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Wrestling With His Angel

The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Vol. II, 1849-1856

About The Book

The “magisterial” (The New York Times Book Review) second volume of Sidney Blumenthal’s acclaimed, landmark biography, The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, reveals the future president’s genius during the most decisive period of his political life when he seizes the moment, finds his voice, and helps create a new political party.

In 1849, Abraham Lincoln seems condemned to political isolation and defeat. His Whig Party is broken in the 1852 election, and disintegrates. His perennial rival, Stephen Douglas, forges an alliance with the Southern senators and Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. Violent struggle breaks out on the plains of Kansas, a prelude to the Civil War.

Lincoln rises to the occasion. Only he can take on Douglas in Illinois. He finally delivers the dramatic speech that leaves observers stunned. In 1855, he makes a race for the Senate against Douglas, which he loses when he throws his support to a rival to prevent the election of a proslavery candidate. In Wrestling With His Angel, Sidney Blumenthal explains how Lincoln and his friends operate behind the scenes to destroy the anti-immigrant party in Illinois to clear the way for a new Republican Party. Lincoln takes command and writes its first platform and vaults onto the national stage as the leader of a party that will launch him to the presidency.

The Washington Monthly hailed Blumenthal’s Volume I as, “splendid…no one can come away from reading A Self-Made Man without eagerly anticipating the ensuing volumes.” Pulitzer Prize–winning author Diane McWhorter hailed Volume II as “dramatic narrative history, prophetic and intimate.” Wrestling With His Angel brings Lincoln from the wilderness to the peak of his career as he is determined to enter into the battle for the nation’s soul and to win it for democracy.



The cholera bacteria that invades the intestines from feces-contaminated water racks the body with symptoms of severe diarrhea and vomiting, producing rapid dehydration, as well as circulatory failure, and usually swift and sudden death. A British medical researcher, John Snow, discovered the origin of the disease in 1854 and prescribed preventive hand washing, water boiling, and linen cleaning, but his work failed to receive notice. Only in 1884, when a German microbe hunter, Robert Koch, traced the bacillus to the Ganges River in India, was the cure finally realized. But its source and cure were unknown in 1849 when an epidemic swept the country and its shadow fell that summer on Lexington, Kentucky, before moving on to claim the life of President Zachary Taylor. After forty people in the town died in a single day, at the suggestion of scientists at nearby Transylvania University cannons were fired at regular intervals to rattle the atmosphere and somehow drive the disease away. Smoky oil lamps were lit on the streets night and day. The mayor issued a proclamation for a day of fasting “to fervently implore the Almighty for the arrest of the step of the Angel of Death.” Most of the affluent of the town fled to the countryside. But bacteria were indifferent to prestige. The most influential Kentuckian, Senator Henry Clay, and his wife, Lucretia, caught the disease, but survived. His lifelong political ally and business partner, Robert S. Todd, shuttling back and forth from his summer estate, Buena Vista, kept up campaign appearances in his race for the State Senate, but after one speech was overcome with exhaustion and chills, suffered the horrible telltale signs of cholera, and died on July 16.

Cassius Marcellus Clay

Todd managed to write his last will and testament, but it was signed by only one witness, therefore invalid, forcing his widow to sell and divide all his property. He also left unresolved a major lawsuit against Robert Wickliffe, his old antagonist and one of the most powerful men in Kentucky. The Todd heirs, who included Mary Todd Lincoln, designated Abraham Lincoln as an attorney to help sort out the tangled affair. Forty years old, he had just completed his one term in the House of Representatives. Despite his lobbying he had failed to secure a federal patronage post as commissioner of the Land Office and returned to Springfield to resume his law practice. He had run continuously for political office since his first campaign for the Illinois state legislature in 1832, but his political prospects now seemed dim. If he won the suit, however, he and Mary would receive a sizable share of the fortune and overnight become wealthy. Lincoln would handle hundreds of law cases over the next decade, but Todd Heirs v. Wickliffe was undoubtedly the most important in the development of his thought on the fundamental question of slavery and its political power. The suit, ostensibly about an inheritance, was the latest wrinkle in a power struggle over slavery in Kentucky that lasted more than two decades.

In 1833, after three years of debate, the Kentucky General Assembly enacted the Non-Importation Act, heavily fining those who brought slaves into the state for sale. The bill’s sponsors intended to create conditions that would lead to gradual emancipation. Kentucky’s limitation on slavery, effectively freezing the expansion of its black population and depriving slave owners of a significant profit through an unregulated slave trade, made it the most advanced of the slaveholding states. Henry Clay and Robert S. Todd supported the act. Robert Wickliffe, the largest slave owner and a state senator, was the vociferous leader of the pro-slavery movement, arguing in speeches and pamphlets that the act would destroy “the wealth and capital of the state.” Wickliffe came from a family of early settlers, studied law with George Nicholas, the state’s first attorney general, was appointed U.S. attorney in 1805, married a wealthy heiress who owned the largest plantation in central Kentucky, and after she died married another wealthy heiress, a Todd cousin. His brother Charles was a pro-slavery Whig, passionately hostile to Clay, and served as a congressman, governor, and postmaster general under President John Tyler. Perhaps because Robert Wickliffe’s origins were humble, accused of marrying into money, and had made his own fortune as a land speculator, giving him the patina of a parvenu, he cultivated a self-consciously courtly manner and did not discourage people from referring to him as the “Old Duke.”

One of the chief supporters of the Non-Importation Act was Robert Jefferson Breckinridge, member of the legislature and son of John Breckinridge, who as the U.S. senator from Kentucky had been President Thomas Jefferson’s floor leader and then his attorney general. John Breckinridge had shepherded passage through the state legislature of the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 against the Alien and Sedition Acts. Written by Jefferson, along with the Virginia Resolutions, they became foundational documents of the Democratic Party. Despite John Breckinridge’s unease, the Kentucky Resolutions included an article that advocated a state’s right to nullify federal policy. John Breckinridge’s son was given the middle name of “Jefferson” at Jefferson’s suggestion. As heir to one of the Democratic Party’s founders, Robert Jefferson Breckinridge’s party politics developed into a family heresy, beginning with his election as a state legislator aligned with Clay and those who became Whigs. When Calhoun seized upon nullification, citing the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions as justification, Breckinridge rejected the doctrine root and branch.

Robert Wickliffe

Wickliffe had been his father’s lawyer. But when John Breckinridge died, young Breckinridge dismissed Wickliffe from handling the family estate, accusing him of fraud. Wickliffe hurled the charge back. In 1830, Breckinridge published a pamphlet, Hints on Slavery, a seminal document in the Kentucky antislavery movement, a point-by-point rebuttal of Wickliffe’s pro-slavery position. “Domestic slavery cannot exist forever,” he wrote, despite being a slaveholder. “It cannot exist long quiet and unbroken, in any condition of society, or under any form of government. It may terminate in various ways; but terminate it must.” At a meeting of the Female Colonization Society in Lexington, Wickliffe declared that he favored colonization to Africa only as a means to strengthen the relationship between master and slave by exporting “free persons of color.” Breckinridge heatedly replied that the true purpose of colonization was to further the cause of emancipation, benefiting the white race by freeing it of the sin and burden of slavery. Wickliffe retaliated by tarnishing Breckinridge’s reputation as an “abolitionist” and wrecking his political career. Breckinridge withdrew from running again for office, declaring he would not “submit” to those who had “excited prejudices.” He became one of the country’s leading Presbyterian ministers, waging a holy war against slavery and Wickliffe. They were just beginning their duel.

With the passage of the Non-Importation Act, it appeared that the antislavery movement was gaining traction, prompting James G. Birney before founding the Liberty Party to suggest that Kentucky was “the best site in our whole country for taking a stand against slavery.” Momentum grew for a new constitutional convention that would enact a plan for gradual emancipation. Wickliffe was relentless in his efforts to block the convention and overturn the Non-Importation Act, or “the Negro Law,” as he preferred to call it. It represented, he said, “the surrender of the country to the negroes.” After the emergence of the militant abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison in the mid-1830s, opinion sharply shifted against the antislavery movement. Henry Clay, once an advocate of a constitutional convention, carefully calculated the political winds as he charted his presidential ambition, opposing a constitutional convention, not because he loved slavery but because he loathed abolitionists. In 1838, in a referendum, Kentuckians voted overwhelmingly against a convention. “The effect,” said Clay, “has been to dissipate all prospects whatever, for the present, of any scheme of gradual or other emancipation.” And he cast the blame on abolitionists.

