David Herbert Donald, 1995

Team of Rivals
Doris Kearns Goodwin, 2005

A. Lincoln
Ronald C. White, Jr., 2009

Together these books amount to well over 2000 pages. It may be a while before I can summon the will to move on to Andrew Johnson.


A few words about the books before I get to the man himself. Donald's book is considered the definitive single-volume biography, which is interesting because to a great extent it seems to be a bit of an outlier in its assessment of Lincoln. Lincoln is generally considered the best president the United States has ever had. A few polls have placed him second; I've only seen one that placed him as low as third. Yet Donald seems distinctly unimpressed. His central thesis is that Lincoln was an essentially passive figure who did little to shape the momentous events unfolding around him. White's book, which I made the mistake of reading first, strikes me in retrospect as largely a companion piece to Donald's. It spends an inordinate amount of space correcting things that Donald got wrong — Donald mentions in passing that Lincoln didn't care about his ancestry, for instance, so White produces a bunch of letters in which Lincoln makes genealogical inquiries. White is also more interested than Donald in analyzing Lincoln's rhetoric. But he doesn't actively take issue with Donald's main point. I had only planned to read two biographies of Lincoln, but after these two I was still waiting for someone to make the case for Lincoln's greatness. This is where the Goodwin book comes in. Subtitled "The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," it argues that what others saw as dithering on Lincoln's part was actually a masterful game of eleven-dimensional chess. It's a somewhat livelier read than the other two, though that often means veering into 19th-century bromance (Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase: "to be loved by you and be told that you value my love is a gratification beyond my power to express") and off onto strange tangents (there's a long passage about, no joke, Lincoln's sons' playmates' older sister). None of these books, incidentally, paints a picture anything like the depressed, cancer-ridden homosexual that seems to have taken hold in the popular imagination over the past few years. So what was Lincoln like, at least according to these historians?


"Funny! That's all the people see in him — a maker of funny speeches!"

So fumed Susy Clemens, adored and adoring daughter of Samuel Clemens, better known — much to Susy's fury — as Mark Twain. Susy wanted her father to "show himself the great writer that he is, not merely a funny man." She might well have been pleased to learn that while Twain is still widely known as a humorist, he is even more widely known as just another one of those Great Writers — someone whose book kids get assigned in tenth grade, flip through a couple of times, and never realize is supposed to be funny. And had she been the daughter of Abraham Lincoln, she would doubtless have been ecstatic. Because I'm a history buff and yet it wasn't until reading these biographies that I learned that during his lifetime Lincoln was generally considered kind of a clown.

Lincoln grew up on the frontier, on homesteads hacked out of the wilderness along the Ohio River. Though he was an avid reader of those few books he could get his hands on, he was far from an introvert and relished being the center of attention. But being from the sticks, he lacked even the few social graces expected in the small Illinois towns where he settled upon coming of age; at one party he embarrassed his friends by exclaiming, "Oh, boys, how clean these girls look!" He didn't participate in the vices that people use to bond: he didn't drink, didn't hunt, didn't gamble. And he was considered hideously ugly. So how could he win the acceptance of his new community? His capacity for manual labor was a real asset — even something simple like his ability to hold an axe at arm's length for five minutes without his hand shaking was enough to impress a fair number of people. His unimpeachable honesty also served him well; when his debts piled up, instead of doing the usual thing and lighting out for the territories, he stuck around and paid off all his creditors over the course of several years. But first and foremost, he won people over with his endless supply of funny stories. A sample:

It appears that shortly after we had peace, Ethan Allen had occasion to visit England, and while there, the English took great pleasure in teasing him, and trying to make fun of the Americans and General Washington in particular. One day they got a picture of General Washington, and hung it up in the "Back House" where Mr. Allen could see it. They finally asked him if he saw that picture of his friend in the Back House. Mr. Allen said no, but that it was a very appropriate place for an Englishman to keep it. Why?, they asked. Said Mr. Allen, for there is nothing that will make an Englishman shit so quick as the sight of General Washington. And after that they let Mr. Allen's Washington alone.

Whether doing odd jobs as a young man in New Salem or riding circuit as one of Illinois's foremost lawyers, Lincoln had his in — he'd lurk on the edge of a gathering, wait for an opening, and then drawl, "That reminds me of a story..." Within a few moments the group would be roaring, and though he was, in his own words, a "strange, friendless, uneducated, penniless boy," the floor would be his for as long as he wanted it. It's the same story every comedian I've ever heard interviewed has told: that early discovery that, aha, this is how I'm going to be accepted.

