whenla i thought of what might happen should that button by chance lose itself. i cannot describe my sensations at this apparition with modest announcement. my name is lincoln, strode across the room to shake my trembling hands. i will not say who reminded me of satan, but he was certainly the ungodliness figure i've ever seen. [laughing] who was this lincoln? this lincoln was not in abolitionist, but he was, as he insisted, naturally anti-slavery. he is deepening understanding of slavery and as for complexity as
a moral, political, and constitutional dilemma begin in his childhood among the primitive baptist anti-slavery dissidence and backwards kentucky and indiana, whose churches his semi literate parent attended. as a boy he wrote down the mississippi river to new orleans. he was the original huck finn. where he discovered that new orleans was an open heir emporium of slaves, on auction, ungodly display, and shocked him. as a congressman in this in the term here in washington, he lived in a boarding house, abolition house. he experienced the invasion of slave catchers coming to seize one of the waiters as a fugitive slave. undoubtedly, he knew the secret of theve house where he lived, that it was the station in the
underground h railroad. he denounced the mexican war as fraudulently started and voted numerous times against the expansion of slavery in the new western territories that had been gained in network. but with the quite assistant of the leading abolitionists in the congress he drafted a bill for emancipation in the district of columbia. something he would make good on even for emancipation proclamation was issued. and it is why we in the district today have emancipation day. but that first bill of lincoln's never received any a single hearing and the house of representatives, and then he came home to an obscurity that seemed as though it would never end. at the lowest moment of political despair and retreat in american politics, to that time, marked by a widespread loss of faith in democracy itself,
lincoln emerged with his cause. suddenly in 1854, the once and future rivals of lincoln combined to blow dismissive is the cornerstone of civil and political peace, senator stephen a. douglas of illinois, lincoln's eternal rival from the beginning of his political career seeking a a transforming gesture that would carry him to the democratic presidential nomination in the white house. joined with secretarycr of war, the dick cheney ofcr this day, jefferson davis of mississippi, and to slaveholding wealth and the de facto acting president of the united states, operating behind the weakling franklin pierce. in their collaboration on the kansas the brassica act. that act -- kansas-nebraska act.
that act repealed the missouri compromise that had forbidden slavery north of the line through the country that prohibited it in the north except for missouri. but now it's repealed a possible extension of slavery to the west. it made possible the nationalization of slavery. lincoln's nightmare. and in a stroke, the entire old political crack apart. we were thunderstruck and stunned at in confusion that lincoln describing the atmosphere of the early resistance. but we rose, each fighting, grasping whatever he could reach the size, at pitchfork, a chopping ax or a butchers cleaver. we struck in the direction of the sound. in two great autobiographies lincoln depicted himself in his wilderness years as strangely
content in a kind of internal exile, becoming merely indifferent to politics, immersed in his legal practice. as he was contemplating his race for the presidency, he told the "chicago tribune" in 1854 his profession had almost superseded the thought of politics in his mind. when the repeal of the missouri compromise arestin as he hadad never been before. it was about this decisive juncture inha lincoln's career that herndon, his law partner, wrote of lincoln's ambitions. that man who thinks lincoln, sat down and gathered his ropes around waiting for the people to call him has a a very erroneous knowledge of lincoln. he was always calculating and always planning ahead. his ambition was a little engine that knew no rest.
lincoln clung to the sinking weight party longer than somebody also do that a new coalition against the extension of slavery, the nationalization of slavery, must be organized. in this street of party chaos, lincoln cast himself into the whirlwind. he sequestered himself in the law library of the state capitol in springfield and drafted a speech against the kansas-nebraska act. stepping onto the podium to speak at the illinois hall of represented onn october 4, 1854, he never again left the stage of history. lincoln, the defendant of the declaration of independence and its precept, all men are created equal, invoked the blood of the revolution, the american revolution. lincoln the shakespearean pointed to the moral wrong of slavery and alluded topo his favorite play, macbeth, and the scene where macbeth tries wash
out the spot of his guilt. lincoln said, like the bloody hand you may wash it, and wash it and wash it. the red witness of guilt still sticks and steers horribly at you. he was referring to slavery. in this chaotic time many movements swirled across the landscape, for and against slavery, againstos immigrants, d against liquor. butnd the nativist and temperane movements confounded the development of the anti-slavery. meanwhile, anti-slavery democrats and antislavery whigs with long grudges to regard each other with mutual suspicion. some people in the abolitionist movement in illinois understood, had a political sense that they needed a more proficient and giftedoo lyrical figure. to draw the elements together.
