tv Sidney Blumenthal Discusses A Self- Made Man CSPAN August 29, 2016 4:00am-4:46am EDT
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we ask that you silence your microphones and turn off your camera flashlights. please welcome elizabeth taylor. [applause] >> hi. so happy to be here, it's an honor to be here with sidney blumenthal to talk about a good person from illinois, the great abraham lincoln and we were just chatting before coming on about another and that was scott circle, someone who had spent printers row lit festival every year. but he is with us in spirit. so we are here to talk with sidney blumenthal about the
lincoln and visited lincoln landmarks. now he has written first of four volumes about lincoln. this one is a self-made man, political life of abraham lincoln. it's available, can be purchased outside, and right after the program, we'll talk, have some -- open it up for questions. i want to say this is a book that is written with passion and a real love for politics and instincts for telling a great story. it's informed by a sense of how power really works, and the fluidity of power, having it, losing it and then row regaining it. it's an engaging account informed by lincoln's early years, and intellectual and personal revolution. but i guess the first question
is, the library, vast library of lincoln books, why take this one on? >> well, that's always a good question. it said there's nothing new to say about abraham lincoln. and it's daunting to approach the monument of lincoln, but what i've tried to do is to bring him down from his pedestal and have him walk among us and examine him as breathing, living, person, who becomes a incredibly skillful politician, and to show how he developed step-by-step along that way, and as well at the same time develops intellectually. self-educated, having spent on a few weekness the formal school -- weeks in a formal school, called the blab school.
memorizing things and repeating them. his reading was both sporadic and systemic, as he developed. originally he was a wandering labor boy in indiana and discovered men who had long libraries. that's how the discovered the law. read the constitution, declaration of independence, first history of the united states, and developed from there. so, i thought i had something to contribute. also wanted to use my own experience as a journalist, who had journalistic skills and having been in washington, and having come from illinois, and having served in the white house, and worked closely with a president, and been involved in campaigns and elections, i thought that i could bring to
bear that experience which would, as i examine the material, provide a different angle of vision than many academics who see it differently, understand it differently, understand the motivations of people in politics politics and those around them. also, as i drilled down i discovered many, many new things and aspects about lincoln's life, his thinking, his intellectual development, and how he wrote. so, i hope i have something new to offer here. >> and you also reflect your journalistic skills in this book, but it's free of
journalistic cynicism about power. you look at how politics works and the fluidity of it and what it's like to gain power and -- your voice in the book is wonderful. i wonder if i could ask you to read a short part. age nine, i think. >> well, i'm happy to read something. we spoke earlier and i might just read a few paragraphs, and -- >> it's a wonderfully written -- there's a joyous language that springs off the page. >> thank you. so, let me just read a little bit here, sitting here. n mythology of ling lynn as too noble for politics long obscured the reality of lincoln. lincoln above politics was
lincoln. what? this a simple, minded man, exclaimed, william henry herndon, his law partner, this a politically innocent dear man, this a mere thing without ideas and policies, away with all such opinions. lincoln did not believe that politics were unsavory creatures he felled compelled to associate with out of duty. he did not hold himself above the political give and take or dismiss the dealmaking or log-rolling at is was called as repugnant to his higher call. -- calling help did not see politics as an enemy or unpleasant process that might pollute. these notions were wholly alien to him. he never believed politics corrupted him. he always believed that politics
offered the only way to achieve his principles, and he never thought of politics aspirate from who he was -- as set separate from whom he was. he discovered the promise of american life and crated the man who became abraham lincoln through politics itself. lincoln thought of politics as both a vast leader and intimate society. he was stage-struck from an early age, after politics, the theater, and especially shakespeare was hit greatest eest passion in his drama the audience was not a random gather offering strangers. it members were not paying customers who would come for an evening of entertainment. they were citizens, not spectators. lincoln had a key knowledge of who they were before every jury
and crowd in illinois, he could name friends and neighbors. but the rest were familiar to him as well. he grew up among them. spoke their language and hoped to give voice to their aspirations. standing on stage he sensed which words connected. nor did he make an artificial distinction between campaigning among voters and working among politicians. politics itself was always seamless for lincoln. collective and individual action were of a piece, community and man inseparable. in every group of politicians and before every audience the theater of politics was his natural environment. >> wonderful.