When Lincoln moved into politics — for he was highly ambitious, had never been in a room in which he didn't consider himself the smartest man present, and followed the news very closely, a luxury afforded him by an early appointment as the local postmaster — it was natural that he would use comedy both to make political points and to tear down his opponents. In supporting Zachary Taylor's successful campaign for the presidency in 1848, for instance, Lincoln dismissed Democratic candidate Lewis Cass's war record, which the Democrats were trying to use as a chief selling point, by comparing it to his own; Lincoln had fought in the Black Hawk War, and in a line worthy of Twain, said that if Cass "saw any live, fighting Indians, it was more than I did, but I had a good many bloody struggles with the mosquitoes, and although I never fainted from loss of blood, I can truly say I was often very hungry." Sometimes he went even further, once sarcastically imitating Democratic rival Jesse Thomas to such humiliating effect that Thomas fled in tears. Lincoln later apologized. He hadn't meant to be so venomous; it was just that, when you're getting laughs, it's hard to stop. The result, however, was that Lincoln came to be seen as more of a gadfly than as someone trying to build a career as a serious legislator.

He didn't dispel this impression during his one term in Congress, when he took it upon himself to launch a series of broadsides against President James K. Polk for taking the nation to war against Mexico on false pretenses. Polk's defense of the war, Lincoln sneered, was "the half-insane mumbling of a fever dream," and Polk himself was "a bewildered, confounded, and miserably perplexed man" who had sent "a strong band of murderers and demons from hell to kill men, women, and children, and lay waste and pillage the land of the just." No humor there, just fierce invective. But it marked Lincoln as a man not to be taken seriously, for a surefire way to be marginalized in American politics is to oppose a war from the start. If you want to get invited onto the Sunday talk shows and billed as a level-headed expert, you have to be wrong about everything at first, be it the war or economic policy or what have you. Then later you explain how Nobody Could Have Predicted that we wouldn't be greeted as liberators, or that making the gambling industry the center of the economy might be a bad idea, while the host nods sagely. Those who actually did predict those things? They're just a bunch of dirty hippies. You can't listen to them. And the same was true in the 19th century. When Polk ordered the invasion of Mexico, a leading Whig, Justin Butterfield, was asked whether he was planning to oppose the war as he had opposed the War of 1812. No, he replied, "I opposed one war, and it ruined me. From now on I am for war, pestilence, and famine." Opposition to the war against Mexico ruined Lincoln as well, at least for a time. The Whigs refused even to renominate him, and he wouldn't hold office again until another decade had passed and the political landscape had been thoroughly scrambled.


We can see nothing, touch nothing, have no measures proposed, without having this pestilence thrust before us. Here it is, this black question, forever on the table, on the nuptial couch, everywhere!

That's Thomas Hart Benton, senator from Missouri, one-time attempted killer of and later steadfast ally of Andrew Jackson, and father of Jessie Benton Frémont, the writer and abolitionist whom Lincoln derided as a "female politician" in a pairing of words that he considered high comedy. Benton had been one of the chief proponents of the "Manifest Destiny" policy that had led to the war with Mexico; now he was irked to find that everyone was obsessed with such minor quibbles as whether or not settlers of the lands the U.S. had seized in that war could bring slaves along. He shouldn't have been so surprised. It wasn't the first time the issue had come up.

Slavery had been legal throughout the American colonies under British rule, but after declaring independence, many northern states quickly banned it. Their southern counterparts failed to follow suit. "Free" vs. "slave" quickly became shorthand for the two very different cultures that happened to share a government: one full of bustling cities and towns, dotted with factories, and shipping goods around through an elaborate network of canals; the other based on isolated plantations and the reduction of an entire race to chattel. William Henry Seward, Lincoln's secretary of state, took his family on a trip from his native New York to Virginia shortly after his first run for governor, and he was stunned by the extent to which crossing into the South meant entering a different world. The roads abruptly got much worse, and the farmhouses, taverns, and shops that had lined the route disappeared, replaced by "a waste, a broken tract of land, with here and there an old, decaying habitation." When they passed a slave driver whipping a procession of bound, naked, sobbing black children onward to an auction block, they cut short their vacation.

