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For his first 45 years, Lincoln cut many figures: dirt-poor farm boy in Indiana, hackish Whig politico in Springfield, prosperous railroad lawyer riding the Illinois circuit.But few of these roles, in a strict sense, had much to do with the colossal drama that tore the union apart and made Lincoln a world-historical symbol of emancipation.—Sidney Blumenthal approaches this dilemma with a winningly old-fashioned strategy.World Cat, an online catalog of global library holdings, lists nearly 24,000 books on Lincoln, more than the numbers for George Washington and Adolf Hitler combined.But his life also presents a formidable challenge: how to square Lincoln’s real and appealing ordinariness—“one rais’d through the commonest average of life,” as Walt Whitman put it—with his utterly extraordinary career.His study of Lincoln is not a pure biography so much as something that 19th-century readers would have understood as a “life and times”: a sweeping narrative of antebellum American politics in which our hero only intermittently dominates the action.

Blumenthal reads it as an ironic warning shot aimed at the would-be Napoleon of the Illinois Democrats, the five-foot-tall Stephen Douglas.It also produces a narrative that careens fitfully across the mid-19th-century American scene.In every section of Blumenthal’s first two volumes, there is a digressive chapter; in every chapter, a digressive paragraph; in every paragraph, a digressive parenthesis.Weak entrants into the field of battle are summarily drawn and quartered: The New York radical Gerrit Smith is dismissed as a “delusional…trust fund abolitionist”; the “preternaturally bland” Millard Fillmore comes off as “a man without qualities,” whose “vanity exceeded his mediocrity.” Of the obese and unimaginative Democrat Lewis Cass, Blumenthal writes that “he had the momentum of inertia.” But what really distinguishes Blumenthal’s analysis is his focus on politics as a relentless war for public opinion.In 1844, for instance, Congressman John Quincy Adams stormed over to the State Department and charged Secretary John C.