Breckinridge joined in denouncing abolitionists, as “the most despicable and odious men on the face of the earth” and “public enemies” who advocated the “heresy” of racial “amalgamation”—“a base, spurious, degraded mixture, hardly less revolting than revolution.” He consistently spoke of his hatred of slavery as a way to protect the white race. In 1836, he traveled to Glasgow to debate the English abolitionist George Thompson. Insisting on his antislavery credentials and agreeing that blacks possessed “natural rights,” Breckinridge professed that “God had kept several races of men distinct” and depicted Africans as “sitting in darkness and drinking blood.” The Manifest Destiny of American slaves, he revealed, was to be Westernized and colonized back to their native continent. But Thompson censured “a nation of slaveholders” ruled by “the aristocracy of skin.”

Into the vacuum on the antislavery side stepped the strapping Cassius Marcellus Clay, Henry Clay’s younger cousin, who had been converted to the cause as a student at Yale after hearing one of Garrison’s orations. “Cash” Clay, son of one of the richest men in Kentucky, glittering in his lineage, was as born to rule as any pro-slavery planter. Raised in a mansion on one of the largest plantations in the state, he felt no need to defer to anybody. After his own family, he was most closely attached to the Todds. He was Mary’s childhood playmate, lived in the Todd house when his dormitory at Transylvania University burned, and married one of the best friends of the Todd sisters, Mary Jane Warfield. In his closeness to the family, he was like a Todd brother.

Cash’s arguments were as imposing as his burly physical presence. He was as vehement in his opinions and turbulent in their defense as any of his fervent opponents. He believed that slavery shackled free labor by driving down wages, making mechanics and farmers virtual slaves, and crippling commerce and manufacturing. In 1840, he ran for the state legislature against “Old Duke” Wickliffe’s son, Robert Wickliffe, Jr., known as the “Young Duke.” “I declare, then, in the face of all men,” Cash announced, “that I believe slavery to be an evil—an evil morally, economically, physically, intellectually, socially, religiously, politically . . . an unmixed evil.” The Old Duke fired back that Cash was trying to “get up a war between the slaveholders and the non-slaveholders,” and was an “orator of inquisitors, the enemy of Lexington, a secret personal foe, an agitator without spirit, a liar systematically, and an abolitionist at heart.” But Cash won the election handily.

He ran again the next year, ignoring the friendly counsel of Henry Clay that he would lose and should stand down. Cash’s followers, “the boys” he called them, paraded through Lexington in a torchlight parade, “and the slave-party imitated our example.” On April 24, he debated the Young Duke. Cash assailed his opponent’s father while young Wickliffe called Cash an “abolitionist” for advocating a Northern style economy—and mentioned his wife, grounds for a challenge to a duel.

Sheer acts of violence and duels of honor were a tragic Wickliffe tradition. In 1829, when the liberal editor of the Kentucky Gazette, Thomas Benning, heaped abuse on the Old Duke for his pro-slavery conservatism, Wickliffe’s eldest son, Charles, went to the newspaper office and shot him in the back. Charles Wickliffe hired Henry Clay as his counsel and he was acquitted for acting in self-defense. When the Gazette published an editorial criticizing the judgment as the result of a “packed and perjured jury,” Charles challenged the new editor, James George Trotter, once a childhood friend, to a duel. After both men missed, Charles insisted on a second round, and was shot dead. Harassed for years by the Old Duke and his allies, paranoid that he would be murdered, Trotter wound up in the Lexington Lunatic Asylum.

When Cassius Clay and the Young Duke met across the Ohio River in Indiana for their duel, they stood ten paces apart and fired three times, each shot missing. (Wickliffe’s second was Albert Sidney Johnston, a relative by marriage and Transylvania classmate of Jefferson Davis, who would become a leading Confederate general, killed at Shiloh.) “No apology was made on either side, and no reconciliation was proposed,” wrote Cash, “and we left the ground enemies, as we came.” One observer remarked that no blood was shed, though bad blood remained. Cash lost the election and accused Wickliffe and his allies of stealing it. “The upshot was, that I was victor in the legal votes, but beaten by unfair judges and corrupt methods.” He proclaimed he had lost because he had “turned traitor to slavery!” Though he would never win another race, he had gained a devoted following that acted as his “compact body of personal friends,” “laboring men mostly,” men like Thomas Lincoln, Lincoln’s Kentuckian father who fled the slave state, and others who were roused by Cash Clay’s statements against their oppression: “Every slave imported drives out a free and independent Kentuckian,” and, “The day is come, or coming, when every white must work for the wages of the slave.” Despite his militant rhetoric he opposed immediate emancipation, denounced abolitionists like Garrison as “fanatics,” equating them with “fanatic” slave owners, believed the Constitution protected slavery in the states, thought blacks were naturally an inferior race that should not be granted equal rights, and favored gradual measures. Even so, he was perched on the far edge of opinion in Kentucky. Nobody, except perhaps Robert J. Breckinridge, was more hated by the Wickliffes and the pro-slavery forces than Cassius Clay. They hated him because he was a traitor to his class incapable of being intimidated, for his insurrectionary appeals to white non-slave-owners, his utterly Southern claim to honor and open contempt for their dishonor, and willingness to meet violence with violence.

In the next contest for the congressional seat in the district, in 1843, Robert Wickliffe, Jr., the Young Duke, stood against Garrett Davis, the Whig candidate, a thoroughgoing regular, not an antislavery man, who had been endorsed by Henry Clay and Robert Todd. Wickliffe’s campaign consisted of a stunt. He read a letter purporting to prove that his Whig opponent had gerrymandered the district in his favor, but carefully did not share the reply of the supposed letter writer emphatically protesting that the original document was “a damned lie.” Cassius Clay took it upon himself to stalk Wickliffe accompanied by his working-class entourage. On August 1, when the Young Duke spoke in a town square without Davis being present, Clay interrupted his reading of the letter. “Mr. Wickliffe,” he shouted, “justice to Mr. Davis compels me to say . . . that it was a damned lie.” That same day he tracked after Wickliffe to the next town. This time Wickliffe was ready. His cousin, Samuel M. Brown, and “a crowd of desperate bullies,” prepared to silence Cash for good, to “blow his damned brains out.” When Clay spoke up against Wickliffe, Brown called him a “liar” and his thugs rushed him, one thumping him on the head with a club. “Clear the way and let me kill the damn rascal,” yelled Brown, aiming a pistol. He fired a shot that bounced off the scabbard of Clay’s knife at his chest. Clay pulled out his bowie knife, sliced off Brown’s ear, gouged an eye, and slashed his head to the skull. Incredibly, Brown survived. Cash was indicted for mayhem. Henry Clay and John Speed Smith (uncle of Joshua Speed, Lincoln’s close friend) defended him in a sensational trial at which they argued that Wickliffe had plotted Clay’s assassination and Robert Todd appeared as a key defense witness. Cash had acted in self-defense, declared his counsel. “And, if he had not, he would not have been worthy of the name he bears!” With Henry Clay’s greatest courtroom performance, the jury acquitted Cassius Clay. And Davis defeated the Young Duke.

But the pro-slavery party was gaining ground. In 1843, Wickliffe and his allies succeeded in getting the Non-Importation Act overturned in the lower house, and though it was stopped in the Senate they had momentum. During the debate, Wickliffe argued that the hidden antislavery agenda was to reduce non-slave-owning whites into slaves. They would be menial workers, like in the North and England, submissive to their masters, who by controlling their wages would control their votes. “Gentlemen wanted to drive out the black population, that they may obtain white negroes in their places,” he said. “White negroes have this advantage over black negroes, they can be converted into voters; and the men who live upon the sweat of their brow, and pay them but a dependent and scanty subsistence, can, if able to keep ten thousand of them in employment, come up to the polls, and change the destiny of the country.” But he aroused more than economic fear, beyond anxiety about income and wages. His case was existential. White men would no longer be white men, Kentuckians no longer Kentuckians. Through a strange alchemy performed by sorcerers, they would be turned into black men. “How improved will be our condition when we have such white negroes as perform the servile labors of Europe, of old England, and he would add now, of New England; when our body servants, and our cart drivers, and our street sweepers, are white negroes instead of black? Where will be the independence, the proud spirit, and the chivalry of the Kentuckians then?” Liberty, honor, and tradition would all be gone. Only white supremacy based on slavery could save white men from being transformed into “white negroes.”

Wickliffe and his men circulated handbills written in black dialect attacking Cassius Clay as a white black man seeking to transform white men into “white negroes”: “Massa Kashus M. Klay de friend ob de kullud poppylashum: aldough he hab a wite skin he hab also a berry brack heart.” Under siege, Cash felt compelled to deny time and again that he favored emancipation because he loved black people or believed they were social equals. He was against slavery “not because the slave is black or white, not because we love the black man best, for we do not love him as well . . . but because it is just.”