At independence, the vast majority of the American population lived along the Atlantic seaboard. Plantation agriculture was viable throughout much of this humid coastal region, and the line between the states that by 1804 would ban slavery and those that would retain it until the Civil War lay at 39°43', dividing the country roughly in half. But this was just an accident of geography. Had the 1775 invasion of Quebec been successful in bringing the vast cornfields of Canada into the Union, far more of the country would have lain north of that line than south of it, and the balance of free states to slave states would have been something like 11 to 6. Or if New England had been consolidated into a single political entity, as the Crown attempted in the 1680s, slave states might have outnumbered free states, perhaps by as large a tally as 6 to 2. For that matter, if plate tectonics had nudged the North American continent a few hundred miles north or south, that 39°43' line wouldn't have made for such an even split. In any of these cases, there would have been a clear default policy on slavery in the United States that could be applied to new territory. Take the region between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River, which Britain had won in the Seven Years' War and immediately set aside for the indigenous inhabitants. When it passed to the Americans at independence, Thomas Jefferson suggested that slavery be prohibited in the territory as of the year 1800, establishing a policy of confining slavery to the Atlantic coast, where it would eventually wither away. Others pointed out that by giving slavery sixteen years to take root in what would become known as the Midwest, Jefferson's proposal would very likely achieve the opposite effect: once a powerful slaveholding aristocracy had established itself, the plan would undoubtedly be revisited and the 1800 deadline dropped, and only the northeastern corner of the country would be free. The ordinance that was eventually adopted split the difference, banning slavery immediately, but only north of the Ohio River.

This turned out to be a fateful precedent. Years later, after Jefferson doubled the size of the country with the Louisiana Purchase, the question of how to deal with slavery in the new territory presented itself once again. This time the debate was rancorous enough that Jefferson considered it "the knell of the Union." Nor was he satisfied with the eventual solution, which was yet another partition: "a geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle," Jefferson fretted, was in effect an international border. States created in the aftermath of the Missouri Compromise would belong less to the Union than to the North or the South, as evidenced by the fact that they were admitted in pairs: each side felt its very existence threatened should the other gain even a one-state advantage in the Senate. But as Jefferson predicted, the Compromise was "a reprieve only." By 1837 the U.S. had twice as many states as it had had at independence — thirteen free, thirteen slave — but there was very little slave territory left to turn into future states. Florida and Oklahoma were it. Meanwhile, slavery was barred from the region that would later become Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. With Southerners John Tyler and James K. Polk in the White House, the U.S. set out to ensure that the South could maintain parity. Hence the annexation of Texas, with a provision that it could subdivide into five states. Hence the decision to drop claims to what would become British Columbia: it meant at least one fewer free state. ("Fifty-Four Forty or Fight" was a response to Polk, not a campaign slogan.) And hence the war with Mexico.

As Abraham Lincoln served his single term in the House, that war was drawing to a close. The United States had captured the capital a few months earlier, and some Northern Democrats were clamoring for the annexation of the entirety of Mexico. Racism prevented Southern leaders from going that far — John Calhoun protested that "to incorporate Mexico would be the very first instance of the kind of incorporating an Indian race, for more than half of the Mexicans are Indians and the other is composed chiefly of mixed tribes; I protest against such a union as that!" — but Mississippi senator and future Confederate president Jefferson Davis proposed that the Mexican cession include Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, Coahuila, and Chihuahua. Four new slave states! But Polk had set forth as his war aims the acquisition only of Alta California and New Mexico (which included modern-day Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and Arizona), and when his chief negotiator sent him a treaty securing those territories, he had little choice but to pass it on to the Senate as written. Much of this land lay south of the Missouri Compromise line of 36°30'... but it also lay west of the 100th meridian, where the lack of rainfall made plantation agriculture virtually impossible. Southern California seemed like it might work as a slave state, but unbeknownst to all involved in the signing and ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, gold had been discovered at Sutter's Mill. Miners flocked to California in sufficient numbers to qualify it for statehood virtually overnight. They had no intention of competing with slave labor. And since Southern planters hadn't had enough time to take up residence south of Monterey and establish a separate society that would justify a partition, the entirety of California came into the Union as a single free state.

Here was the result. Darker gray represents slave states; lighter gray, slave territories; darkest blue, free states; lighter blue, free territories; lightest blue, states and territories legally open to slavery but west of the 100th meridian:

In 1858 Abraham Lincoln declared that "this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free." By that point Southerners had been fretting about this possibility for a decade, but they meant something different by it. It wasn't that "half slave and half free" was inherently unstable — it was that when you looked at the map it was clear that "half slave" within the existing borders meant more like "a quarter slave" under the future ones. And that was inherently unstable, for without parity of representation, the South (or rather the Southeast) could only keep slavery by the sufferance of the North (or rather the other three corners of the country). To maintain that parity, the South needed slavery to expand. When doughface Franklin Pierce became president, the U.S. tried all sorts of schemes to add potential new slave territory — threatening to seize Cuba from the Spanish, supporting a pirate who had conquered Nicaragua on behalf of American slaveholders — but they were never going to be enough to make up the difference. Slavery would have to expand into the free areas.