in the book you do uncover new authorizations bring attention to things that had been been under the surface. if there is kind of a rose bud moment it's your recovery of one of the quotationed that is infrequently used. one of the most dramatic statements lincoln made. i think you know what i'm talking about. can you talk about it. >> well, the first chapter of this book i called "the slave." and the slave is lincoln himself. lincoln in 1856, after he had helped create the illinois republican party -- that was the party of lincoln -- went out campaigning for his party in the presidential election and then statewide contests, and? standing on a platform, in illinois, he said, i used to be a slave. extraordinary statement. of identification with most
branded, stigmatized can oppressed group in society. it's not a popular thing for him to do. the facts behind his statement are these, that his father, who was a semi literate dirt farmer who fled from kentucky because he had to compete for wages against slaves, to indiana, across the ohio river to a free state. oppressed his son. he took his wages, which was legal, until lincoln was 28 and rented him out as an inden temperature indentured. -- his father believed education was a waste of time and a form of laziness and he would hit his son for reading. he thought that he was distracting himself from learning a trade, getting on with life.
his stepmother, who lincoln loved, protected him from his father. so, this is more than a side incident in lincoln's life. this is at the core of his identity and at the root of what became his full development into the man we know as abraham lincoln, who was, as he said, naturally antislavery and developed a whole politics based on that. lincoln was self-emancipated. this book describes that process of self-emancipation, from an impoverished, stunted, oppressed boy, the poorest of the poor, who rises to become a respected man, married to a woman of the southern upper class, who believes deeply in his star, and
elected to congress, and is on the eve of -- while he enters the wilderness at the end of the book, the political wilderness, he is on the eve of entering into the wider arena of politics in which he will crystallize his beliefs, his principles, his politics, and fight the battle against slavery that will lead him to the presidency. so at the root of it is his identity, historying, -- hisstruggle to become something other than what he thought of himself, slave. >> it does bring class into the whole -- i web site to get back
to mary todd lincoln but bring -- he lived in what was known as abolition house in washington. it's fascinating. >> lincoln was leaked to one term in congress, and he served after the mexican war. mexican war had seized vast western territories, and the question was whether they would be free or slaves, which would be free or slaves. and that was the principle issue facing the congress that lincoln was a member of. and he voted numerous times against the extension of slavery into these western territories, voting for a proposal known as will not proviso. lincoln lived in a townhouse, boardinghouse, that no longer exists. it's on the present site of the library of congress. is failed the capitol. directly across from the capitol, and that house was
informally known as abolition house. was was the leading abolitionists of the congress'ed and had long's resided for morning a decade. he knew where he lived. there-incidented that surround lincoln's life as a congressman who don't have to do with the direct response of congress and let affect his experience and his thinking. they are among others that slave hunters and catchers, they -- came to abolition house and seized a situater as -- seized a waiter and tried to sell him, and every wilted this and they saved the waiter. the other involved -- the ship known as the pearl -- this is a little known incident now but
while lincoln was a congressman, a group of more than 70 slaves in washington, many of them in the most privileged positions, including working the white house, working for dolly madison, all gathered at night, and had collaborated with the local abolition network in washington, to get on a boat and sail away, down the potomac to the chesapeake bay and go north to freedom and escape. they were caught. there was a trial of the captain. and the famous figures became the attorneys for them. a horse man who founded the common schools who -- by the way was something of a mentor to
lincoln in this time of congress in the congress. salomon p. chase, a senator from ohio and was a leading abolitionist known as the attorney general for fugitive slaves and brought in as -- for advice was william stewart, who was then living in new york and would later become lincoln's secretary of state, and was a very well-known figure of the time. leader of the whig party in new york. some of these -- many of these slaves were sold to the deep south, and lincoln himself saw the slave pens that existed on independence mall. on the site today, right next to where the supreme court is, that building didn't exist. it was an open-air slave pen and they would sell slaves there and keep them there and they would march them to the waterfront,
past the capitol, manacled. lincoln would comment on this later. so, lincoln's -- the sights and sounds of washington where slavery existed, unlike in illinois, affected lincoln deeply in his time in the congress. >> let's go back. some of the figures that were around lincoln were fascinating. bring them secondary characters to life. let's start out with the key one you mentioned, mary todd lincoln. >> mary todd lincoln in my view, gets a bad rap from many historians. and that's because she was volatile, she was often ill-tempered, created embarrassing scenes and at the end of her life she went mad and was committed by her son, robert todd lincoln to an insane asylum. her life was tragic. she lost two sons and her