Cash explained his position in a letter to the New York Tribune that its editor, Horace Greeley, published as a pamphlet and distributed nationally. In Slavery: The Evil—The Remedy Cash called slavery “evil to the slave . . . evil to the master . . . source of indolence and destructive of all industry . . . mother of ignorance . . . opposed to literature . . . antagonistic to the Fine Arts . . . impoverishes the soil . . . induces national poverty . . . evil to the free laborer . . . mother and the nurse of Lynch law.” Acknowledging that the Constitution protected slavery in the states, he demanded that the federal government stamp it out where it had authority—in the territories, the District of Columbia, and the seas. “The great experiment of Republican Government,” he wrote, “has not been fairly tested.”

On January 1, 1844, Cassius Clay emancipated his slaves. He was the ideal man for Northern Whigs to recruit for his cousin’s campaign to counter the Liberty Party, the first antislavery party, which might siphon off votes. Cash defended Henry Clay in a letter to the Tribune from abolitionists’ criticism that he was a slaveholder by assuring them that his election would generally advance the antislavery cause, adding his own view that in the future no slaveholder should be permitted to run for president. His gesture caused consternation for the candidate, who wrote that “you can have no conception . . . of the injury which your letter to the Tribune was doing” in alienating the South, and worried about the “very great delicacy of my position.” While “grateful” that Cash stumped for him throughout New England and New York, “I am afraid that you are too sanguine in supposing that any considerable number of the Liberty men can be induced to support me.” Henry Clay’s letters trying to square the circles of Texas annexation and slavery, by announcing he was neither for nor against, damaged him in the North but failed to help him in the South. At a dinner party at Lexington, Henry Clay bitterly blamed abolitionists for his loss, provoking Cash to chide him for saying during the campaign that “abolitionists should be set apart from, and denounced by all parties,” and then being upset when they “played the role you marked out for them.” Again, Henry’s wish for Cash’s political prudence went unmet.

Henry Clay’s defeat gave Cash the idea that the Whig and Liberty parties ought to merge into a new antislavery party—and that he should create a newspaper to promote it. “I look forward to the time not distant when the Whigs and Liberty Party will occupy the same ground,” he wrote Salmon P. Chase, one of the leading lights of the Liberty Party who thought he could turn the small protest organization into the vanguard of a new Democratic Party that would be antislavery and which he called True Democracy. Southern newspapers had refused to republish Cash’s various letters to the Tribune and the editor of the local paper, the Lexington Observer, Daniel Wickliffe, brother of the Old Duke, blackballed his writings. So Cash decided in 1845 to found his own newspaper. “They are the mouthpieces of the slaveholders, who are the property holders of the country,” he wrote about the existing papers. The Observer editorialized, “Mr. Clay has taken the very worst time that he could to begin the agitation of that great and delicate question.” The prospectus of the True American was reprinted in a number of antislavery papers across the country—including the Sangamo Journal, the Whig journal in Springfield, Illinois, for which Lincoln was the de facto coeditor and anonymously wrote many of its editorials.

Conscious of the fatal history of antislavery newspapers, Cash prepared himself for war. Before publishing an issue, he armored the paper’s office with sheet metal, equipped it with muskets, shotguns, and Mexican lances, and bought two brass cannons that he filled with grapeshot and nails and aimed through the front door prepared for the onslaught of a mob. Anticipating an Armageddon, he built a trapdoor in the ceiling through which he and the staff could escape, and on the roof put a barrel of gunpowder that he planned to drop in to blow invaders to smithereens.

The True American’s first issue, published on June 3, under the motto “God and Liberty,” called for constitutional emancipation to establish “true prosperity,” the overthrow of the slave power, a “despotic and irresponsible minority,” and issued a personal threat against Robert Wickliffe, Sr. “Old Man,” Clay warned, “remember Russell’s Cave”—where Cash nearly killed Samuel Brown—“and if you still thirst for bloodshed and violence, the same blade that repelled the assaults of assassins’ sons, once more in self defense, is ready to drink of the blood of the hireling hordes of sycophants and outlaws of the assassin-sire of assassins.”

The Observer responded to the debut of the True American with an editorial calling for its destruction: “It would be right to demolish by violence Mr. Clay’s press.” And it published “An Appeal to the Slaveholders of Fayette”: “It is time, full time that slaveholders of Fayette [County] should have peace—that their rights and their security should no longer be a football to be kicked to and fro by unprincipled political jugglers and office-seekers.”

Lexington was rife with rumors that the True American was stoking a slave insurrection. “The conduct of the slaves in Fayette is said to have changed since the publication of the True American,” wrote George D. Prentice, author of an authorized biography of Henry Clay and editor of the reliably Whig Louisville Journal. He reported that he had “heard . . . that the slaves in the factories and the farms had refrains set to words, which they were singing to the praise of Cassius M. Clay, boasting that he was about to break the chains of their bondage, and would by the force of his character and influence elevate them to an equality with their masters.”

The rising temperature over the True American reached a boiling point in the 1845 elections for the Congress and the Kentucky state legislature. Robert S. Todd was running as the Whig candidate for the State Senate against Charles C. Moore, a vociferous pro-slavery man in favor of overturning the Non-Importation Act, a close friend and business partner of the Old Duke, and co-director with him of the Northern Bank of Kentucky. The contest was a resumption of the feud between Todd and Wickliffe with the bad feeling heightened by the complicating and overlapping feud between Wickliffe and Breckinridge, who was Todd’s friend, political ally, and distant cousin. When the Non-Importation Act was first considered, Todd had signed a petition to the legislature on a “Bill for the Emancipation of Slaves,” calling slavery “a great political evil and moral wrong.” Moore now charged that he was an abolitionist, “no friend of the institution.” Some of Todd’s nervous supporters urged him to reverse himself. He issued a statement, published in the Observer, not only upholding the Non-Importation Act but also acknowledging he was an early advocate. “Having been present during its discussion . . . I was in favor of its passage, and have been uniform and steadfast in its support, believing, as I sincerely do, that it is founded on principles of sound policy.” But, in a concession to political practicality, he added, “I am a slaveholder. Were I an abolitionist or an emancipator in principle, I would not hold a slave.”

Unable to restrain himself, Wickliffe entered the fray as though he were the candidate himself, accusing Todd of abolitionism. “Twice or thrice,” he wrote, “has this Abolition Club [the Clay Club of Lexington] ordered the election of the salaried President of the Bank of Kentucky, and the majority has obeyed.” To which Todd replied: “Fellow Citizens, With all the loathing that an upright man can feel towards an habitual and notorious falsifier, an unscrupulous and indiscriminate calumniator, reckless alike of fame, of honor, and of truth, I must now take my present leave of this miserable old man, and express to you my regret that to justify myself against his unprovoked assaults, unfounded charges and illiberal insinuations, I have been reluctantly compelled, in this manner and at this time, to trespass on your patience.”

Intent on having the last word of invective, Wickliffe issued a manifesto, “To the Freemen of the County of Fayette,” accusing Todd of making “weak and vicious” charges, of being both “craven” and radical. “Mr. Todd chooses to insinuate that I acquired my wealth by dishonesty. This insinuation is a base and infamous falsehood. This calumny was first uttered by Robert J. Breckinridge, whose slander merchant Mr. Todd is.” But these were the least of his accusations. He railed repeatedly against “the abolitionist, John Q. Adams, in his war upon the institution of slavery.” Of Adams’s proposal to impose severe penalties on any state that would repudiate its debt, an act of nullification, the wild talk of fire-eaters in South Carolina, Wickliffe raged against him, “A more black-hearted and hellish scheme to dissolve these United States was never conceived of, much less proposed before.”

Wickliffe charged that the Whigs were little more than a cover for a conspiracy against slavery. “And this club or clique, or both, first under the name of Tippecanoe, and then under that of Clay, has, through its members, opened and kept up a communication with the Abolition Societies throughout the Union from the year 1840 down to the present moment. Space does not admit of a full detail of the abominations of this Club and its mates.” He claimed that Todd in his capacity of bank president kept a secret list of debtors in order to “command and control you in the exercise of your right of suffrage . . . the so-called clubites, that, spider-like, are trying to envelope [sic] you in their entangling web.” And he pointed a finger at Cassius Clay. “Are you surprised that these clubites have established, openly and avowedly, an abolition press within your good City of Lexington, that bids defiance to you, and is scattering its sheets throughout the length and breadth of the land, proclaiming freedom to your slaves?”

The voting was spread over three days, beginning on August 4. On the last day of balloting, Todd rode through the district in an open carriage accompanied by Henry Clay, rallying the Whig faithful and narrowly carrying the victory over Wickliffe and his candidate. The next night, Henry Clay’s rope factory was burned to the ground in a brazen act of arson. Then the pro-slavery men turned their wrath on the True American.