The U.S. history classes I took in 8th and 11th grade spent a lot of time talking about abolitionism and the Underground Railroad, and it's easy to understand why. Abolitionists, though a fringe group until 1860, were the only people whose views on slavery — that it's an abominable evil that must be stamped out everywhere without delay — align with those of sane people today. The Underground Railroad, though its impact was negligible, was an example of blacks actively engineering their own escape, which made it a natural candidate to be emphasized in curricula that aimed to convey the agency of oppressed groups. But it now seems to me that the attention paid to these topics ironically supports a more sinister agenda, for it's easy to come away with the impression that in the 1850s the Southern way of life was threatened by Northern agitators and slaves fleeing in droves. Everything I've read recently suggests that the opposite was true: that in the 1850s the South embarked on an energetic program to undermine the Northern way of life by making slavery legal everywhere in the country. "There are two antagonistical elements of society in America," Seward noted at the time, "freedom and slavery. Freedom is in harmony with our system of government and with the spirit of the age, and is therefore passive and quiescent. Slavery is in conflict with that system, with justice, and with humanity, and is therefore organized, defensive, active, and perpetually aggressive." No wonder that Lincoln could call the expansion of slavery "not only the greatest question, but very nearly the sole question" the country faced, and that the party system would reorient itself with the issue of slavery as its primary axis.


In 1982 Alexander Cockburn wrote an article lampooning the way that the supposedly left-leaning media acted as a conservative force by narrowing the political spectrum to the far right vs. the center-right:

MACNEIL: Good evening. The problem is as old as man himself. Do property rights extend to the absolute ownership of one man by another? Tonight, the slavery problem. Jim?

LEHRER: Robin, advocates of the continuing system of slavery argue that the practice has brought unparalleled benefits to the economy. They fear that new regulations being urged by reformers would undercut America's economic effectiveness abroad. Reformers, on the other hand, call for legally binding standards and even for a phased reduction in the slave force to something like 75 percent of its present size.

In 1982 this was an allegory for contemporary debates such as the Israel/Lebanon conflict and James Watt's offshore oil drilling plan. In the 1850s, this was the actual debate. On the right, you had Southerners who, following in the footsteps of John Calhoun, argued that slavery was a "positive good" for all involved and that any restrictions on it were unconstitutional. In the center, you had Northerners who believed that slavery should be kept within its current limits, or at least to those established by the Missouri Compromise. These moderates were routinely smeared as "abolitionists" by those who considered the term an all-purpose pejorative. Now, certainly there were uncompromising abolitionists out there, writing books and printing newspapers... much as there are advocates of social democracy in America today banging out articles for the blogs. But just as mainstream politicians today leap clear of the term "socialist," those of the 1850s vehemently denied the abolitionist label.

In 1855, Lincoln responded to claims that he was an abolitionist by protesting that "I think I am a Whig," but conceded that "others say there are no Whigs." Those "others" were basically correct. Lincoln had come of age in an era when the chief political division was between the Democrats, who favored unrestrained expansion at the expense of development, and the Whigs, who, in Lincoln's words, "did not believe in enlarging our field, but in keeping our fences where they are and cultivating our present possession, making it a garden, improving the morals and education of the people." Lincoln was temperamentally inclined toward the latter camp, being personally abstemious and a big fan of the idea of bringing to the frontier such amenities as schools, libraries, and bridges. He also hailed from Clay country and adopted the Whig standard-bearer as his political hero. But by the time Lincoln made it to Washington, the battle had been lost. As the national conversation pivoted from whether the U.S. should seize foreign land to how to deal with slavery in the land that had been seized, the Whigs found themselves increasingly split along sectional lines. The point of no return came in 1854 when Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed the settlers of a territory to decide at the ballot box whether to allow slavery within its boundaries, regardless of latitude. 100% of Northern Whigs voted against it; 63% of Southern Whigs came out in its favor. Both groups, appalled at the other, had members flee in droves to form new political parties. The Democratic Party didn't completely shatter in this way, but blocs of legislators had formally declared themselves "Nebraska Democrats" or "Anti-Nebraska Democrats" in the run-up to the 1854 midterms. When the chief architect of the new law, Democratic senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, returned home to campaign for the former group, an opening appeared for a local figure to make the case against him. Abraham Lincoln, who'd been out of circulation for five years riding the circuit as a country lawyer, relaunched his political career by taking on that role.

