Abraham Lincoln, Allen Guelzo, American history, Benjamin Thomas, biographies, book reviews, Carl Sandburg, David Donald, David S. Reynolds, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Eric Foner, James McPherson, Michael Burlingame, presidential biographies, Presidents, Pulitzer Prize, Richard Brookhiser, Ronald White, Stephen Oates
Of the sixteen presidents whose biographies I’ve read so far, none have offered the variety of choices of Abraham Lincoln. Of the dozen Lincoln biographies I read, two were Pulitzer Prize winners, one is the second best-read presidential biography of all time, and six held the distinction of being the definitive Lincoln biography at one time or another.
No president before Lincoln required as much of my time, either – it took me over 3½ months to read all twelve biographies. Together, they contained nearly 9,500 pages – almost twice as many as the president with the second-tallest stack of biographies in my collection (Thomas Jefferson with about 5,000 pages).
Given this enormous time commitment, it’s fortunate Lincoln was both a fascinating individual and a masterful politician. His life story is as interesting as anyone’s (president or otherwise), and he proved far more impressive than most of the first fifteen presidents.
* * *
* The first Lincoln biography I read was Michael Burlingame’s masterful two-volume “Abraham Lincoln: A Life” published in 2008. This 1,600 page jewel is actually the condensed version of the much longer original manuscript that is only available online (free!). Although daunting for a new Lincoln admirer and probably more detailed than most readers will desire, this biography is extremely descriptive and consistently insightful.
Particularly well-covered is the crushing poverty of Lincoln’s youth, his “colorful” relationship with Mary Todd, the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 and the Republican convention of 1860. Because of its extensive breadth and depth of coverage this may not be the perfect introduction to Lincoln for some readers. But for anyone interested in Lincoln, this an excellent – perhaps unrivaled – second or third biography of Lincoln to read. (Full review here)
* Next I read Ronald White’s 2009 “A. Lincoln: A Biography.” Often described as the second best single-volume biography of Lincoln (after David Herbert Donald’s 1995 biography) I was not disappointed. Although fairly lengthy (at nearly 700 pages) it is entertaining to read and easy to follow. The author never leaves the reader stranded in a sea of confusing details, and to provide incremental clarity and context he has embedded a large number of maps, charts, illustrations and photographs at appropriate points within the text.
Compared to Burlingame’s excellent description of Lincoln’s youth, however, White provided less insight into this early phase of Lincoln’s life. And because White focused so intently on the development of Lincoln’s legal and political careers he provided far less perspective on Lincoln’s family life than Burlingame. What was mentioned of the volatile Mary Todd Lincoln was also far more generous than her treatment at the hands of many other Lincoln biographies. Overall, White’s biography proved an excellent, if not perfect, introduction to Lincoln. (Full review here)
* David Herbert Donald’s widely acclaimed “Lincoln” was my next biography. Ever since its publication in 1995 this biography has maintained a passionate and loyal following and is often considered the best single-volume biography of Lincoln ever. Donald’s biography provided me the first truly captivating view of the interactions between Lincoln and his cabinet members. I also found the author’s description of Lincoln’s hunt for the presidency (including the Republican nominating convention of 1860) absolutely terrific.
But because I expected perfection from this biography, I was disappointed to find the author’s writing style to be that of an accomplished historian rather than a great storyteller. In addition, Donald occasionally shifts gears without warning between chronological and topic-focused progression. Finally, I had hoped to meet the same colorful, intellectual and intriguing Abe Lincoln in this biography that I had met in others…and by a small margin I did not. But overall, David Donald’s “Lincoln” is an exceptionally worthy biography and can be recommended without hesitation. (Full review here)
*Stephen Oates’s 1977 “With Malice Toward None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln” was the fourth biography of Lincoln I read. When published, Oates’s biography was the first comprehensive look at Lincoln in almost two decades and replaced Benjamin Thomas’s 1952 biography of Lincoln as “the” definitive work on Lincoln. Unfortunately, a little more than a decade after this book’s publication, Oates was accused of plagiarizing Thomas’s biography.
Shorter than the other biographies of Lincoln I had read, “With Malice Toward None” was more efficient with my time but at the cost of ignoring many of the interesting details found in other biographies. And while the author’s writing style is pleasantly informal, it occasionally seems less serious as well. I also found Oates’s descriptions of a number of Lincoln’s most important personal and political friendships lacking, and the author misses the opportunity to provide his own explicit judgments as to Lincoln’s actions and legacy. Overall, a good but not great introduction to Lincoln. (Full review here)
*Benjamin Thomas’s 1952 biography “Abraham Lincoln” was next on my list. This was the first comprehensive single-volume biography of Lincoln in the thirty-five years following publication of Lord Charnwood’s 1916 Lincoln biography. This book immediately feels like one written by a natural storyteller rather than a historian (though Thomas was both). Descriptions of both people and events are usually brilliant and make for an enjoyable reading experience. In addition, the author’s final chapter (mostly Thomas’s observations of Lincoln as president) proves extremely interesting.