Cassius Clay was bedridden with typhus. But the paper continued to roll off the press. A week after the election he published an incendiary article by an anonymous slaveholder favoring full rights for blacks. “It is vain for the master,” wrote the offending author, “to try to fence his dear slaves in from all intercourse with the great world, to create his little petty and tyrannical kingdom on his own plantation, and keep it for his exclusive reign.” Cash contributed an editorial to accompany the piece: “For the day of retribution is at hand! The masses will be avenged!”

Four days after the rope factory burning a group of thirty men gathered to demand suppression of the “fire-brand” True American. Their leader was Thomas F. Marshall, nephew of the late chief justice John Marshall and a former ally and friend of Cash who had flipped from antislavery Whig to pro-slavery Democrat. He had just run for the Congress as a Democrat and been defeated. Cash had humiliated him in a public debate over Texas, turning the “white negro” charge against him, declaring that the real question was “whether we ourselves shall be slaves!” Then he flayed Marshall in the True American as a turncoat, an “apostate Whig,” and published Marshall’s previous denunciations of slavery as “a cancer . . . a withering pestilence . . . an unmitigated curse.” Now Marshall announced that Cassius Clay had “assassinated” law and order, and the group delivered him an ultimatum demanding he close the paper as “dangerous to the peace of our community, and to the safety of our homes and families.” Cash’s defiant answer was instant: “I deny their power and I defy their action. Go tell your secret conclave of cowardly assassins that C. M. Clay knows his rights and how to defend them.”

His press kept churning out extra editions. Meanwhile, he tried to calm the storm by separating himself from abolitionists. His enemies, he said, called him an “abolitionist, a name full of unknown and strange terrors and crimes, to the mass of our people,” while he remained committed to gradual emancipation. “I utterly deny that I have any political association with them.” As a peaceful gesture, he removed his arsenal that had turned his office into a fortress.

On the morning of August 18, more than two thousand people gathered at the Lexington courthouse to hear Thomas F. Marshall read his indictment of Cassius Clay for his crimes “for effecting the entire abolition of slavery in America,” from advocating emancipation in the District of Columbia to his letters to the New York Tribune, which proved his intention to “finally overthrow the institution.” Marshall concluded his brief with a ringing call to suppress the True American. “An Abolition paper in a slave state is a nuisance of the most formidable character . . . a blazing brand in the hand of an incendiary or madman, which may scatter ruin, conflagration, revolution, crime unnameable, over everything dear in domestic life.” The crowd voted unanimously in approval. After the town’s sheriff went to Cash’s house to confiscate his office key, a Committee of Sixty, led by James B. Clay, son of Henry Clay, marched to the True American and removed the printing press and the type.

One Illinois newspaper that denounced the “outbreak of the mob” in Kentucky published a fanciful account of the incident. “We understand,” the Sangamo Journal reported, “that the choice spirits consisted of about one hundred and fifty men, wearing black masks to conceal their features (this was modest at all events,) and calling themselves the black Indians that they made loud noise through the streets of Lexington, maltreated many negroes, and, besides tarring and feathering several in the public square, broke the ribs of one man, the hands of another, and so injured the eye of a third that the poor fellow will lose it. What will the people at large think of these proceedings?” The Observer, the Wickliffe organ, responded to the Springfield paper that the True American had been extirpated “without the slightest damage to property or the effusion of a drop of blood.” In another editorial it jibed, “Howl on, ye wolves! Kentucky is ready to meet and repel your whole blood thirsty piratical crew!” And yet Cash continued to publish and distribute his paper from Cincinnati, while still living in White Hall, his family’s mansion on a hill overlooking Lexington.

In April 1846, an unannounced visitor knocked at his door. “Have I the pleasure of seeing Mr. Clay?” “That is my name.” “Mine is Seward, from New York. I have come to see you.” “Not William H. Seward?” “Yes, sir. I expected to see an older person.” “And I expected to find one of more youthful aspect.” Seward was forty-four years old, the former governor of New York, an antislavery champion, and one of the most influential men within the Whig Party, who had narrowly failed to elect Henry Clay president in 1844. In New York, the difference between winning and losing the critical state, which would have decided the contest for Clay, turned on the tiny margin that the Liberty Party captured.

The townspeople of Lexington had “concluded to taboo the advocate of emancipation,” Seward wrote Thurlow Weed, the political mastermind and publisher of the Albany Evening Journal, who was his co-partner in running the New York State Whig Party. “Thus it soon became apparent that, in Lexington, there was no neutral or common ground. I must either drop Cassius M. Clay, or elevate him, in my demonstrations of respect. . . . You will readily believe that I did not hesitate. I closed gladly up to his side, rode with him, walked with him, dined with him, and made my visit to Ashland under his auspices.” There they found Henry Clay. “He is evidently looking forward again to another trial for the presidency,” Seward wrote Weed, “and yet, by habits of thought, action, and association, increasing the obstacles in the way of his ambition.” Upon leaving the town, Seward concluded, “It was evident that I was no very welcome guest at Lexington; nor did I need anybody to explain to me that I am regarded with distrust, or a more unkindly feeling, by those who are interested in defending slavery.”

When the Mexican War broke out, Cash astonished everyone by volunteering. He was elected captain of the Lexington “Old Infantry” militia and served with extraordinary bravery, facing down Mexican officers when captured with his men, saving their lives. He received a hero’s return with booming cannons and a reception at which Robert S. Todd delivered the welcoming address hailing him as “my old and faithful friend.” By then, the True American had been removed to Louisville, a safer location, and renamed the Louisville Examiner. But Cash had forgotten nothing and forgiven nobody. He sued James B. Clay for damages against his newspaper and received a $2,500 judgment. He also mistakenly blamed Henry Clay for the suppression of the True American, accusing him of purposely leaving town before the mob acted to “murder me.” Cash’s politics were a combustible keg of gunpowder with a lit fuse. He wanted to blow up his cousin and the Whig Party, and to create a new Emancipation Party. But he decided instead he would support Zachary Taylor, thinking of the general as above party. At the Fayette County Whig convention, Cash led an insurgency against his cousin, winning the endorsement for Taylor, and at the state convention fomented a split so that Kentucky, Clay’s home state, embarrassingly sent a divided delegation to the national Whig convention. In a letter published in a pro-Taylor paper aligned with Seward and Weed, the New York Courier and Enquirer, Cash proclaimed that the Whig Party of Kentucky “believes that Mr. Clay cannot be elected.” Chase tried to recruit him for the antislavery Free Soil Party, but although he was sympathetic he campaigned for Taylor. Much later, Cash regretted his vindictiveness toward Henry Clay, “aggravated by a misapprehension.”

On February 15, 1849, the Democrats of Lexington hosted a banquet at the Phoenix Hotel on Main Street for a special guest, the newly elected U.S. senator from Illinois, James Shields, close ally of Senator Stephen A. Douglas, and “after a number of voluntary toasts were drunk, the greatest hilarity and good feeling prevailed,” according to the Observer. Earlier in the month, the Kentucky General Assembly had issued a call for a new constitutional convention. It was the long-held dream of antislavery men in the state, but the pro-slavery forces passed it in order to write a new pro-slavery document. The Shields dinner was their happy hour. One week after the Shields fete, the legislature repealed the Non-Importation Act of 1833 and enacted an amnesty for slave traders who had violated it, an acknowledgment of the flagrant black market that had always been operating. One trader conducted his business of selling expensive young mulatto women as concubines quite openly across the street from the home of Mary Todd’s grandmother. The slave traders and big slaveholders who stood to profit most were at the heart of the repeal movement.

Repeal had been successfully resisted since the act had first been enacted, but the atmosphere decisively shifted in its favor after a terror that seemed to realize the worst fears of Kentuckians since a suppressed plot for a slave insurrection in 1811, after which the General Assembly made it a crime punishable by death. On August 5, 1848, seventy-five slaves from Lexington stole weapons from their owners and escaped, likely inspired by the incident in which seventy-seven slaves from Washington attempted to escape on a ship called the Pearl just months earlier. Led by a white abolitionist student from Centre College, Edward J. Doyle, they fled toward the Ohio River. A posse of more than one hundred men and local militia pursued the fugitives until catching up with them, waging a pitched nighttime battle in a hemp field with one white and one black killed on each side, and ending with the capture of the slaves. After a trial, three of the black leaders were hung, the rest claimed by their owners, and Doyle sentenced to twenty years of hard labor in the state prison.