Lincoln continued to play the comedian at times, contrasting the 1849 Douglas with the 1854 Douglas in a Daily Show-style set piece, and declaring that Douglas's doctrine of popular sovereignty was "as thin as the homeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had starved to death." But Lincoln also impressed audiences with his ability to set forth his points using simple logic, which he worked out in his notes:

If A can prove, however conclusively, that he may, of right, enslave B, why may not B snatch the same argument, and prove equally that he may enslave A? You say A is white and B is black. It is color, then, the lighter having the right to enslave the darker? Take care! By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet with a fairer skin than your own. You do not mean color exactly? You mean the whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and therefore have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be slave to be the first man you meet with an intellect superior to your own. But, say you, it is a question of interest, and if you can make it your interest, you have the right to enslave another. Very well. And if he can make it his interest, he has the right to enslave you.

Over the next few years Lincoln and Douglas would be perpetual sparring partners in an oddly asymmetrical rivalry: Douglas was the leading statesman of the day, and Lincoln was that guy out west who followed Douglas around giving rebuttal speeches. Lincoln tried to remedy this early on, turning down a seat in the Illinois House of Representatives in order to try to join Douglas in the U.S. Senate. Direct election of senators by the people wasn't instituted until 1913, so his fate rested with the state legislature, where anti-Nebraska forces held a slim majority. But though he led on the first ballot, the Anti-Nebraska Democrats refused to vote for a Whig, and Lincoln wound up throwing his support to an Anti-Nebraska Democrat lest a Nebraska Democrat win. In what would become a recurring theme, Lincoln's loss raised his profile as a political figure. When he did eventually did shuffle over to the organization that was attempting to gather all those opposed to the expansion of slavery together under one umbrella, the newly founded Republican Party, he was considered enough of a catch that he came in second for the 1856 vice-presidential nomination. When Lincoln heard about this, he quipped that "I reckon that ain't me — there's another great man in Massachusetts named Lincoln and I reckon it's him."

It says something about Lincoln's ego that at the same time he was being self-deprecating he could refer to his Massachusetts counterpart as "another" great man. The Republicans were certainly glad to have him, but a fledgling party like theirs would hardly establish itself as a major force in American politics by adding a one-term congressman to its roster. But the prime mover of the Senate? That was another matter. So when Stephen Douglas broke with his fellow Democrats over their moves to bring in Kansas as a slave state after a fraudulent referendum, many eastern Republicans were eager to scoop him up. Give him a free pass back to the Senate in 1858, they urged their Illinois colleagues, and Douglas would very likely run for and win the presidency on the Republican ticket in 1860.

This idea didn't sit well with Lincoln. Lincoln was not, in the parlance of our times, a purity troll — he blamed the Polk presidency in large part on those uncompromising opponents of slavery who, instead of holding their noses and voting for Clay in 1844, had voted for Liberty Party candidate James Birney and thereby tipped New York to the Democrats. He agreed that the Republican project had to go beyond reconsituting the Whig Party under another name. They had to build a big enough tent to be able to win elections, and yes, that meant bringing in some former Democrats. But which Democrats? Some were much better fits for the Republicans than others. It was important to ask why potential recruits had been Democrats in the first place. Was it that they saw the Democrats as the heirs to Jefferson's philosophy? If so, Lincoln encouraged them to join the Republicans posthaste:

The Jefferson party was formed upon its supposed superior devotion to the personal rights of men, holding the rights of property to be secondary only, and greatly inferior. [...] The Democrats of today hold the liberty of one man to be absolutely nothing when in conflict with another man's right of property. Republicans, on the contrary, are for both the man and the dollar, but in cases of conflict, the man before the dollar.

I remember once being much amused at seeing two partially intoxicated men engage in a fight with their great-coats on. The fight, after a long and rather harmless contest, ended in each having fought himself out of his own coat, and into that of the other. If the two leading parties of this day are really identical with the two in the days of Jefferson and Adams, they have performed the same feat as the two drunken men.