Less perfect is Thomas’s lack of focus on Lincoln’s family, his adequate but not excellent review of the Lincoln-Douglas debates and the Republican convention of 1860, and his seemingly perfunctory summary of Lincoln’s cabinet selection process. But overall I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Thomas’s sixty-two year old biography of Lincoln and for me it ranks at or near “best-in-class”. (Full review here)
*Next, and for more than a month, I read Carl Sandburg’s two-volume “Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years” (published in 1926) and his four-volume “Abraham Lincoln: The War Years” (published in 1939). The latter was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in history, and the six volumes together totaled about 3,300 pages.
Although it is unsurprising that the author of the first two volumes was a poet, the final four volumes could easily have been written by an Ivory-tower academic. The former is often lyrical and lucid while the latter is more often needlessly verbose and tedious. Sandburg’s combined works are impressive in scope, but uneven in focus and he often has difficulty separating the important from the trivial.
“The Prairie Years” is excellent at transporting the reader to Lincoln’s place and time, describing his surroundings and the local culture wonderfully. But the series is not an ideal biography of Lincoln’s early years. For its part, “The War Years” is an exhaustingly comprehensive account of Lincoln’s presidency (a great deal can be exposed in 2,400 pages, after all) but is frequently difficult to follow and consistently dense and difficult to read. One almost gets the sense Sandburg expected to be paid by the page.
Although it was an astonishing undertaking at the time, Sandburg’s six volumes compare poorly to other Lincoln biographies I’ve read in terms of efficiency with the reader’s time, effectiveness at delivering potent information to the reader, and maintaining a consistently interesting experience. I’ve not read Sandburg’s distilled single-volume version of these six books, but although the original six volumes are occasionally interesting and informative, more often they are just taxing. (Full reviews here and here)
* Next I read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.” This is one of the most popular presidential biographies of all time and was written by a Pulitzer Prize winning author (though for her biography of FDR, not Lincoln). Published in 2005, Goodwin’s rationale for the book was Lincoln’s decision to select his presidential rivals for key positions in his cabinet. The story of their relationships with each other is marvelously well-told.
Much of the time “Team of Rivals” is really a multiple biography of Lincoln, William Seward, Edward Bates and Salmon Chase. Goodwin weaves a narrative which is entertaining and often masterful. Unfortunately, left behind in the effort to write a book focused on Lincoln’s cabinet is adequate emphasis on Lincoln’s youth and pre-presidency; the reader is rushed through these years in order to focus on the book’s raison d’etre.
But in many respects, “Team of Rivals” is truly exceptional. Probably no other biography provides a more interesting and more thoughtful review of Lincoln’s interactions with his key advisers, and Goodwin resists the temptation to allow her biography of Lincoln to devolve into a tedious review of the Civil War. Overall, this is a very good book for a new fan of Lincoln, but it is a great book for someone seeking an entertaining and informative narrative about his team of advisers. (Full review here)
* Eric Foner’s “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery” was published in 2010 and received the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for history. Although included on my list of best biographies, it proves far less a biography of Lincoln than a treatise on his views of slavery. Although this is a topic well-covered in other Lincoln biographies, Foner dissects it with greater-than-average focus and effort. His analysis is generally clear and articulate, although the text can be tedious rather than interesting at times. And despite professing itself to be “both less and more than another biography” it is not a biography at all. For that reason, I declined to provide a rating for this book. (Full review here)
* James McPherson’s “Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief” was next on my list. This 2008 biography focuses on Lincoln’s role as the nation’s commander in chief during the Civil War. McPherson is best known, of course, for authoring the highly-regarded “Battle Cry of Freedom” which may be the best one-volume work ever published on the Civil War.
Because of McPherson’s exclusive focus on Lincoln’s presidency there is virtually no introduction to the man at all. While the author clearly chose this approach in order to provide a unique cast to his biography, no analysis of Lincoln can possibly be complete without conveying key basic elements of Lincoln’s background. And while McPherson claims no other Lincoln biography has ever focused adequately on his role as commander in chief, I find this argument less-than-convincing. Rather than seeing Lincoln from a new perspective, McPherson shows Lincoln from only one perspective. (Full review here)
* Next-to-last on my list was Allen Guelzo’s “Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President” published in 1999. Often described as an “intellectual biography” this book quickly takes on the feel of an academic paper written by a history professor rather than a biography written by a novelist. Through its earliest pages, and not infrequently throughout, it resembles a political and philosophical treatise rather than a biography. The book seems geared to an academic, not a broad, audience.