Just before the repeal, Henry Clay wrote a letter suggesting the program for a constitutional convention—gradual emancipation, colonization of all free blacks to Africa, and freedom to all born after 1855 or 1860. He was “utterly opposed to any scheme of emancipation” in Kentucky without colonization and carefully added: “If she should abolish slavery, it would be her duty, and I trust that she would be as ready as she now is, to defend the slave States in the enjoyment of all their lawful and constitutional rights.” Covering this base, he argued for “the advantage of the diligence, the fidelity, and the constancy of free labor instead of the carelessness, the infidelity, and the unsteadiness of slave labor; we shall elevate the character of white labor, and elevate the social condition of the white laborer.” For Kentucky, he proclaimed, “no deeds of her former glory would equal in greatness and grandeur, that of being the pioneer State in removing from her soil every trace of human slavery, and in establishing the descendants of Africa, within her jurisdiction, in the native land of their forefathers.” The Richmond Enquirer, edited by Thomas Ritchie, trumpeted the line echoed in Southern newspapers: “Henry Clay’s true character now stands revealed. The man is an abolitionist. He takes his position with [Joshua] Giddings and [John P.] Hale”—the leading abolitionists in Congress. But Clay’s manifesto, moderate in intent, galvanized the antislavery forces as well.

On April 14, the Fayette County antislavery men met to select delegates for a statewide emancipation convention. The chairman was Robert S. Todd’s business partner, Edward Oldham; Breckinridge, the main speaker, was elected delegate; and a resolution adopted that slavery was “contrary to the natural rights of mankind . . . opposed to the fundamental principles of free government . . . inconsistent with a state of sound morality . . . hostile to the prosperity of the Commonwealth.” Just days later, Wickliffe and the pro-slavery men staged their own local meeting, condemning the antislavery resolution as “prejudicial to the best interests of the Commonwealth,” emancipation as an “incalculable injury,” and any candidate who supported the Non-Importation Act. The Young Duke was elected as its delegate.

The first emancipation convention in Kentucky gathered at Frankfort on April 25, with 157 delegates from counties across the state, a majority of them slaveholders and about one in every seven a minister. While they debated various plans for emancipation—Henry Clay’s was probably the consensus position—they did not adopt a specific platform, unable to agree, but instead adopted the broad language of the Fayette County declaration and pledged that they would work in the constitutional convention for some version of gradual emancipation. Filled with faith in their righteous cause, they marched as Christian soldiers to evangelize for the election of delegates to the constitutional convention in the most extensive debate on slavery in Kentucky’s history.

“Thank God!” exclaimed Cassius Clay on hearing of the repeal of the Non-Importation Act. “The touch of that heel has broken our slumber.” At the Frankfort meeting he had announced himself in favor of “agitating” and he began canvassing the state. On June 15, he attended a speech of the pro-slavery candidate for delegate, Squire Turner, a lawyer, state legislator, and slave owner, interrupting him several times and demanding that the crowd be allowed to hear a speaker for the antislavery candidate. People shouted back and forth, someone raised the extraneous issue of state bonds, and Turner’s son Cyrus called Cash “a damned liar,” smashing him in the face. Cash’s and Turner’s men rushed into a melee. Cash was stabbed deeply in his side. Cyrus Turner held a gun to his head, pulled the trigger three times, but it failed to fire. Cash slashed him in the stomach with his bowie knife. Cyrus Turner died, mourned as the martyr of the pro-slavery cause, murdered by the “damned nigger agitator.” Cash slowly recovered from his wound. Already on the defensive, having lost the Non-Importation Act, the antislavery forces retreated.

The campaign to elect delegates to the constitutional convention dominated the campaign for the General Assembly. State senator Robert S. Todd, a Henry Clay man from the beginning and friend of Cash, was challenged for reelection by a former Whig, Oliver Anderson, one of the state’s biggest planters and slaveholders, a Wickliffe ally, who described himself as “a thorough pro-slavery man,” and who defended slavery as “recognized and countenanced by both Scriptures of the Old and New Testament.” When Anderson assailed Todd as an “emancipationist,” Todd felt compelled to explain that he would not “interfere with slavery as a vested right in any manner whatever,” even if he believed in the Non-Importation Act. Then he promised that if a majority voted in the constitutional convention to discard the act “I should feel myself bound, (as the question is only one of expediency) to represent their views instead of my own—that being the duty of a representative.” But even conceding principle to “expediency” did not appear to improve his prospects. Momentum was on the other side.

Within a month, Todd was dead of cholera. He did not live to be swept away by the landslide. His replacement, J. R. Dunlap, trying to insulate himself by promising he was against “any interference between master and slave without the consent of the master” after Anderson attacked him for being a member of the legislature in 1833 that passed the Non-Importation Act, lost every precinct in the county.

On Election Day, a gun battle raged through the streets of Louisville between pro-slavery men and “emancipationists,” including staff members of the Examiner. Tensions ran high, turnout was low. People dreaded they would get cholera if they gathered in public. The pro-slavery candidates won every contest for delegates but two. In a few cities, like Louisville, the antislavery candidates captured about 45 percent of the vote. But statewide they received only about 10 percent, about what the Free Soil Party had won. Henry Clay’s endorsement and the blessing of men of the cloth like Breckinridge had counted for little.

The constitutional convention began on slavery and ended on slavery—“the institution that we have come here to protect and that we are seeking to perpetuate to posterity,” as John L. Ballenger, the delegate from Lincoln County, put it. The convention started on October 1 and went to nearly Christmas Eve. It debated slavery from every angle in its favor. The scriptural case was offered at length by Albert Gallatin Talbott, a large planter and delegate from Bourbon County, later a congressman, who argued that “God did ordain and establish slavery” and to question Jesus’ belief in slavery was “blasphemy.” William Chenault, a delegate from Madison County (along with Squire Turner), condemned the Non-Importation Act as a device “to deprive slavery men of their rights,” and claimed the authority of the ultimate founding father. “I think, sir, that the portrait of Washington, which is hanging over your head, should admonish not only Kentucky, but every slaveholding state in the Union to stand up and firmly maintain its rights over this property.”

But the fullest case was made by William D. Mitchell, the delegate from Oldham County, who attacked free labor existing without slavery as a threat to all white men, elaborating on Wickliffe’s doctrine of “white negroes.” “Now look at the state of things in the slave state. There the menial offices—those services that attach to themselves degradation, are all performed by slaves. No matter how humble his condition, the freeman of the south feels with Cooper’s scout that he is a white man, without a cross—that liberty is not only a political right but a personal distinction.” After invoking James Fenimore Cooper’s fictional frontier scout, Natty Bumppo, as the ideal white man, he claimed the Non-Importation Act “will be to Kentucky a Chinese shoe. Crippled in her progress, marred in her fair proportions, she will stumble forward to premature decay, with the sin of undeveloped greatness stamped upon her withered lineaments.” Slavery and free labor could not be mixed—“they cannot co-exist; the presence of one banishes the other.” A state must be wholly one or the other; it could not be a house divided. And the case was clear: slavery was the superior system for white men everywhere, not just the South. “Where slavery exists, the white operative, as a class, is unknown. Such, sire, I venture to affirm, is the elevating influence of slavery, that it lifts the white man above that description of labor; it converts him from a mere machine into a man. And hence it is the consequence of this incompatibility, no reliance can be placed on free labor, when slave labor is inadequate to the purpose.”

Finally, Garrett Davis, the Whig congressman, friend of Clay and Todd, and enemy of Wickliffe, put his finger to the wind, and emerged as the ultimate pro-slavery advocate. In the past he had put party above slavery, but now he reversed the order. He proposed an amendment to the Kentucky Bill of Rights that would enshrine slavery as the most sacrosanct right of all: “The right of property is before and higher than any constitutional sanction; and the right of the owner of a slave to his property is the same, and as inviolable as the right of the owner of any property whatever.” His amendment exalting slavery was the defining moment of the convention, the culmination of the debate—and it passed as the purest expression of the new constitution. The Non-Importation Act was voided as though it never existed and the secret ballot in voting rejected, forcing every citizen to openly declare his preference, fostering an atmosphere of intimidation. When the delegates ratified the document, James Guthrie, the convention’s president, and later President Buchanan’s secretary of the treasury and U.S. senator, sent them home with a valedictory. “I do not believe that the emancipationists, as a body, will rise up and battle against the will of the people of Kentucky, expressed by this convention in relation to that particular matter. . . . I do not believe they will be willing to agitate the country again on that subject, and attempt to create discord and dissatisfaction in the community.”

The self-styled Emancipation Party had conducted the antislavery campaign for the constitution, stemming from the Frankfort meeting in April. On its executive committee was a state senator from Louisville, James Speed, the younger brother of Lincoln’s friend Joshua Speed with whom Lincoln had once shared a room in Springfield before Speed returned home to Kentucky to run the family plantation. In a series of editorials in the Louisville Courier, James Speed attacked the premise of the pro-slavery proponents who denigrated free labor and the concept of the “white negro.”

