On August 3, 1846, the day Abraham Lincoln won election to his only term in Congress, the gangly, 37-year-old country lawyer was unknown outside his Illinois district. America was a country of 28 states, largely unsettled west of the Mississippi. Political divisions were framed by non-regional differences on economic issues—tariffs, the national bank, the federal government’s role in infrastructure—much as it had been since the party system first developed 50 years before. Slavery was not, nor had ever been, central to the national debate. All of that was about to change.
Five days after Lincoln’s election, New York Democrat David Wilmot took to the floor of the lame duck Congress to propose an amendment to a military spending bill. The rider stipulated that any land acquired from the current war with Mexico would be organized as free territory. Suddenly, all the issues that had dominated the republic’s first half century faded. From the galleries above, the new alignments could be seen as Southern Whigs crossed party lines to vote no and Northern Democrats did the same to vote yes. Though America’s statesmen would hold it off for another 14 years, the Civil War was now inevitable. An ambitious young man, hungry for a life of consequence, could have picked no better cue to enter the national stage.
Chris DeRose opens his new book, Congressman Lincoln, with the lament that “we seldom begin with the end and skip over the middle.” The statement is as true of Lincoln as it is of the time he lived. Though his leadership during the epic of the Civil War has cemented Lincoln in America’s imagination, it was as a congressman during the lesser-known Mexican-American War that our greatest president was made.
DeRose’s central narrative focuses on Lincoln’s growth as a legislator, politician and party leader. Arriving in Washington, D.C. like “an overgrown school boy,” Lincoln was awed by the architecture, history and ghastly ironies of the capital, “home to some of the busiest slave pens in the nation.” Lincoln’s first moves in the House were halting and clumsy. In company he was friendly, but quiet and reserved. By the end of his term, however, Lincoln had become one of the House’s most popular and respected speakers. He had learned the traps and snares of procedure to expertly guide a roads and bridges bill through committee and then the floor, building both cross-regional and bi-partisan support—no easy task in a body as violently divided as the 30th Congress. On campaign swings for the 1848 Taylor/Fillmore ticket, Lincoln cut his teeth on the national stump, sharpening the message discipline and folksy logic he would bring to his later runs for both the Senate and the presidency.
As with Lincoln, DeRose’s skills are best on display in the halls of the Capitol. The book delivers a thrilling account of the dramatic events, bizarre characters, weighty issues and nuts and bolts procedures of the tumultuous 30th Congress. Oftentimes resembling more a backyard cookout than a legislative body, the setting comes complete with numerous fist fights, open prostitution, and members too intoxicated to be seen in public, “but not too drunk to weigh in on the most critical issues facing a republic in crisis.” Bitterness over the administration’s war policies had left Congress “paralyzed by partisan divisions” that make our current body seem congenial. To cross the aisle was not only to risk your career in the next primary, but to risk your very life.
Though the book handles well the honing of Lincoln’s powers, the lack of attention to his philosophical development leaves this origin story feeling incomplete. Lincoln had campaigned for Congress as a typical Whig machine politician, “in favor of a national bank… the internal improvements system, and a high protective tariff.” On the issues of slavery and the then-popular conflict with Mexico, Lincoln had been mostly silent. Within a year of his arrival in the capital, however, the national mood had changed. The fighting in the war was over, but with no treaty yet signed, the occupation of Mexico was growing more unpopular by the day. New lands were being added to the United States, turning it into the continental empire we recognize today. As Wilmot had foreshadowed, the central conflict of the 30th Congress was whether the new states would enter the union free or slave. Lincoln, who craved a larger role in the workings of the world, now had his chance. Always the futurist, Lincoln used the federal post system like some pre-electric internet, promoting his speeches to correspondents throughout the country. Mailing by mailing, Lincoln remade himself into Congress’ most outspoken agitator against the president’s justifications for war and a leader in the fight to halt the extension of slavery. In two short years he had risen from a backwoods legislator to a national voice on the hottest topics of the day.
Historians have long wrestled with these developments in the policies of Lincoln. Was he a principled philosopher, biding his time for the perfect moment to strike? Or was he a business-as-usual politician, hungry for power and distinction?
For DeRose, Lincoln’s vacillations on war and his compromises on slavery are not evidence of a flexible moral core, but the tactics of a brilliant pragmatist and canny political strategist. When Lincoln presents a bill which would have ended slavery in the District of Columbia, the inclusion of a fugitive slave clause makes the bill the “kind of balanced legislation needed to pass a badly divided house.” Lincoln’s legal work for a disgruntled slave-owner is excused because “it was considered unethical to turn away representation on the basis of ideological disagreements.” His support for presidential candidate Zachary Taylor—a slave-owner and hero of the war he had fought so hard to stop—“was simple for Lincoln;” Taylor was the only Whig who could win and any Whig was better than any Democrat—on slavery and the other issues important to Lincoln.
Perhaps Lincoln’s shifts and compromises were not pure opportunism, but the idea that he entered Congress with fully formed and virtuous convictions is a difficult sell. Though Lincoln had a history of being personally against slavery, it was never an issue featured on his political agenda before 1847. Surely national sentiment against the war and exposure to his radical abolitionist housemates had some sway on his thinking. Has DeRose fallen victim to the lure of Lincoln as somehow more than human, born whole of mind and thus incapable of calculation, poor moral judgment, or lust for power? Lincoln was, after all, “the most ambitious man in the world.”
Like any epic’s central figure, Lincoln does not need to be flawless to be the hero. He does not need to have always believed something in order to be right when he finally does. Too often in our history and politics we seem to think it can go only one of either way—it is perfect and so it is great, or it is flawed and so it is a sham. Exposing Americans to the full Lincoln palette, complete with its dark, introspective shadows, would not only be a service to the story, but a service to the man and the country he served; it would not make Lincoln less heroic, but more so.