“With Malice Toward None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln” is Stephen Oates’s 1977 classic biography of our sixteenth president. Oates is an author, historian and former professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is the author of sixteen books, many of which are focused on important people and issues relating to the Civil War.
Oates’s biography was the first comprehensive treatment of Lincoln in nearly two decades. Critically hailed, it quickly gained a reputation as “the” standard Lincoln biography, replacing Benjamin Thomas’s 1952 biography in that role. Not until David Herbert Donald’s universally acclaimed “Lincoln” was published in 1995 did Oates’s biography relinquish its prominence.
Thirteen years after its publication, Oates became embroiled in a plagiarism controversy when a number of “similarities” between Oates’s biography and Benjamin Thomas’s biography were discovered. The ensuing debate involved several respected historians and authors (including five Pulitzer Prize winners) and the American Historical Association. In Oates’s view he was cleared by the AHA, but in the eyes of many (including Lincoln historian Michael Burlingame) the evidence against Oates is overwhelming. Here is Oates’s perspective on the controversy as well as that of Burlingame.
Though not as beloved as it was for the two decades following its publication, “With Malice Toward None” remains a popular choice for readers. At just over 400 pages, it is by far the shortest of the “classic” Lincoln biographies. Also, Oates’s style of writing is less formal than that of other Lincoln biographers, making for a relatively easy reading experience.
The book’s brevity comes at a cost, however, as much of the interesting color and detail included in longer biographies is missing here. Its “informality” also proves to be a double-edged sword. Oates wavers between a “traditional” style of writing and one that is surprisingly colloquial. The frequent moments of vernacular language, while easy to digest, seem more designed for a “books-on-tape” narration rather than serious reading.
In addition, while the author often quotes Lincoln, he also frequently paraphrases what Lincoln “may” have said on some occasion…but without using an actual quote (presumably because none exists). This “improvisation,” which I’ve never before seen in a presidential biography, assists in the flow of the story but otherwise seems odd.
As a general matter, Oates’s text is quite colorful and expressive. His introduction of Mary Todd (Lincoln) to the reader may be the best I’ve read. His description of the evening of Lincoln’s assassination is the most comprehensive I’ve seen (though I’ve not yet read any of the Lincoln “assassination stories.”) Oates’s coverage of the Republican nominating convention, and the political jockeying which preceded it, is fascinating…though too concise. But the book is at its best during the presidential campaign of 1860 and in the months after Lincoln’s election.
Not every important topic receives equally expert treatment. Some of Lincoln’s most important personal relationships are never fully explored (his parents and his first serious girlfriend, for example) and Oates’s description of the pivotal Lincoln-Douglas debates was the least interesting of any I’ve read. And in the end, the author takes almost no opportunity to provide insightful analysis of Lincoln’s actions or to explore his legacy. Instead, like many other biographies of this president, this book ends disappointingly quickly following Lincoln’s assassination.
Overall, Stephen Oates’s “With Malice Toward None” is a solid, but not outstanding, biography of Abraham Lincoln. While there is much to praise about this book (including its comprehensive but efficient coverage of Lincoln’s life and its fluidity compared to many other biographies) it is far from perfect. Given the large number of options for Lincoln enthusiasts, Oates’s biography will appeal primarily to readers eager for a comprehensive biography of Lincoln but who lack the time required the navigate the newer six-to-eight-hundred page biographies which are enormously popular.
Overall rating: 3¾ stars