Seward hit on something very similar when he started referring to the free and slave states as "labor states" and "capital states," respectively. Jefferson had exalted agriculture over manufacturing because, in his view, the viability of a republic depended on the independence of its citizens, and you couldn't be truly independent if you didn't grow your own food. Those who bought their food with wages were at the mercy of those who supplied the money; even ostensibly independent artisans were dependent upon their clients. Jefferson feared that the unequal relationship between employees and employers would become entrenched as a class divide, leading to aristocracy and the end of representative democracy. What Seward pointed out — what being a member of an avowedly anti-slavery party freed him to point out — was that plantation owners didn't grow their own food either. Their slaves grew it. The Jeffersonian ideal of a country of totally self-reliant farmers had never become a reality. In its place were two Americas, one of wealth and one of work. So, yes, a Northern laborer might trade his skills or the strength of his back for a meal and a place to sleep, as Lincoln had done. He hadn't produced the food he ate, but he'd made an equivalent contribution to the commonwealth from which he drew. Was that so unseemly? If so, what were we to make of the Southern gentleman whose ability to feed himself was contingent upon living in a society that allowed him to appropriate what others had produced, and who did nothing himself? Who was more independent? Who was closer to being an aristocrat?

It's interesting to note that here was a major American political party accusing its opponents of being capitalists in much the same manner that modern Republicans point at their opponents and cry "socialists!" You may not care about the plight of the slave, the argument went, but consider the slaveowner who inherited a massive estate and then further enriched himself, not by contributing anything to the commonwealth, but simply by cleverly shuffling around what he owned to end up owning more. As Lincoln put it, Southern society was animated by the "spirit that says, 'You work and toil and earn bread, and I'll eat it.'" Is that fair? Nowadays, of course, American pundits would react to such an argument with a dismissive sneer of "class warfare." Mainstream ideology encourages people to give up productive work as soon as possible and join the "ownership society," making money by flipping houses or winning at the dog track that is the stock market. And, hey, I'm certainly on board with the idea that there's nothing intrinsically virtuous about labor. But, ultimately, someone has to perform the drudge work that keeps society functioning. These days a huge proportion of the goods Americans consume, and a fair proportion of the services of which we avail ourselves, are brought to us by cheap labor overseas and foreign workers within the U.S. The problem is that this dramatically narrows down the range of possibilities for Americans who need to work for a living. If they want to maintain a first-world lifestyle they need to find a profession in which they don't have to compete with third-world labor. Now imagine living in the 1850s and needing to compete with slave labor. If you weren't a slaveholder, starting a farm in a territory that allowed slavery was economic suicide, a 19th-century equivalent of opening a mom-and-pop general store next door to a Walmart. The Republicans, unlike the Whigs, were able to unify around a promise to preserve the territories as places where free men could compete against each other on a level playing field. This message was very appealing to poorer whites who had joined the Democrats because the Whigs were the party of bankers and industrialists.

Many others were Democrats because the Whig Party had a xenophobic, nativist streak in it that alienated non-WASPs. With the dissolution of the Whigs, these nativists wound up forming the Native American Party, later the just plain American Party, better known as the Know-Nothings. Lincoln was happy to see the Know-Nothings go and eager to bring in the white ethnics they'd driven away. He argued that America should be "an outlet for free white people everywhere, the world over, in which Hans and Baptiste and Patrick and all other men from all the world may find new homes." And in a letter to a friend he wrote, "As a nation, we began by declaring that 'all men are created equal.' We now practically read it 'all men are created equal, except negroes. When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read 'all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.' When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure."

But Stephen Douglas wasn't a Democrat for any of the reasons above. He was a Democrat for reasons that became apparent when Lincoln disregarded the eastern Republicans' advice and pressed on with his Senate campaign. Douglas took the position that he had nothing personal against Lincoln, whom he described as "a kind-hearted, amiable, good-natured gentleman." He merely objected to "the monstrous revolutionary doctrines with which he is identified and which he conscientiously entertains." You can probably guess that the first of those doctrines was abolition; the second was amalgamation, which backers of slavery warned would be the inevitable result. Amalgamation was the contemporary term for racial intermarriage. One banner in Douglas's 1858 Senate campaign depicted what it claimed would be the inevitable result of "NEGRO EQUALITY": a family consisting of a white man, a black woman, and a mixed-race boy. A cartoon from the 1864 presidential campaign would later depict something similar, a "miscegenation ball" at which white men danced with black women beneath Lincoln's smiling portrait. Lincoln was forced to counter that, while he was personally opposed to slavery, he was not an abolitionist — he preferred a program in which slaveholders would be handsomely compensated for voluntarily freeing their slaves, and expected that if confined to the South the institution would die out of its own accord by the year 1950 or so — and was certainly not an amalgamationist. "I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. My understanding is that I can just let her alone."

