...a vividly written, wide-ranging and often surprising account of the president-to-be ... Blumenthal follows Lincoln’s circuitous journey into the Republicans’ embrace with an acute eye for the nuances of political rhetoric and the tactics of the committee room. He offers rich insight into strategic maneuvering in an era that relished politics both as the founders’ greatest gift to a free people and as an often ferocious blood sport. At a time when Americans may fantasize returning to a kinder and gentler style of politics, Blumenthal reminds us that every age has been fraught with anxiety and dread, and that in government, times are always tough, and the future uncertain.
In these pages, Blumenthal draws one vivid picture after another of these least-known years of Lincoln's life ... [Rival Senator Stephen] Douglas is in some ways the star of Wrestling with His Angel; he's magnificently, complexly portrayed throughout ... Blumenthal makes no secret of his affection for his subject; although intelligent and rigorous with its sources, this is a deeply sympathetic account of the Lincoln the man. But it's also unblinking in taking the measure of Lincoln the pragmatic politician, Lincoln the career politician whose personal ambition lies at odds with the more standard hagiographies but fits perfectly with the epic, multi-faceted portrait Blumenthal is volume-by-volume assembling here ... It's a tribute to Blumenthal's art that he's managed to make a period in Lincoln's life that most biographers brush past in haste a deeply fascinating story in its own right.
Although The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln is anything but a conventional biography, it often reads like a series of biographical sketches. Blumenthal cites a number of previous biographies that provide a substantial proportion of his source material. And although he draws on many of the major speeches and writings of the characters he discusses, these two volumes are works of synthesis more than of original scholarship. Where Blumenthal does rely on primary sources, they are often memoirs or recollections that are not always reliable ... As expansive as his understanding of Lincoln’s political world is, Blumenthal’s account is in other ways narrowly conceived. This is a view of history in which politics is largely explained by reference to more politics...And yet this may be unfair, a case of a critic complaining that the author should have written a different book. Blumenthal is the ideal author for the kind of history he writes. He has a journalist’s eye for the telling detail, and he passes judgment with the skill of a practiced polemicist ... For anyone wondering why Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation so soon after taking office, Sidney Blumenthal’s expansive political life of the sixteenth president is a good place to start looking for an answer.
What comes across clearly in this volume is that even in their early obscurity, Lincoln and [Senator Stephen] Douglas were Illinois rivals, though the struggle between the two was seldom a fair fight, for Douglas was so much more polished, so much more eloquent, so much more powerful ... in these pages we see the green shoots of the mature Lincoln — the notion, first, that his priority was saving the Union rather than eviscerating slavery; then the image, borrowed from the New Testament, of a house divided; and, finally, the rhetorical use of the preamble of the Declaration of Independence as a touchstone for his creed. What Blumenthal sets out in Wrestling With His Angel is really 'The Making of the President' — of President Abraham Lincoln and of the nation that a man without religion (but suffused with faith and religious imagery) would help become born again.
Channeling Shakespeare, Lincoln’s favorite author, Blumenthal has assembled an extensive dramatis personae to stand at the front of each book, but in his overstuffed volumes, the narrative effect is less Macbeth or Hamlet than an antebellum version of Game of Thrones. Across these pages, various factions of House Jackson and House Clay jockey for power in the capital, even as a more desperate and more elemental struggle—over the future of slavery and freedom on the continent—begins to take shape … This is the history of politics as a history of politicians. Yet on the politicians themselves, Blumenthal delivers the goods. Although Lincoln did not found the mass antislavery movement, when it arrived in 1854, he soon became one of its indispensable leaders.
How he emerged from that wilderness — how 'he entered his wilderness years a man in pieces and emerged on the other end a coherent steady figure' — is the story Blumenthal tells with panache and understanding ... Blumenthal has spent his life in the interconnected worlds of politics and journalism, and it shows: He grasps that political genius in ways others could not, making Lincoln more politically plausible.
Mr. Blumenthal brings a sharp, battle-honed political mind to the task of re-telling this seemingly familiar story ... If big themes undergird the book, the author also relishes the fine details of family rivalries and small acts of revenge ... Wrestling With His Angel manages to put flesh on the dry bones of forgotten political characters ... Wrestling With His Angel retells this crucial chapter in Lincoln’s story with fresh eyes, ones that don’t miss its relevance to today.
Blumenthal justifies this volume’s length with a granular examination of the state of American politics in a period that he believes is essential to understanding Lincoln’s 'presence in the transforming events that would eventually carry him to the presidency and their profound influence upon him' ... [the] relative obscurity justifies Blumenthal’s prodigious amount of detail, which he conveys accessibly, while making his case that the Civil War was not simply a calamity into which the country haplessly blundered.