and that brought them to abraham lincoln. that brought them in fact, to the very platform where he was speaking at the illinois hall of representatives against the kansas the brassica act. and when he finished this small group of radical abolitionists asked him to join a meeting in holding that night for a group they called the republican party. it was a radical group. andht lincoln dodged them. he had a law case in the distant county. he would not attend this radical group of the republican party. four years, lincoln turned over in his mind the minutes of slavery to democracy. until in 1855 he envisioned the prospect of what was to come. i think that there is no peaceful extinction of slavery a prospect for us, he wrote his
pro-counsel. the signal failure of henry clay and other good and great men in 1849 to affect anything favor of gradual emancipation in kentucky together with 1000 of the site extinguishes that hope utterly. yet another complicating factor entered into into the equation. between 1845-1854, 3 million immigrants arrived in the united states, the first great wave of immigration. about 40% were poor irish catholics fleeing the potato famine. about another 40% were germans playing the crushing of the liberal democratic revolution in germany of 1848. conservative protestants viewed the irish especially as a source of crime, corruption and
poverty. both the irish and germans were beer drinkers. [laughing] i have it that aroused temperance crusaders who condemn them as drunken, lazy and simple. a new party arose in this time of party disintegration. it was a mass political party. it was an anti-immigrant party, and the party was known as a know nothing party. it took that name because members were told that when you asked if they were members they were to reply i know nothing. it sprang from a small nativist sacked a new city called the order of the star-spangled banner. within months after taking 52 election it attracted estimated membership of more than a million. its program had one plank, and one plank only. only nativeborn protestant would
be allowed to hold public office in the united states. and they had a slogan, americans only shall govern america. as the crisis deepened, lincoln wondered how he could be effective fighting slavery while maintaining his identity in the crumbling weight party. -- with party. he wrote to his longtime intimate friend with whom it share of in springfield but do it now moved to kentucky. to preside over his families plantation. lincoln and speak agree to methinks and discreet on other things including on the question of slavery. but in the forefront of lincoln's thinking at the time was the threat of the know nothings. i am not a know nothing. that is certain, lincoln road. how could ith be? how can anyone who abhors the
suppression of negroes be in favor of degrading classes of white people? our progress and degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid come as a nation we began by declaring that all men are created equal. we now practically read it on the a critter equal except negroes. when the know nothings get control it will read all that are created equal except negroes and foreigners and catholics. when it comeses to this, i shoud prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving everybody. to russia, for instance,. [laughing] where despotism can be taken. and without the vague alloy of hypocrisy. even then lincoln had a way with words.
state-by-state the new republican party was being organized. and in illinois a group of antislavery newspaper editors invite lincoln to join them as their leader adding meeting to organize a convention of the new party. lincoln was absent at the time, recalled herndon, in believing i knew what he ceilings and judgment on the vital question of the hour were, i took the liberty to sign his name to the call. john todd stewart, lincoln's first law partner, the conservative, rushing to get all to move lincoln's endorsement. stewart excitedlye asked herndn if lincoln had signed the abolitionist calling of the newspaper i answered in the negative, adding that i had signed his name to the question did lincoln authorize you to sign it? i returnu an emphatic no.