husband. she had a difficult upbringing. her mother died when she was a child. her father married his stepmother who did not love her. she was a poor little rich girl. her father was the business partner and political ally of henry clay, one of the most distinguished and powerful politicians in america. who what lincoln's ideal, his idol. he modeled himself on. it ways henriquez-robertsry clay who invented the term a self-made man, and lincoln borrowed that as his own idea of himself lincoln she was known as a child among her family, as a violent little whig. she was not silent in mixed
company on politics, which was very rare at the time. women were not supposed to voice political opinions before men. she was the -- she was brought to springfield by her sauer, liz -- by her sauer, elizabeth, who married the governor of illinois, the sisters came one by one to find new husbands, and mary todd found this unlikely person who her sister and family did not really approve of, who they considered beneath her socially, 0 social inferior, and they called him a plebean. she revolted against her family in marrying lincoln. she was -- she believed deeply in his political future and in his ability and capacity for
growth, and she referred to their marriage from the beginning as our lincoln party. so, what begins as lincoln's party is he and mary. >> we're often shaped by our rivals. let's talk about the little giant, stephen a. douglass. >> appropriate to discuss douglass here in chicago. douglass basically is a father of chicago. there would be no chicago without douglas. douglas moved to chicago from jacksonville, illinois. let me start at the beginning. stephen a. douglas was a poor
vermont boy, who came here to illinois, which was the frontier, and he became -- he was another self-made man, although he was well-educated, informally, and he made himself into what he considered to be a westerner. illinois was a predominantly democratic state, not a whig state. there was only one whig district in the state, which was around springfield, and douglas was the -- became very quickly, by his late 20s in and early 30s, the dominant political figure in the state. he created the convention system in order to control the party. he became a judge on the supreme court and then a senator. and immediately began setting himself up to run for president.
he created the illinois central railroad through an act of congress, which was the first federal railroad created through federal act. the equivalent of the mississippi river from chicago to the gulf of mexico, and douglas owned up a ol' all the rice right of way land and he owned a mississippi plantation through this wife, and which made hem a slave holder. he was lincoln's great rival. not only had he briefly courted mary lincoln but they were the opposing figures of their generation, of the first generation of professional politicians in america in illinois. and lincoln was -- you don't think that lincoln this way but he was deeply envious, jealous, measured himself constantly
against douglass, always believed that he was coming up short against little giants, and he frequently disparaged him and disparaged his height. their battles were -- were waged over decades, including through the newspapers of springfield. douglass was the co-owner of the register and lincoln was the de facto coeditor of the journal, and their entourages around the newspapers which were both highly partisan even had street battles. lincoln wrote many anonymous newspaper editorials deriding douglass and those around him. eventually lincoln's following douglass' path as douglass sought the great prices of the presidency and led lincoln upwards because lincoln was the only one in the whole country who could challenge douglass on
his home ground of illinois. everything depended upon illinois in the end, and that is what enabled lincoln then to become a national figure. >> now, then we think about what was going on in springfield. some another character is the self-appointed guardian of the flame. how reliable was he and what is your take on herndon? >> herndon is a fascinating character. lincoln has a law firm consisting of himself and a younger man, william henry herndon. who -- let me describe herndon, herndon had attended illinois college, which was an abolitionist college, headed by a leading abolitionist, edward
beecher of the famous beecher family, and he had revolted against his father, who was a proslavery democrat. herndon was also a prohibitionist and believed in temperance but also sometimes found drunk. he was a stalwart partisan whig and lincoln's all--around aide and he was also a radical. who would write to all the leading abolitionist around the country and had ongoing correspondence with people like ther to parker, the great apts slavery -- antislavery -- in boston. herndon worshiped lincoln, resented mary todd, who he
called the hellcat. she would not allow him into their home. never allowed lincoln's partner into their home. herndon, after lincoln died, did an incredible thing. the rated the first oral history of the president. hi went around and systematically interviewed everybody in illinois who was alive and almost everyone was still alive who had known lincoln from his earliest days of arriving in new salem, and many historians have discounted that oral history because it depicts a lincoln that is not grand lincoln who was the martyr, the -- the man who had won the civil war, been shot on good friday, and fell on it. this was a different lincoln.