This "white man, black woman" stuff is fascinating for a couple of reasons. One is that it's an obvious case of projection. Which white men were having children with black women? Not free-thinking Northerners — Southern slaveholders! Thomas Jefferson, for one! The other is that it's a case of 19th-century dog whistling — a way of calling to mind a specter so terrifying to its target audience that it couldn't even be spoken aloud. Douglas occasionally hinted at it, asserting that those who wanted black men to "ride in a carriage with your wife" should vote for his opponents. See, it's hard to participate in the daily torture of four million people. Unless you're genuinely psychotic you have to have some sort of psychological compensation mechanism. One mechanism is denial. Another is to construct mental chains of association that scare you into continuing along your present path. There are many reasons the conflict over slavery led to civil war, but one of the main ones is that it's hard to reason with people when every time you say "free" they hear "free to fuck my daughter." You'll always be talking past each other.

Compare the attempt to lure Douglas into the Republican Party to similar moves by the Democrats over the past few years. Modern Democrats, George Lakoff argues, see the ideal government official as a skilled architect and administrator of programs that help people reach their potential in society. Those who view their roles similarly, but disagree about matters of policy, can conceivably be won over: Arlen Specter would fall into this category. But no number of policy agreements can bridge the gulf separating those who believe in government as a "nurturant parent" from those who subscribe to the "strict father" model. For all that John Kerry and John McCain had in common, the Kerry/McCain ticket that was floated in 2004 could never have worked, for McCain — like Bush, like Reagan — thought his job as a government official was to wave his dick around and lay the smackdown on bad guys. And Stephen Douglas was more of a McCain than a Specter. He happened to align with the Republicans against the Lecompton constitution, but that was simply a matter of policy — nothing compared to the bond of psychosexual race terror he shared with the Democrats.


The first Republican presidential candidate, in 1856, was the adventurer John C. Frémont, an eccentric enough character that Democrats had some success in painting him as a crazy radical whose party was made up of straight-edge vegetarian feminist socialists who believed in sexual freedom and racial equality. (Sign me up!) They also threw in a whisper campaign that he was secretly Catholic, figuring that actual Catholics would still vote Democratic while the Know-Nothings would drop any thought of voting Republican. The 1856 results gave the Republicans a precise target to hit in 1860. They needed someone who was plainly not any kind of extremist, and who could hold all the states Frémont had won (all New England plus New York, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa) while picking up Pennsylvania and Illinois.

The frontrunner was William Henry Seward, governor of and then senator from New York. He had the résumé and the gravitas to be president, a savvy handler in Thurlow Weed, and an affable manner that made him one of the luminaries of the Washington boys' club, who frequently gathered at his mansion for whiskey, cigars, and stories. But Seward was also sort of the Howard Dean of his time: a quintessential moderate who managed to garner a reputation as a far-out liberal. In Seward's case, it was particular turns of phrase that came back to haunt him: a speech in 1850 contending that there was "a higher law than the Constitution" that made slavery immoral, another in 1858 that asserted that the "irrepressible conflict" between the economic systems of the North and South meant that one of those systems was doomed. Republican power brokers feared that such remarks could cost Seward those crucial extra states. Another candidate, Salmon P. Chase, senator from and then governor of Ohio, actually was as far to the left as Seward was perceived to be; though he didn't believe in abolishing slavery in one stroke, he did think government should take active steps to gradually shut it down, rather than confining it to its current boundaries and letting it die out, as Seward and Lincoln preferred. Chase was very happy to speak to and receive awards from black organizations, and spent much of his early career drafting platforms for anti-slavery parties: the Liberty Party, the Free Soil Party, and eventually the Republicans. But Chase was personally disliked by many in his party, and the number-crunchers pointed out that if Seward couldn't win the moderate Northern states, Chase certainly couldn't either. The list went on. Former Whigs wouldn't vote for former Democrats. Southern candidates who might win in places like Missouri and Maryland would lose New England and the upper Midwest. Which seemed to bring it back around again to Seward, unless a candidate could be found who was unequivocally anti-slavery and could be trusted to keep the territories free, yet who had committed not to touch slavery where it existed; someone likeable, with a common touch; and he'd have to be a former Whig, most likely, and if he hailed from Pennsylvania or Illinois, all the better.