then explain the startled and indignant steward, you have ruinedd abraham lincoln. i thought he understood lincoln thoroughly, herndon said. but in order to vindicate myself i immediately sat down after stewart had rushed out of the office and vote lincoln who was attending court. a brief account of what you do and how much stir he was creating in the ranks of his conservative friends. is he approved or disapproved my course, , i asked him to write r telegraph me at once. in the brief time came his answer. all right, go ahead. we will meet you, radicals and all. at that meeting on february 22, 1856, george schneider, editor of the german language newspaper proposed a plan denouncing the know nothings, the nativists
present strongly oppose it. the conference threatened to collapse. schneider announced he would submit his resolution to lincoln and abide by his decision. gentleman, declared lincoln, the resolution introduced by mr. schneider is nothing new. it is already contained in the declaration of independence, and you cannot form a new party on other principles. this declaration of mr. lincoln saved if the resolution and, in fact, helped to establish the new party on the most liberal democratic basis. lincoln's judgment made possible the creation of the illinois republican party which became the instrument that would, in four years, carried him to the republican nomination for president. but he could not foresee that distant future, nor could he
predict thebu shocking ten days that shook the world that would soon polarize and clarify the coming conflict. on may 19, 1856, senator charles sumner of massachusetts delivered his speech on the attack on democracy, the crime against kansas then being taken over by the slave power. on may 21, 2 days later, an army of nearly 1000 proslavery missourians under red banner inscribed southern rights, rampage into the free state foundation of lawrence kansas and ransacked it. the next day in the united states senate while sumner sat writing at his desk, congressman preston brooks of south carolina approached him as he was sitting and battered him relentlessly on
his head with a gold handled cane, nearly killing him in retribution for his speech. blood streamed across the floor of the senate. two days later, may 24, along pottawatomie creek in kansas, radical abolitionist john brown and his followers hacked five proslavery men to death in the middle of the night. and five days later on may 29, abraham lincoln stood on the platform of the new party that he found in illinois, the republican party. within two years of assuming his new identity as a republican, lincoln founded his own note of destiny. lincoln's language was drenched not only in shakespearere but ao drawn from two passages of the king james bible. from the gospel of mark, if the
kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. and if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. from the gospel of luke. every kingdom dividedfr against itself is laid waste, and a divided household falls. on june 16, 1858, declaring his candidacy for the u.s. senate against stephen a. douglas, lincoln exclaimed if we could first know where we are and whether we are attending, we can better judge what to do and how to do it. now we call just a few his later he was despairing turkey 100 what is to be done. he thought the political world was dead. he had not thought through the crisis and now the crisis was upon them and this is what lincoln says. a house divided against itself cannot stand. i believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave
and half free. i do not expect the union to be dissolved. i do not expect the house to fall but i do expect it will cease to be divided. will become all one thing or all the other. by now lincoln's sense of historical time and political time he had become acute. two weeks after his defeat to douglas who wrote to friends that the fight must go on because of civil liberty must be surrendered at the end of one or even 100 defeats. in 1860, beginning his campaign for the republican presidential nomination in his speech at the cooper union in new york city, lincoln concluded neither let us be slanted from our duty by false accusations against us nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the government, nor of dungeons to ourselves. let us have faith that right
makes might. and in that faith met as to the end there do our duty as we understand it.in lincoln's political education was long but many of the moments of lincoln's awakening from this time for political slump were not publicly known until years after his death. at about the time he was thinking this through, this problem of, into 1855 traveling the county court circuit staying overnight in the boarding house his discussion with a former judge and lawyer, another conservative old whig went on deep into the night. judge dickey contended slavery was an institution which the constitution recognized in which cannot be disturbed. lincoln argued ultimately slaveryed must become extinct recalled another illinois lawyer who was b present. after a while said dickey we
went upstairs to bed. there were two beds in our room. i remember lincoln sat up in his nightshirt on the edge of the bed arguing the point with me. alas we went to sleep. early in morning i woke up, up and there was lincoln half sitting up in the bed. dickey, said lincoln, i tell you, this nation cannot exist half slave and half free. lincoln, goin to sleep. a little later, by the end of this time, 1857, a free black woman known as polly appeared at the office of lincoln and herndon with the talee of woe. her young son had hired himself out in a steamboat on the missa become something like what lincoln had done you earlier. but when he reached new orleans without free papers proving he was not a slave, he was imprisoned and about to be sold into slavery. lincoln appealed to the governor of illinois who informed lincoln