The best feature of this book is Guelzo’s epilogue which is one of the best concluding chapters of any presidential biography I’ve ever read. For an impatient but determined reader, this section of Guelzo’s biography should be read first…and possibly three or four times. But for someone seeking an ideal introduction to Abraham Lincoln or a fluid narrative of his life from birth to death, I would look elsewhere. (Full review here)
* The final biography I read on Lincoln was Lord Charnwood’s 1916 “Abraham Lincoln.” This biography was only added to my list recently when I was able to obtain a ninety-six year old copy…and couldn’t resist the urge to see Lincoln through the eyes of a British baron.
By far the most interesting and insightful portion of this book is its first sixty pages. Here, Charnwood reviews for his presumably British audience the history of the United States up to the time of Lincoln’s presidency. These pages are worth reading by anyone interested in US history.
The remainder of the book is often beautifully written, but barely adequate as an introductory biography. This is due at least in part to the book’s age and comparatively limited primary source material available to the author when this biography was written nearly a century ago. (Full review here)
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[Added Nov 2020]
I recently read David S. Reynolds’s new release “Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times.” This self-described cultural biography is hefty (932 pages of text), informative and excellent at placing Lincoln within the context of the political, economic and social cross-currents of his era. However, it pre-supposes a familiarity with Lincoln and his times, fails to humanize him, largely ignores his personal life (though his wife receives significant attention) and brushes past several significant historical events which would receive attention in a more traditional biography.
This book can be recommended to Lincoln aficionados seeking a deeper understanding of how he navigated his era, but cannot be recommended for someone seeking a comprehensive introduction to Lincoln’s life and legacy. (Full review here)
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[Added Feb 2022]
I just finished reading Richard Brookhiser’s “Founders’ Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln” published in 2014. Although its subtitle and marketing efforts are both suggestive of a biography, this book’s mission is something altogether different (and, for the right audience, intriguing): It seeks to explore Lincoln’s lifelong efforts to perpetuate the work of the Founding Fathers and to connect his actions to his understanding of their true intentions.
Unfortunately, this book is neither a dedicated biography nor a focused exploration of Lincoln’s political philosophy. Instead, it is a somewhat uncomfortable hybrid of the two which leaves the “whole” worth less than the sum of its parts. Readers seeking a traditional biographical experience (or even a cohesive introduction to the 16th president) need to look elsewhere, and dedicated fans of Lincoln will the narrative interesting…but with an excess of conjecture and speculation. (Full review here)
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[Added Mar 2023]
Jon Meacham’s widely praised “And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle” was published in the fall of 2022. Like many other recent books on Lincoln, this one is marketed (at least implicitly) as a biography…and the publisher claims that it “chronicles the life of Abraham Lincoln.” But while the 421 page narrative does follow the broad contours of Lincoln’s life – from cradle to grave – most of its energy is directed toward the exploration of Lincoln’s moral, religious and political views and closely observing his antislavery commitment.
Supported by more than 200 pages of end notes and bibliography, this is one of the most best-researched books on a president I’ve ever read. And it is extremely successful in its goal of enlightening the reader as to the sources, and evolution, of Lincoln’s attitude toward slavery. Readers already familiar with the fascinating texture of Lincoln’s day-to-day life will find this book a rewarding supplement. But anyone seeking a thorough, comprehensive and colorful introduction to Lincoln’s life and legacy will need to look elsewhere for a more “traditional” biography . (Full review here)
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Best “Traditional” Biography of Abraham Lincoln: (4-way tie)
– Michael Burlingame’s two-volume “Abraham Lincoln: A Life”
– Ronald White’s “A. Lincoln: A Biography”
– David Herbert Donald’s “Lincoln”
– Benjamin Thomas’s “Abraham Lincoln: A Biography”
Best “Non-Traditional” Lincoln Biography:
– Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln”
So, Team of Rivals being the second best read presidential biography, what’s the first?
“John Adams” by David McCullough, though I often wonder what percentage of books that are purchased are ever really read cover-to-cover. Both of these bios are pretty captivating so I imagine a high percentage of folks who start actually do get through them…
A British view of Lincoln: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06ycr4x#play
Fascinating and well worth a listen – thanks!
Fantastic information. Thanks!
Thanks and welcome!