The problem was that the closest fit to those specifications was Abraham Lincoln, and he was nobody. In a field with multiple candidates who'd been both governors and senators — heck, even Frémont had been both a governor and senator, even if it was just California — Lincoln had spent most of his political career in the Illinois statehouse, then spent all of two years in Washington. He was also a repeat loser: lost the 1854 Senate race, lost the 1856 VP nomination, lost the 1858 Senate race... I'm trying to think of a modern politician with an equivalent record and the names I'm coming up with are Tom Strickland, Erskine Bowles, Dino Rossi. Imagine one of these guys somehow winning a major party's presidential nomination. Who are they, you ask? Yeah, exactly. But Lincoln had a card to play that these guys didn't: he was a compelling public speaker. So in early 1860 Lincoln traveled to New York to deliver a speech at the brand-new Cooper Union and show off his rhetorical chops. A brief excerpt:

Even though the Southern people will not so much as listen to us, let us calmly consider their demands, and [...] let us determine, if we can, what will satisfy them. Will they be satisfied if the territories be unconditionally surrendered to them? We know they will not. In all their present complaints against us, the territories are scarcely mentioned. Invasions and insurrections are the rage now. Will it satisfy them if in the future we have nothing to do with invasions and insurrections? We know it will not. We so know because we know we never had anything to do with invasions and insurrections, and yet this total abstaining does not exempt us from the charge and the denunciation.
The question recurs, what will satisfy them? Simply this: We must not only let them alone, but we must somehow convince them that we do let them alone. This, we know by experience, is no easy task. [...] In all our platforms and speeches we have constantly protested our purpose to let them alone; but this has had no tendency to convince them. Alike unavailing to convince them is the fact that they have never detected a man of us in any attempt to disturb them. These natural and apparently adequate means all failing, what will convince them? This, and this only: cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right. [...] I am quite aware they do not state their case precisely in this way. Most of them would probably say to us, "Let us alone, do nothing to us, and say what you please about slavery." But we do let them alone — have never disturbed them — so that, after all, it is what we say which dissatisfies them. They will continue to accuse us of doing, until we cease saying.

The Cooper Union speech was a wild success. Lincoln's line of argument was, by nearly all accounts, pitch-perfect: he simultaneously affirmed that the Republicans were not abolitionists while correctly placing the blame for the escalating sectional tension on the South. Specifically, he identified that the dispute wasn't really about policy or even ethics. The problem was that in exchange for a higher material standard of living, Southern aristocrats had not only destroyed the lives of millions of people, but lived cheek by jowl with their victims. Deep down, they knew that they were constantly surrounded by people who most likely wanted to kill them and were morally justified in wanting to do so. So Northerners didn't actually have to do anything to threaten their way of life — all they had to do was mutter that slavery was wrong, and this reminder triggered the repressed fear of slave revolt and eternal damnation that was always simmering below the surface in the white Southern psyche.

Lincoln followed up his triumph at Cooper Union with a tour of New England, where he had a slightly different task: rather than reassuring moderates that he wasn't an abolitionist, he had to explain to abolitionists why he wasn't. This time he took a different approach, switching from lawyerly logic to folksy metaphor:

If I saw a venomous snake crawling in the road, any man would say I might seize the nearest stick and kill it; but if I found that snake in bed with my children, that would be another question. I might hurt the children more than the snake, and it might bite them. Much more if I found it in bed with my neighbor's children, and I had bound myself by a solemn compact not to meddle with his children under any circumstances, it would become me to let that particular mode of getting rid of the gentleman alone. But if there was a bed newly made up, to which the children were to be taken, and it was proposed to take a batch of young snakes and put them there with them, I take it no man would say there was any question how I ought to decide!

At the beginning of these speeches, curious Northeasterners found themselves looking at a gangly specimen in ill-fitting clothes lurching around the stage and filling the hall with an unpleasant backwoods falsetto; by the end, many of them thought they were looking at a future president. Now considered a serious contender for the nomination, Lincoln got together with his team and devised a strategy to clinch the deal: work to get the convention held on home turf, offend no one, become everyone's second choice, and pick up votes as rival candidates fell by the wayside. Though Seward led on the first two ballots, the anti-Seward forces stampeded to Lincoln on the third, and he became the nominee. The Democratic press, which had been prepared to lay into the famous senator from New York, scrambled to find a line of attack against this dark horse from Illinois. Eventually it settled on assailing him as nothing more than a "fourth rate lecturer" with no experience. But in 1860 there were vanishingly few swing voters. Hundreds of thousands of Republicans throughout the north put on paramilitary uniforms — with capes! — to participate in torchlight parades; they weren't going to be swayed by an editorial in the New York Herald. Lincoln defeated Douglas 180 to 3 in the electoral vote in the free states. In the slave states he won zero, because he wasn't even on the ballot in the vast majority of them. But it only took 152 to win, so Abraham Lincoln was elected president. By the time he took office, having sneaked into Washington in disguise to avoid assassins in Baltimore, seven states had seceded.

continue to part two >>

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