he could do nothing. lincoln appealed to the governor of louisiana who rejected his request.d so lincolnap to up subscription list, and herndon raised money from lincoln's france in springfield. lincoln drew from his account of the springfield marina and life insurance company what heof had. and they located an agent in new orleans to purchase a young man's liberty, and soon his prison door swung open and he was returned to springfield to his mother. lincoln had bought a slave in order to free him. it was abraham lincoln's first act of emancipation. thank you. [applause]
>> i think we have five minutes, and i think i can take a couple of questions if anyone has a question about abraham lincoln. [inaudible] >> can you hear me? >> yes. >> i say this with humility. you have written more books about lincoln than anyone else. what they judy believe that you would be able to answer this, and of what you just said, what has not been known previously from other authors? >> thank you for thatwh questio. when i fell down this rabbit hole of a rim lincoln, i had no idea when or how i would emerge, and i'm still w down this rabbit hole writing. but i thought that what i i'd offer was my own experience. as a journalist, as somebody who
understoodjo washington, as someone who grew up in illinois whose family is involved in illinois politics, and the somebody who worked in the white house and participated in an absurd the presidency firsthand. and so i thought my skills might be brought to bear to provide some original insight and interpretation of lincoln. and i hope i have done so. in the first two volumes and then the next two to come. particularly about the house divided, a country torn apart, and the emergence of lincoln's political leadership and how we dealt with that. and how we developed his argument and his words, and we took it from. because he was only one person,
and how we managed to develop and findd the means that eventually would save the country and lead to emancipation. there is no loss of the united states -- [inaudible] >> what was the weeks party, what was their view on immigration? >> well, there were no laws of immigration and the united states at the tiger the question is what with the views on immigration. there were no laws against immigration. people just came into the country. but there was a lot of prejudice against this new wave of immigration of the irish and the germans particularly. and this movement develop against them. lincoln as i noted aboard the --w nothing movement abhorred. but he only did so in private. he operated behind the scenes
believing that it has to be undone byne political means through the operation of his friends, and lincoln did work behind the scenes to undermine the know nothing movement, engage in even methods that were familiar with today in places like chicago where he destroyed the know nothing party. entirely without anything -- any fingerprints, using his friends. but he did so with the belief he needed to draw them and get them to participate in this s anti-slavery coalition that became the republican party. and as he told one of the leading radical abolitionists who had come to lincoln and wanted his leadership, he said that time has not come yet in the mid-1850s. but eventually it did comment
lincoln had to wait for the right time and that's one of the other things about lincoln. he steps, he said he would take a step depending on the timing. and some people would criticize him for being passive and vacillating andme compromising, but he said i never took a step back once i took a step forward. and in order to take a step forward, he wanted to have the greatest possible political support for what he was doing. and that was part of his political genius. just one more question. >> thank you very much for such a wonderful synopsis of your story. i could listen to you for hours. >> thank you. >> i'm suresy the audience agres with me. justst outstanding. >> thank you. [applause] >> my question is about lincoln but it's about your perspective
on the waves of history going forward and back and forward and back. i'm sure you have seen that with your research and studies. there are many of us today who admire the intellect of lincoln, kennedy and other notable president and were struck by the events in our present position and was wondering if you might have a chance to put some of that in perspective so that we could leave this festival with hope, perhaps. [laughing] [applause] >> thank you for that. let me refer to abraham lincoln. [laughing] in that speechh in springfield n 1828 called on the perpetuation of our clinical institutions in which lincoln warned of our own self-destruction from within. he says, there's a flaw in our
system, and this is what lincoln says. he says there may be a man who emerges seeking, and these are lincoln's words, not mine, celebrityay and fame, and distinction beyond what is normalan in politics. and he may seek to trample down what exists in order to achieve distinction for himself. when that happens, said lincoln, the people most unite together, and then lincoln's words, act intelligently in order to oppose him. now, lincoln may have had in mind stephen a. douglas, his great rival, but he was warning against the danger of demagogy and how it might upset the american democracy.