I am a university student in England and am currently doing an essay on the cause(s) of the American Civil War. I am fascinated with American history and politics, and this post is very helpful. I’ll be getting Donald’s biography out of the university’s library tomorrow to use for research, but may come back to it and some of the above mentioned biographies once I graduate. I’ll definitely read some of your other reviews of Presidents when I have some spare time. Any advice for a book/chapter about Lincoln in the ’50s leading up to the conflict? My focus is on the Lincoln, Debates and historiography.
Oh my, you are really testing my memory! I think my first go-to source would be Michael Burlingame’s two-volume set (or the unabridged version which is available online free). If that isn’t a sufficient resource, I suspect his bibliography would be invaluable. Good luck!
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Finally…finally I finished Lincoln: A Life. I didn’t check on page numbers, but I think this was either the third or fourth longest biography I have read so far. Overall, I thought Burlingame did a thorough job covering Loncoln’s life, including a decent synopsis on his life up to the presidency and his relationships with his wife and Cabinet officials. Interestingly, Steve expressed limited discussion about the Civil War, I feel there was too much discussion about the war and not enough about policy and legislation during his terms in office. I enjoy the policy discussions, for historical events like the war and the assination, I can read books specifically about them, the presidential biographies are seemingly the only place to find the wonky stuff. I have Team of Rivals as well, but that is on hold until I am through the list. Onto Jeffy D.
What are you going to read on JD? (Just curious as I plan my post-presidential reading and he’s certainly on that list!)
Team of Rivals was a great read though less “wonky” and policy-oriented…less a study of Lincoln’s presidency than a story of the fascinating characters who helped shape his administration. Easier (and more fun) to read than Burlingame’s but there was more raw info in the Lincoln: A Life (as one would suspect since it’s much longer).
I went with Jefferson Davis, American by William Cooper. Although Davis was an important American, I did not feel like dedicating the time for Strode’s three volume.
I’d like to read my first book about Lincoln, but I don’t know which one to choose. Which one would you recommend of the following three:
Ronald White’s “A. Lincoln: A Biography”
David Herbert Donald’s “Lincoln”
Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln”
That might be the single toughest question you could have asked me (about presidential biographies, anyway). I really enjoyed all three immensely and you won’t go wrong no matter which you choose (and, indeed, you will almost certainly think you chose wisely!)
The first two are traditional, comprehensive biographies of Lincoln. I liked them both equally well and if choosing between them I would almost tell you to flip a coin – or read whichever is easier for you to get a copy of.
Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” is only slightly less about Lincoln than the others but has the benefit of incorporating additional texture with mini-bios of Lincoln’s rivals for the presidency who subsequently ended up in his Cabinet. So while this one is slightly less about Lincoln than the others, it offers something extra in return.
If you could read *two* books on Lincoln, your first pick should be either Donald’s or White’s…followed by “Team of Rivals” which will mean even more to you having polished off a traditional Lincoln biography. Good luck!
Thank you for your response! I’m going to buy “A. Lincoln: A Biography” first then!
I wanted to find a good Lincoln biography and came across your blog. Great list, thank you for such detailed descriptions of each book!
I’m glad you found the site, and do let me know what you end up reading – and how you like it!
Rick Garner said:
First, I have been following most of your suggestions since Washington and now am spending a great amount on Lincoln.
I have read most of your suggestions on Lincoln including Sandburg’s. I really enjoyed Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.”
After Goodwin, I read Ida Tarbell’s 4 vol. set on “The Life Of Abraham Lincoln” written in 1895 and it was like reading the Lincoln portion of Goodwin’s all over again. I was really surprised how closely Goodwin followed Tarbell with the Lincoln portions of her work.
Thanks for your note – and for alerting me to Ida Tarbell’s series on Lincoln! I’m not sure how I missed it, but having been introduced to Tarbell during my journey through Teddy Roosevelt’s life I’m extremely intrigued / curious to get her take on Lincoln. Going on my follow-up list!
In a world of endless writings on the presidents, your site is an invaluable resource! I’m so glad I found your reviews for both Lincoln and Washington. Choosing the “right” biography could be just as time-consuming as reading them all! I so appreciate your diligence and willingness to share!
Thanks! One of the things that has really struck me since I started is that new presidential biographies are published even faster than I can read and evaluate them…so this project seems like a “lifetime” journey. Still, once I’ve gotten through each of the presidents one time I do plan to try to stay current and read / review everything new (that seems high quality) as it is published…and all in an effort to help people figure out which is that one “almost perfect” biography for each president.