It is right, it is necessary that labor should be respected and encouraged. Touch and affect it injuriously, and you injure the working man, the employer, and society in all their ramifications. Let us first glance at the effect produced by slave labor on the working man, I mean, all who from choice or necessity do that which is, or may be done by slaves. It is said and sometimes gravely written that our slaves are only kept to do menial offices. These words menial offices seem to constitute a clap-trap, undefinable phrase. Those who use it show more clearly than any argument I can adduce that the institution of slavery has produced its worst effects upon their minds. Labor, honorable effort, and honest industry are degraded in their eyes. . . . They are only so because of their combination or connection with slavery. Slavery thus robs labor of its dignity and true worth.

Like an elegy, he extolled the already defunct Non-Importation Act. “The law of 1833 operated as a kind of protection to free labor. The white man was secure against the further competition and consequent degradation from an increase of the number of slaves in Kentucky.” But the act was wiped away and so was the vision of Kentucky headed toward a future that would lead the South to gradual emancipation and true union with the rest of the nation.

When the constitutional convention submitted its document to a statewide referendum in May 1850 it passed overwhelmingly, receiving more than two thirds of the vote, just as its framers expected. The Emancipation Party disintegrated, the Louisville Examiner suspended publication, and James Speed did not run for reelection; nor did his brother, who was a member of the lower house. Many demoralized Whigs simply did not bother to turn out for the referendum; others, pro-slavery but attached to Henry Clay and the Whig Party as the natural order, broke away through the fissure, defecting to the Democrats, convincing themselves they were protecting their property, their slaves.

“Others fell by the wayside; I went on to the end,” wrote Cassius Clay. Public approval of the new constitution was a foregone conclusion. Rather than stump the state against it, Cash wrote five open letters in March 1850 to Daniel Webster, published in the National Era, tearing apart Webster’s Senate floor speech in favor of the Compromise of 1850 that would create a federal Fugitive Slave Act. “I cannot but regret that you did not feel it your duty, as a Northern Senator, as Daniel Webster, as a MAN, to say a word in favor of freedom.” He picked out of Webster’s speech one of Webster’s favorite words to eviscerate. “The Southern man who reaps all the benefits of slavery can afford to be ‘moderate.’ The Northern man who deems himself a millionaire only in consequence of slave-grown and slave-growing cotton can afford to be ‘moderate’ . . . but upon this subject of slavery the word does not convey the idea. I do not desire to be offensive; I forbear a substitute. But what are the three millions of ‘peeled Africans’ to think of the complacent ‘moderation’ of these magnanimous ‘compromisers’ of principle! What are we, the five millions of non-slaveholders of the South, to think of these ‘moderate’ gentlemen whose ‘courtly complaisance’ subjects us to an almost equal servitude!”

Cash drew a scene of Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun on a sinking ship, his own version of a Moby-Dick–like plot as a duel (a year before the novel was published), drawing from Webster’s speech the metaphor of a “wreck.” “I imagine you and Mr. Calhoun amid ‘the storm’; and you have both laid hands upon that ‘fragment of a wreck’ which is only large enough to save one from death.” They hack at each other with knives, cutting each other’s limbs off, “an arm—then a leg—and, at last, the death struggle! Such is the game of slavery and freedom. One or the other must die!”

Cassius Clay was not inclined to scriptural fundamentalism of any kind. Just as he invoked a higher law against Christian apologetics for slavery fortified with biblical verses, he marched straight into the sanctum of the holy of holies and flung off the purple coverlet of original intent from the Constitution, not to worship its parchment but to reveal it as a political document. “The war began with the Constitution; or, rather, the war began before the Constitution—which is, at best, as interpreted now, but a truce, not a treaty, of peace. . . . Those who had just made solemn avowals to the world of the right of all men to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, were ashamed to put the word slavery in the Constitution. Washington and others looked forward to an early extinction of slavery as a fixed fact.” But that original benign and complacent intention had dimmed. “The main cause of the abandonment by the South of the faith of our fathers is, as you state it, the increase of the cotton crop. But this cause has passed north of Mason and Dixon’s line, and produced a change of tone in both free and slave States.” He cast Webster’s defense of the Compromise as the most contemptible form of rhetoric, the brilliant orator as a sophist.

The cause is one thing; the justification is another. Your defense of the South is characteristic of the legal profession. What are truth and right in the face of one hundred millions of dollars? That which was a curse, a wrong, and a sin, in 1787, by one hundred millions of dollars, in 1850, is converted into a blessing, a right, and a religious charity. . . . As much as I abhor slavery, I abhor the defense more. One strikes down the liberty of the African; the other, mine. . . . This “political necessity” is the father of murder, of robbery, and all religious and governmental tyranny. This is the damnable doctrine upon which was built the inquisition, the star-chamber, and the guillotine. No, sir; that which is a fault in individuals, is a crime in governments. We can guard against the danger of a single assassin, but a government is irresistible and immortal in its criminal inflictions.

After the new state constitution and the Compromise, Cash gathered up the remnants of the Emancipation Party to run for governor in 1851, an act of vengeance against the Whigs, who had lost both head and heart, defaulting to either pro-slavery or milquetoast positions. He envisioned himself establishing a new organization. “I think I see the elements of a truly national liberty party brewing,” he wrote Seward. “The True Democracy must be the name, since the Whigs have become the guardians of slavery.” His idea of somehow realigning the Democratic Party was more in tune with Chase’s political theme than Seward’s, which still reflected Seward’s belief that the Whigs, at least their Northern wing, must be the basis of antislavery politics. But Cash’s conception of a national party was shaped by being on the losing side of the politics of Kentucky, border state and borderline, not New York.

Breckinridge had been at the forefront of the crusade for an antislavery constitution, author of the Emancipation Party’s statement at its convention and of a pamphlet that appealed to “the great non-slaveholding interest . . . with the hope of substituting the race of negro slaves with the race of free whites,” but he was defeated for delegate. Despairing, he declined to lend himself to Cash’s latest venture. “Having proved myself faithful to my convictions,” he said, “I shall now prove myself faithful to the Commonwealth.” He decided instead to devote himself as the state superintendent of public instruction and became the father of Kentucky’s public school system.

Whigs mostly derided Cash’s campaign for governor as eccentric radicalism, “perfectly harmless,” but they underestimated his capacity for mischief while overestimating their own appeal. Whig turnout fell off the cliff, so that while Cash attracted only 3,621 votes, fewer than had voted for antislavery delegates in Louisville alone two years earlier, it was sufficient to tip the election to the Democrat, who won by a margin of 850. “Thus, and forever, fell the Whig Party in Kentucky,” wrote Cassius Clay. No Whig was ever again elected governor. Kentucky, which Henry Clay had projected as the vanguard of gradual emancipation, instead became the forerunner of the collapse of the Southern Whig Party and consolidation of pro-slavery forces throughout the South.

Cassius Clay gave up on the fate of Kentucky and threw himself into abolitionist politics in the North. On his travels, encountering educated and articulate free blacks, his views on race became more muddled. He had believed, like all but a very few abolitionists, that blacks were inferior. “God has made them for the sun and the banana!” he once wrote. But he came to reject his earlier views as “the force of habit and prejudice.” At his mansion White Hall he sometimes dined with his former slaves, while his white employees, who refused to be seated, did “not object to wait upon them civilly.” And he recalled being toasted at “a dinner party of the aristocratic blacks”: “Ladies and gentlemen, please fill up your glasses; let us drink to the health of Cassius M. Clay—Liberator. Though he has a white skin, he has a very black heart.”

Abraham Lincoln arrived in Lexington in late October 1849 amid the constitutional convention’s proceedings to pursue the interests of the Todd family in their late father’s lawsuit against Wickliffe. He had visited Kentucky, where he had spent the first seven years of his life, twice before, once as the guest of his friend Joshua Speed and again to meet his new wife’s family. Now he found himself thrust into the vortex of his native state’s politics, turned into mortal combat between antislavery and pro-slavery forces over Kentucky’s constitution.

The plague was over. It had run its lethal course through the hot summer and taken its last victim. Grass had grown on Main Street, the windows of closed stores were caked in grime, and black mourning crepe hung from many houses. Mary came with Lincoln, undoubtedly to see her sisters and relatives, and to mourn and reminisce. She left no record of her visit, but she was unusually well-informed and politically engaged, emotionally volatile, and likely had the strongest feelings about the circumstances surrounding the death of her beloved father whose affection she had spent her life seeking. He had been a commanding figure, a prosperous and respected pillar of the community, friend of Henry Clay, the man who would be president, and if Todd was somewhat neglectful of his daughter he was kind, lending her and her husband financial support, even throwing Lincoln some of his business. In politics and philanthropy Todd had stood on the high ground of benevolence, for restricting slavery, gradual emancipation, and a member of the American Colonization Society. But his defenses faltered at last against the unceasing onslaught of Wickliffe. Demonized as an “abolitionist,” he became exhausted, succumbing to cholera.