it was a russ rustic lincoln, unfinished lincoln, lincoln in process. but i find that almost all of it is incredibly valuable, and many historians have come to value it. so, i think herndon performed not only many, many services for lincoln as his law partner, but also the ultimate service in history of abraham lincoln. was mary todd lincoln in the oral histories. >> she was. he did interview her. there are many interesting things she says, and including a few comments.lincoln's religion or lack of religion. >> interesting. speaking of religion, we have
the primitive baptist, antislavery, and then the southern christian proslavery ideology. how important was religion to lincoln? >> religion is central to the thought, development of abraham lincoln, and lincoln's particular rebellion against forms of religion were central to lincoln at the same time. lincoln said in one of the brief autobiographies he gave -- only gave two, both for campaign purposes -- he was naturally antislavery. he meant it came from his family. they had fled kentucky to escape from the oppression of slavery, as white people. poor white people. lincoln said slave states are places for poor white people to remove from.
lincoln's natural antislavery beliefs are rooted in his family. his father and his mother belonged to, as i decider by doing research -- the internet has been indies spendable in finding very -- indispensable in finding works on the kentucky churches. they belongs to very small primitive baptist emancipationist churches, in kentucky. i found the preachers -- -- in able to do this research through the internet i've tracked a number of the preachers and what they have said, but they had an enormous influence on the lincoln family. lincoln came -- became -- i
would say an opponent of the kind of cal -- calvinism he was inculcated with and yet what stuck was a sense of fatalism that was very deep, but the part of calvinism that he openly disdained and -- was the condemnation of people for their supposed sinful behavior, and the way in which authorities in these small communities would punish people for their supposed sins. lincoln had a very strong reaction against it, and this relates also to his reading. lincoln read tom paine's agency of reason, which is the -- eight of -- age of reason, against organized religion, and work on
work that religion is mythology and he would recommend these books to people. don't want to go on -- we can go on at great length. lincoln -- the first campaign, which i discuss here for congress, the issue in the campaign was the fact that lincoln was a so-called infidel, and his opponent was a hellfire preacher named peter cartwright who condemned him, and lincoln issued a very lawyerly, careful statement saying, i could not support anybody who did not respect religion, and that enabled him to evade the issue and get elected. but lincoln -- two things i want to mention. lincoln studied deeply in theology, and especially southern theology.
churches divided, beginning in the 1840s, between northern and southern denominations, and the methodists split and the baptists split and so on and the presbyterians split, and lincoln -- it's not too strong to say he hated southern christian theology because it was proslavery and used the bible to justify it. cites verses from the bible. and all the way through i found references in which he condemns those sorts of people, the final condemnation in his second inaugural when the talks about -- the real condemnation of southern theology as the justification for slavery. lincoln never joined a church. he would go with his wife occasionally but never formally joined a church, and many of
those around him describe him as not a believing christian, and yet, and yet, lincoln's religion, i think we can say, was private. he said, when i do good, i feel good, and that is my religion. >> now, he was a politician, and he was a practicing politician, but some people called him a vulgar village politician. also known as the slasher. so, talk about how he sort of -- how politics operated then and how he was a politically savvy guy. >> well, lincoln's rise began in illinois. illinois politics can be a contact sport.
