Abraham Lincoln, Allen Guelzo, American history, biographies, Carl Sandburg, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Eric Foner, James McPherson, Michael Burlingame, presidential biographies, Pulitzer Prize, Stephen Oates
My journey through the best presidential biographies has now consumed 60 weeks, 64 biographies, 15 presidents and nearly 28,000 pages of text. And I have finally arrived at the presidential promised land!
By nearly any measure, Abraham Lincoln ranks as one of our two greatest presidents. I’ll let you decide whether you prefer Lincoln or FDR for the top spot. But one thing is certain: Lincoln served his country like no other president before, or since.
Choosing which of the countless biographies of Lincoln to read was a difficult task. By one account there are over 10,000 books in print on this president. But only a fraction of them are considered to be among the “best” presidential biographies of Lincoln.
Over the past two years I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of time researching the available choices and gathering every kernel of wisdom I could find to assist in the selection. As a result of this effort I’ve assembled a collection of some of the best biographies of Abraham Lincoln published over the last one hundred or so years.
I’ve undoubtedly left many fine (and a few famous) books on Lincoln behind – some quite dated and others newer and more trendy. But I’m already committed to reading ten biographies of Lincoln totaling nearly 7,000 pages. That’s at least three months of every spare moment I am likely to have.
Also challenging is deciding in what order to proceed. Should I start with the Lincoln biography many believe to be the greatest of them all: David Herbert Donald’s “Lincoln”? Or should I begin with The Book I’ve been waiting to read for years: Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals”? Why not proceed chronologically?
My strategy is to begin with the biographies that have, at some point, been widely considered the “definitive” Lincoln biography. With flexibility around that standard, there are six biographies in my collection which seem to qualify. I plan to read these in chronological order starting with the most recent. (The exception: I’m actually beginning with a 2008 multi-volume biography which seems the most comprehensive Lincoln biography ever published…then I’ll read a 2009 biography and work my way back to a Depression-era Pulitzer Prize winning series).
Finishing the “definitive” biographies of Lincoln, I’ll move to the other four (one of which has been more widely-read than perhaps any other Lincoln book in history). These final four biographies aren’t seeking to be the “go to” sources of wisdom on Lincoln. Instead, each seems to have identified a particular niche to address.
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1. I’m beginning with perhaps the most audacious literary effort ever on Lincoln: Michael Burlingame’s two-volume behemoth “Abraham Lincoln: A Life” published in 2008. Burlingame is a well-known Lincoln scholar whose mentor was no less than David Herbert Donald. Many believe he knows more about Lincoln than does any other living human; his work aspires to be not less than the definitive Lincoln biography of our day. As published, this nearly 2,000 page tome is about half the size of its original, uncondensed version (which boasts a far more extensive collection of footnotes and is available online!)
2. Next will be Ronald C. White Jr.’s 2009 biography “A. Lincoln: A Biography.” White is the author of two bestselling books on Lincoln and has written what many consider the best single-volume biography of Lincoln since David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln biography was published nearly fifteen years earlier.
3. My third biography may be the best (and most fun) of them all: David Herbert Donald’s “Lincoln” published in 1995. Until his death in 2009, Donald was one of the most distinguished historians of our time. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his biographies of Charles Sumner and Thomas Wolfe (but not Lincoln!) This biography is almost universally considered the best one-volume biography of Lincoln ever published. I really hope it’s that good.
4. Stephen Oates is the author of the infamous 1977 biography “With Malice Toward None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln.” Many believe this book replaced Benjamin Thomas’s older work as the standard Lincoln biography of its day (a view apparently supported by David Herbert Donald). It also seems to be one of the few memorable Lincoln biographies to appear in the half-century following Carl Sandburg’s effort (#6 below). In the early 1990s, Oates was hounded by charges that portions of this book were plagiarized. The tempest seems to have abated after his vigorous defense and the passage of time.
5. The fifth biography I’m reading is Benjamin Thomas’s 1952 “Abraham Lincoln: A Biography.” This was considered one of the “one or two” best treatments of Lincoln until Donald’s biography was published in 1995. Ironically, the “other” best treatment during this period was Oates’s 1977 work. This biography by Thomas was the alleged source of some of Oates’s handiwork. (I take no view on this at the moment as I’ve read neither biography – but I can’t wait to see what the fuss is about.)
6. The last of the “definitive” biographies of Lincoln I’m reading is Carl Sandburg’s long-famed multi-volume “Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and The War Years.” This was originally published as the two-volume “Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years” in 1926 followed in 1939 by the four-volume Pulitzer Prize-winning “Abraham Lincoln: The War Years.” I currently own a three-volume abridgment of the entire effort, but am working feverishly to obtain the original six volumes. His work on Lincoln was considered at the time “the greatest historical biography of our generation.” Sandburg, of course, is best known for his poetry – for which he received two Pulitzer Prizes.
7. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” almost needs no introduction. Published in 2005, this may be the most widely read Lincoln biography of all time. It received the 2006 Lincoln Prize and helped inspire the screenplay behind 2012’s award-winning movie “Lincoln” (which, of course, I’ve not yet seen). “Team of Rivals” is apparently one of our current president’s favorite books.
This is also The Book that inspired my Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies. I began reading “Team of Rivals” in mid-2012 and quickly decided it was so good that I had to find some way to determine which other presidential biographies were equally great. Failing at that task, I decided I’d simply have to read them all…
So with great reluctance, having allowed myself just one chapter, I set this book aside in order to systematically read every presidential biography on my bookshelf in order, beginning with George Washington.
8. Eric Foner is the author of “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery.” Published in 2010, this book was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in History as well as the 2011 Lincoln Prize. Foner is a prolific author and well-known historian; many consider this the single best study of Abraham Lincoln and his approach to dealing with American’s slavery crisis.
9. Next will be James McPherson’s “Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief.” McPherson is better known for his Pulitzer Prize winning “Battle Cry of Freedom” which is probably the definitive one-volume history of the US Civil War. “Tried by War” was co-winner of the 2009 Lincoln Prize and promises to provide unique insight into Lincoln’s role as commander-in-chief, and in winning the Civil War.
10. Last, but probably not least, is Allen Guelzo’s 1999 “Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President.” In this “intellectual biography” Guelzo follows the evolution of Lincoln’s moral and religious beliefs and explores how he applied those beliefs to the challenges he faced as president. A 2000 co-winner of the Lincoln Prize, this book provides a unique perspective on Lincoln. But the author also seems uniquely qualified for such a task: in addition to earning graduate degrees in history, he holds a degree in Biblical Studies and a Master of Divinity.
This should be an interesting ride – stay tuned!