“Abraham Lincoln” is the 1916 biography of Lincoln by British author, scholar and politician Lord Charnwood. Born Godfrey Benson the year before Lincoln’s death, Charnwood was named a Baron in 1911. His biography remains one of the earliest works on Lincoln available to the modern reader. Charnwood, who also authored a 1923 biography of Theodore Roosevelt, died in 1945 at the age of 80.
Although seldom read today, Charnwood’s biography was widely acclaimed in the years after its publication. Not until Carl Sandburg published his multi-volume tome on Lincoln (with two volumes in 1926 and the four final volumes in 1939) was the popularity of Charnwood’s biography appreciably diminished. But despite its age (this is by far the oldest presidential biography I’ve read) this book proves eminently readable, clever, insightful and enjoyable.
The first sixty or so of the book’s roughly 450 pages are less about Lincoln than they are about Charnwood’s review of the history of the United States – from a uniquely British perspective, of course. The next one-hundred pages focus on Lincoln’s early life including his burgeoning legal and political career, and the final two-thirds of the book are focused squarely on Lincoln’s presidency.
Charnwood’s review of American history is particularly fascinating and his perspectives on America (if not quite his style of writing) reminds me of Alexis de Tocqueville’s famously insightful nineteenth-century work “Democracy in America.” While many readers find the first few chapters of Charnwood’s biography just the “warm-up” for the more detailed look at Lincoln which follows, they form the most interesting, and astute, part of the book in my view. I encountered more witty and clever “one-liners” in the first chapters of this book than in any complete book I can remember over the past several months.
However, in several key respects Charnwood’s “Abraham Lincoln” is not a great introduction to Lincoln’s life. Much interesting and important insight into Lincoln is gleaned from his pre-presidency including his hardscrabble youth, his efforts to become a successful lawyer and his early political career. In a relative sense, Charnwood breezes past this swath of Lincoln’s life. In addition, there is little focus on his family life, his key political relationships or his close friendships. It’s almost as though a familiar family portrait has had missing sections added to its periphery…but the most vibrant colors have been lost to a black-and-white palette.
Mary Lincoln, in particular, would probably appreciate that the author failed to fully describe her frequent histrionics, and almost none of the flavor of Lincoln’s cabinet shines through (in this respect this biography is the opposite of Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals.”) In addition, while there is a significant focus on the Civil War, the flow of the war itself is uneven and many of the key personalities (McClellan, Fremont, Lee, Grant and others) seem dull and relatively lifeless.
Overall, however, Lord Charnwood’s “Abraham Lincoln” is a dated but refreshingly unique look at Abraham Lincoln and the country he worked diligently to save. Although unsatisfactory as a reader’s first biography of Lincoln, this classic provides timeless insight rarely found elsewhere. For anyone already familiar with Lincoln’s life-story, this century-old biography is endearing, entertaining and well worth reading.
Overall rating: 3½ stars