At first glance, the convoluted case of Todd Heirs v. Wickliffe seemed like Jarndyce v. Jarndyce from Dickens’s Bleak House. A year before, Robert Todd had filed a suit against Robert Wickliffe, the Old Duke, claiming that he had illegally taken the property of Todd’s cousin, Mary “Polly” Owen Todd Russell, after she had become Wickliffe’s second wife. When her father, John Todd, died in 1783, she had become the sole inheritor of his estate and the wealthiest woman in Kentucky. Her first marriage, to James Russell, lasted only three years before he died in 1802, leaving her with a son, John, who died as a young man. Wickliffe and Polly married in 1826, but produced no offspring. Robert S. Todd had managed her estate before her marriage. After her death, he claimed that she had inherited her fortune on the basis of her father’s will that stipulated that if she had no living heirs the estate would be divided among the descendants of John Todd’s brothers. But that will was missing, perhaps lost in a courthouse fire, or, Breckinridge suggested, destroyed by Wickliffe.

In his brief Wickliffe pretended he did not know Mary. “Defendant states,” he declared about John Todd’s children, “that he does not know them so as to admit or deny their names or relationship,” conceding that Todd “did have a daughter he thinks they called Mary who he understands married a member of Congress, his name not recollected.” Mary, in fact, was like another daughter in his household, best friend of his daughter, Margaret. They had been roommates at Madame Mentelle’s Boarding School and remained close. As recently as a year earlier, when Mary stayed with her father while Lincoln served in the Congress, Lincoln wrote her, warning against their friendship. “I wish you to enjoy yourself in every possible way; but is there no danger of wounding the distant feelings of your good father, by being so openly intimate with the Wickliffe family?”

Breckinridge was Todd’s long-standing ally in his war with Wickliffe in which the personal and the political merged. Todd helped pay for publication of Breckinridge’s polemical pamphlets against Wickliffe and distributed them at his store. In them, Breckinridge composed baroque insults to accuse Wickliffe of stealing Polly’s inheritance—“that horrible degradation incurred by having betrayed the interests of a friend’s family, slandered the characters of a friend’s children, labored to produce dissention amongst a friend’s descendants, traduced the good name of a friend’s family, blackened a departed friend’s character, and to crown all, sported with the feelings and name of the wife of that friend’s bosom after having done your uttermost to break her heart. Have you, sir, a friend: Has your selfishness, your avarice, your violence, your insolence, your faithlessness, left to you one person, who cherishes towards you a firm, disinterested, enduring love?” Breckinridge wrote that “Robert S. Todd, Esq. of Lexington,” held “the original letters, and exhibits” to prove it. Wickliffe replied at length and in kind with his own vituperative pamphlets. “Black and unmanly is the heart, who, to reach the husband, basely involves the innocent wife,” he blasted.

Robert Jefferson Breckinridge

Exactly what Lincoln knew about the sordid background of the case before he arrived to secure his wife’s family’s honor and fortune was unclear, but as he sifted through the evidence he would have certainly discovered a dark secret rooted in the gothic realities of race, sex, and caste. He likely would have learned it from Todd’s lawyer, George “Old Buster” Robertson, former congressman and former chief justice of the Kentucky Supreme Court, or Breckinridge, or both. The essence of Todd’s claim was that Wickliffe had coerced his wife to hand over her properties to him once she married. Polly was a kindly believer in individual emancipation and colonization, and wished to free two slaves inherited from her grandmother for whom she had special regard, and to pay for their colonization to Liberia. But, according to Todd, Wickliffe blocked his wife’s desire until she had relinquished control to him of her wealth, which encompassed the Todd ancestral home. If this was the extent of Todd’s complaint it would have amounted to an accusation of greed, blackmail, and dishonor. But that was merely the surface of the charge.

There was, in fact, a living heir. He was not, however, considered a person under the law. In 1816, Polly’s only child, her sixteen-year-old son, John Todd Russell, spent the summer with his grandmother, Jane Hawkins Todd Irvine, whose house servant, fifteen-year-old Milly, an octoroon she had educated, was described as “a young woman of refined manners, who bore little evidence of her Ethiopian blood.” The young man conducted an affair with the young slave. In the fall, he left to attend Princeton; in the spring, she gave birth to a boy who appeared white. The child was named Alfred Francis Russell. When John Todd Russell died at the age of twenty-two, his mother sought to purchase Milly and Alfred, who were formally owned by her uncle. He would not part with them until he “extorted” the exorbitant sum of $1,200. Polly helped raise Alfred within her own home, presented to others not as a slave child but that of a friend. Upon marrying Wickliffe in 1826, her property became his, but she emancipated Milly, Alfred, and five other slaves, and paid their way to Liberia.

Breckinridge had exposed the scandal of Alfred’s existence, though not his name, in 1843 in a polemic against Wickliffe. This secret was at the heart of the charge against Wickliffe because he supposedly bullied Polly to deliver her estate to him through marriage in exchange for the freedom of her grandson and his mother. “Moreover sir,” wrote Breckinridge, “if amongst those slaves there was a fine lad who though held in nominal bondage, was in reality nearly white, and who had always been treated as the child of a friend rather than as a slave; if it is true that this boy, was, though the illegitimate yet the acknowledged son of the unquestioned heir-male of these great estates, and that his father in his last sickness did what he considered necessary to insure the future freedom and respectability of the child; if this last descendant of the original proprietor became by your marriage, your slave; then indeed, it is less difficult to read the mystery of these remarkable deeds, and to comprehend how the fee of a vast estate and the dower of one still greater, might be paid as the price of the liberty of a handful of bondmen.” The “mystery” was nothing more than extortion. “The last reputed descendant of John Todd, if he still lives, is in poverty on the barbarous shores of Africa,” wrote Breckinridge, “while the immense inheritance . . . is in the process of going by ‘a descent through your blood,’ ‘into stranger hands.’?”

The source of Breckinridge’s disclosure inevitably could only have been the man sponsoring and circulating his pamphlets, cited as his attorney in this matter, identified as the safe-keeper of all the evidence, acknowledged as his friend, the manager of Polly’s estate, her close relative who would have had intimate knowledge, and had motive for Breckinridge to reveal it—Robert S. Todd. He would not have given the information to Breckinridge if he did not believe it himself. Breckinridge’s pamphlet was the product of collaboration. And Wickliffe publicly pointed to Todd as the scandalmonger.

In his first pamphlet attacking Breckinridge, Wickliffe had said he was “instigated by the devil,” covered with “the stench of slander,” and “a baron of brothels.” But these were niceties compared to his new publication entitled “A Further Reply of Robert Wickliffe, to the Billingsgate Abuse of Robert Judas Breckinridge, Otherwise Called Robert Jefferson Breckinridge,” painting a picture of the worst figure he could draw—the Jewish betrayer of Jesus. Breckinridge’s agitation for emancipation made him nothing less than the man who gave up Jesus for crucifixion, “a downcast, sly, doggish countenance, with a pair of huge whiskers, treating with the Jews for thirty pieces of silver to betray the Saviour.” While Wickliffe wrote he had “no drawing” of Breckinridge “negotiating with the universal emancipation society,” the face of Judas “kissing the Saviour, and slyly handing him over to a Roman soldier,” resembled that of Breckinridge “when he salutes a former companion at faro and poker.”

The true father of Alfred Francis Russell and Milly’s lover, Wickliffe claimed, was not John Todd Russell, but Breckinridge. “I do not pretend to say that Judas is a stranger to Miss Milly,” who had fixed his bed “while he was in it.” Wickliffe also accused the “Libertine” and “brothel debater” of having “sired” two “almost white” children of another “beautiful mulatto” named Louisa, with “a heaving bosom, and lips, a little thick to be sure, but panting most amorously.” Though Wickliffe admitted that Milly had not named Breckinridge, he insisted that should not distract from Breckinridge’s “fame as a bocanegra”—literally “black mouth” in Spanish, an expression meaning a lascivious evil speaker.

When Todd filed his lawsuit five years later in 1848, Wickliffe answered that “the said Robert S. Todd cherished undying hatred against this defendant, believing that but for him the estate sued for would have been secured to him,” and that Todd was responsible for spreading the story that Polly made “her own grandchild his slave” and “extorted from her a deed of all her property to rescue the boy Alfred, the child of her deceased son, from defendant’s ownership.” Tellingly, Wickliffe seemed to admit that the scurrilous tale was true, refusing to categorically deny it, stating “that the story of the boy Alfred, whether true or false, was promulgated to ruin the peace and happiness of his wife,” and blamed Todd for her death, that “with this malignant shaft in the bruised heart of the victim, his wife sunk into an untimely grave.”