and lincoln first begins -- he shows up in the new salem, and the postmaster, who is political because being appointed a postmasters apolitical job -- says i need an election clerk. can you write? lincoln says i can make a few scratches. that's the beginning of lincoln's political career. he becomes an election judge, then rhinos state legislature and loses the first time, runs again and wins. by the age of 27 the whig floor leader him creates what is called the system in illinois. we still live witness. the illinois michigan canalis lincoln. lincoln sponsored that. he moved the capital to springfield. he wanted to move it to his city when he moved to springfield, from new salem. it provided a lot of construction. he began learning what was
called log-rolling, ain't prentice to the early whig leader and his law partner, jon stewart, way eh was used by the whig party, sent out as a young man because he had developed a cutting and sarcastic speaking style and cut down larger opponents and embarrass them. he was quicker, sharper, more willing to slash at them. he was known as a slasher. but each of these phases gets assimilated into him and he -- and he -- they're like layers in lincoln and he developed greater and greater understanding of what he is about, and -- but learns every sort of finely attuned political skill at every level. for anyone who has seen the
movie "lincoln" it's a true depiction in many ways of the passage of the 13th amendment abolishing slavery in which lincoln, along with seward, used patronage, persuasion, money, to pass the amendment to end slavery and they learned until the precinct of politics and lincoln learned it in illinois. >> have time for a quick question if you want to stand up, grab in the microphone. but you have to stand up. we want to sort of -- short questions and want to focus on the subject of lincoln and the book. >> what about lincoln's depression? i guess what it called them melancholy.
>> thank you. lincoln suffered from early episodes of severe depression. he had a terrible nervous breakdown as a young man that was in part due to humiliating political circumstances and accompanied by his early breakup with mary todd to whom he was -- -- and had broken up and he was exposed to the community of springfield. a man without a family, without a background, a deep sense of social inferiority, and he mishandled dealing with mary todd, who belonged to the most
prominent social family of the town. it was said by his friends they kept razors from him in this period. lincoln had a doctor who was a political ally. treated him -- there were know psychiatrists tet but there was a map named drake who lived in cincinnati and apparently lincoln wrote him a long letter describing his psychology. the letter doesn't exits exist now, lost, but lynnline consulted about his problems. these all get resolved in the circumstances surrounding his marriage. which are highly political and strange, involving anonymous nasty articles that he wrote for
the journal under the name rebecca, who was supposedly a rustic woman. they were vicious personal attacks on a man named james shields who was a leader of the irish political community in illinois, and a close ally of stephen a. douglass. lincoln was trying to undermine him. shields was deeply offended. challenged lincoln to a duel. one reason line lynn accepted the duel was that the secret cowriter of these op-eds these, columns, was mary todd. and that was one of the ways she succeeded in getting him back after he broke up with him. lincoln chose broad swords because he thought he would slash hitch to bits.
mary dodd's first cousin, a prominent political figure in illinois, a state senator, rode up to the obscure island in the miss this they were going to stage the duel. told lincoln this was illegal and embarrassing and foolish and this is not what people do and it will be a blot on your political record, and there was no duel, and the -- mary and lincoln got married. lincoln did suffer from fits of what were called melancholy or depression afterwards, but the marriage prevented lincoln from having a nervous breakdown, and it's an interesting thing because mary was so volatile. but the marriage stead steadied him and i don't believe lincoln could have gotten through without his marriage to mary.
>> i know that lincoln put particular importance on keeping kentucky in the union. when he ran for president did he get any votes in his open native state, the state of henry clay? was he even on the ballot? >> i believe that kentucky went from are for mcclellan in '64. but the did keep the state in the union. what you mentioned is exactly right. lincoln was deeply concerned about keeping kentucky in the union and preventing kentucky from seceding. he felt that a premature emancipation proclamation would lead to kentucky's secession and raising an additional army against the union. he said there would be 50,000 more bayonets against us.
and so he was bitterly attacked by the equivalent of his left of the day, the radical abolitionists who felt he was betraying the principles of -- and lincoln was very political on the issue of emancipation proclamation and felt he needed a victory, which he got at -- and he could announce it. kentucky was absolutely central to lincoln's thinking and he had a deep understanding. he visited kentucky. it's where his wife was from, her family, and he wanted to make sure that it stayed in the