Lincoln sat with Judge Robertson in his Lexington law office taking depositions. It went badly, especially the damaging testimony of Charlotte Mentelle, Mary’s old teacher and Polly’s closest friend, who declared that rather than Wickliffe being coercive “he made her happy.” In her memoir of Polly, Madame Mentelle explained, “As to a mixture of the two races, it never could enter her unsullied mind. Yellow people she considered the offspring of vice.” According to Mentelle, Polly was shocked when she read Breckinridge’s pamphlet “in which a paragraph alluded to her son, and coupled his name with a vice for which she had no indulgence, however lightly some people may think of it. . . . It cannot be understood how and in what manner the blow struck her. That son whose name had not been pronounced for years, without her leading to it; whose image was entombed in her heart as in a holy temple, and that temple desecrated!” According to Mentelle, she lost the will to live. As it happened, Madame Mentelle lived in a large house deeded to her for her lifetime by her dear friend and patron Polly, a bequest maintained by Wickliffe.

Margaret Wickliffe, Mary Todd’s best friend, also testified in support of her father, confirming Mentelle’s version. “My mother seemed cheerful and happy until the publication in regard to her son—she was deeply affected by it, and her health declined. She told me, that she never had a suspicion that Alfred was the son, of her son, John Todd Russell. I asked her one day, ‘Why it was that she took less interest in her flowers than she had done?’ She told me she had lost interest in everything since the assault Mr. Breckinridge had made upon the reputation of her dead son.” Margaret rejected the naive sentimental views of emancipation of her mother and embraced the harsh politics of her stepfather. By then she had married William Preston, scion of a First Family of Kentucky, a large landowner and lawyer from Louisville, and elected a pro-slavery delegate to the constitutional convention. The Prestons, originally from Virginia, were a far-flung politically connected clan, including congressmen, senators, governors, cabinet members, and distantly Francis Preston Blair, a Democratic power broker since he was part of Andrew Jackson’s Kitchen Cabinet.

Their case floundering, Lincoln and Robertson tried to change the subject to the missing will. Mary’s grandmother, Elizabeth Parker, and the Reverend John Stuart, the father of Lincoln’s first law partner, John Todd Stuart, and a Todd relation, testified that they had indeed seen the fabled will before it had probably gone up in smoke in a courthouse fire—in 1803.

Lincoln worked with his co-counsel to wrap up their filing before he left town in November. The court issued its judgment in May 1850, ruling in favor of Wickliffe. Mary’s siblings refused to accept the decision and appealed. The case dragged on for nearly a decade, until the Kentucky Court of Appeals ruled in 1858 that Polly was quite competent in making her own decisions and had not been defrauded. Wickliffe bequeathed the Todd ancestral home to his daughter.

Wickliffe died in 1859 on the eve of the Civil War in which his allegiance would have been plain. His daughter and son-in-law were ardently pro-secession. When William Preston returned from serving as ambassador to Spain, he attempted to lead Kentucky out of the Union, but failing at that became a Confederate general, cradling his brother-in-law Albert Sidney Johnston as he bled to death from his wound inflicted while commanding the Confederate army at the Battle of Shiloh.

Cassius Clay gave up on transforming Kentucky into a modern industrial “American Switzerland,” his “Kentucky System,” instead touring the North to speak against slavery, and would meet Lincoln in Springfield, who had come to hear him deliver an antislavery speech. Cash would help found the Republican Party, seeking its nomination for president in 1856. After he unsuccessfully lobbied to become Lincoln’s secretary of war Lincoln appointed him minister to Russia, a man of war sent far off as a diplomat. His idiosyncrasy made impossible his political advancement. Cash uniquely combined his radicalism with a Southern aristocratic temper, quick to violence, both rhetorical and physical, to compel opponents to submit to his superior position, ideological and social. The duelist could not become a politician. His vision was of the future, but his virtues of the past. But it was precisely those flaws that enabled him to hold his instinctive insight into the Southern mind and to understand that once secession had occurred war would be inevitable. Of those who campaigned for Lincoln in 1860, he wrote, “I was the only speaker, so far as I am informed, who always predicted war in case of Democratic defeat; and accepted the issue.”

After his defeat running for delegate to the constitutional convention Robert J. Breckinridge wrote lengthy theological tracts between issuing statements about black inferiority to persuade whites to oppose slavery—a “feeble parasite” on “the far higher and more important interests of the white race.” In the mid-1850s he turned to anti-Catholic crusading with the Know Nothing Party, blaming immigrants for undermining white native workers. “Americans must rule America,” he railed. But when that cause disintegrated, faced in 1860 with a choice between his pro-slavery nephew Vice President John C. Breckinridge, presidential candidate of the Southern Democratic Party, and Abraham Lincoln, he chose Lincoln. With the war’s advent his sons divided in joining sides. Breckinridge was thunderstruck by Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, which he had strongly opposed, but as the war within Kentucky became especially vicious he advised the Union military commander in the state to impose martial law and was anathematized as part of Lincoln’s “Secret Inquisition.” At the 1864 Republican convention, he delivered the opening address as its temporary chairman. “I myself am here, who have been all my life in a party to myself,” Breckinridge proclaimed. “As a Union party I will follow you to the ends of the earth, and to the gates of death!”

James Speed had contempt for the Know Nothing Party, calling it “a secret junto, or clique” that posed “more danger than in slavery.” At the war’s start he served as the chief mustering officer of volunteers in Kentucky for the Union army. He was elected to the State Senate in 1861, where he was the sole member to vote for a resolution for federal compensation for emancipated slaves. Even that Old Whig position was rejected. The rest, all of them Unionists, opposed emancipation under any terms. After Lincoln’s reelection, he appointed Speed the attorney general.

Lincoln was broodingly silent but smoldering for years after his experience as co-counsel in the case of Todd Heirs. The tragic death of his father-in-law as he was attempting to preserve the old Kentucky, the aggressive triumphalism of the pro-slavery forces in destroying it, and the definitive loss of the Todd family estate to the leader of that movement, fused in Lincoln’s mind. He did not express his intense feelings until the eve of his emergence as the creator of the Illinois Republican Party.

The true heir to Mary “Polly” Owen Todd Russell Wickliffe’s estate was the invisible man in Todd Heirs v. Wickliffe. Alfred Francis Russell, his mother, Milly, three brothers, and a sister had sailed away from New Orleans to Liberia on the ship Ajax in 1833, settling in a district called Clay Ashland, named after Henry Clay and his estate Ashland, and established by the Colonization Society. Alfred, who became an Episcopal minister, wrote a letter to Wickliffe dated April 3, 1855, catching him up on what had transpired since he landed in Africa. “We have suffered in Africa, and suffered greatly,” he wrote. “It was so long before we could find Africa out, how to live in it, and what to do to live, that it all most cost us death seeking life.” Only one brother survived; Milly died in 1845. The country Alfred encountered bore a curious resemblance to the South he had left. “Coming to Liberia 22 years ago as I did, and becoming we all once thought a crippled youth. With no rich brothers, no recources. Seeing all around me, large families, influential and united & reunited by marriage, holding all the offices in the country & the avanues to every immolument, working everything aparently from hand to hand and into & for each other, and looking upon all else as a third rate thing. Made aney sky dark. This kissing the ‘big toe’ and this very ‘big negro’ business. Has to me been the greatest ‘night mair’ that ever crippled the energies of Liberia, and to this day the roots and limbs of those combined and self-seeking influences, sway a heavy scepter.” He felt that despite the promise of a new beginning “the battle of Liberty is still to be won.” Alfred had only one request of Wickliffe. He asked, since Wickliffe was retired as a lawyer and none of his sons had followed in his footsteps, whether he could send his law books. “By such a gift as may now be in your power I may remember you in future, and Liberia too may be greatly benefited & blessed.” He noted that there would soon be an election in Liberia, but “whither law or unjust force and old office holders is to prevail, I will write you a long letter.” He promised also to send Wickliffe some coffee beans from his first crop.

Alfred Francis Russell

In 1878, Alfred Francis Russell was elected the vice president of Liberia, and in 1883 he became the president—Mary Todd’s second relation to become a president and the third native of Kentucky to become one after Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln.

About The Author

Ralph Alswang

Sidney Blumenthal is the acclaimed author of A Self-Made Man and Wrestling with His Angel, the first two volumes in his five-volume biography, The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln. He is the former assistant and senior adviser to President Bill Clinton and senior adviser to Hillary Clinton. He has been a national staff reporter for The Washington Post and Washington editor and writer for The New Yorker. His books include the bestselling The Clinton WarsThe Rise of the Counter-Establishment, and The Permanent Campaign. Born and raised in Illinois, he lives in Washington, DC.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (May 16, 2017)
  • Length: 608 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501153808

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