Do let me know if / when you read any that triggers a strong reaction on yor part, particularly if it’s something I didn’t have on my list-
I’m so glad I swerved into your site/blog some months ago, it has been a great help! By accident, I have been reading presidential bios this year as well. By accident, I mean that I read “1776” by David McCullough and it made me want to know more about Geo. Washington. Fortunately, I chose the one by Ron Chernow and that really got me hooked – his style was easy and his prose is wonderful. I have since read John Adams by McCullough, Jefferson by Meacham, Madison by Cheney ( and the Letters of Dolly Madison by her grand-niece was very good), Monroe by Harlow Giles Unger, skipped J. Quincy Adams, then Jackson by H.W. Brands. I wasn’t that interested in what I considered less well known presidents, so after Jackson I chose the Pulitzer prize winning book “Impending Crisis” by David Potter, which covers Van Buren, Harrison, Tyler, Polk, Taylor, Filmore, Pierce, and Buchanon to the brink of the Civil War. So, as you can see, I will be up to Lincoln and the Civil War soon. Of all these so far, I am still taken by how wonderful Chernow’s bio of Washington was, which included the details of the Revolutionary war. I have been using your reviews since Thomas Jefferson. I am limited to audiobooks so not always your recommendations but your reviews nevertheless have been my guide. Is there a single book that will include Lincoln’s early life as well as go thru the Civil War like Chernow’s did so beautifully? Or, should I read one bio focused primarily on Lincolns life and another about the Civil War? I noted your recommendation of James McPhersons “Battle Cry of Freedom.” Ronald White’s “A. Lincoln” and Donalds “Lincoln” are both on Audible, as is McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom”
Your (audio) adventure sounds great! But you didn’t expect me to let you get away too easily with skipping over JQA, did you? 🙂 As you may have noticed, I thought he was an absolutely fascinating historical figure (if not an exceptional president) and although I didn’t uncover a “superb” biography of him, there are a couple that are pretty good.
As far as Lincoln is concerned, none of the biographies I read really reminds me of Chernow’s bio of Washington (stylistically or organizationally) but I thought several of them were fantastic. I think either White’s or Donald’s, in particular, will serve your purpose quite well. I would also note that only after I read a great biography of Ulysses S. Grant did I really fully appreciate and understand the Civil War more completely. Lincoln’s bios do a fine job, but only once you see the war from Grant’s perspective, too, do things come into even sharper focus. I’m sure once I read a biography of Robert E. Lee or Jefferson Davis I will have an even richer appreciation of the conflict, but I’m not quite there yet(!)
By the time I got to JQA’s presidency, I felt I had read all the highlights of his life and career, from the bio’s of John Adams certainly, but also from Jefferson, Madison and Monroe. Little did I know then that as I went on he would be a thorn in the side of presidents Jackson to Polk! Based on what you said, after I read Lincoln and perhaps something on the Civil War, my brain will be so frazzled JQA will be less familiar and I’ll read him.
I am Cherokee, and have been most disappointed that basically nil in the bio’s I’ve read to far is about Indians. Even with Jackson, from other books I know about different wars that Indians helped him with that made him famous, but not mentioned in his bio. If you are ever interested in one Cherokee’s dealing with ALL the Presidents from Washington to Jackson ( his name was Ridge), read John Ehle’s Trail of Tears. Before you reject it as I almost did ( don’t we all know about the TOT?), it’s 2/3’s about the Cherokee Nation from about a century before the TOT from the point of view of The Ridge, or Major Ridge as he later became known after Jackson promoted him. That is, if you ever finish this project! Anyway, if you know of any books about Indians dealings with early presidents, please advise.
I didn’t know reading presidential bios was a “thing” but I guess it is. I spent 2016 just reading all of Fitzgerald and Hemingway’s novels and short stories, and several bios of each (and the Lost Generation). It’s fun to get into a subject and just rip it to shreds.
None of the biographies I’ve read (of Jackson or Wm Henry Harrison…or anyone else for that matter) seemed to focus on Indians to any significant (and balanced) degree. But your endorsement of “Trail of Tears” comes as no surprise since I’ve been told in the past that it’s an excellent book. Definitely on my bucket list!
Joan Plamp said:
I just found this piece from a Google search for “best biographies of Lincoln” after re-watching the wonderful but historically flawed film “Abe Lincoln In Illinois”. Thank you so much for your insight into these books and your honest opinions about them. I am off to purchase two of them to read!
Thanks for your comments, but you can’t leave me in suspense: which two are you going to read!?! Almost no matter which you choose, I expect you’ll really enjoy reading about Lincoln. He is a biographer’s dream subject in so many ways…
Laura Martinez said:
I read Burlingame online for the first 12 chapters because I wanted the detail on the early years. I then got the two abridged Burlingame books from the library and binge-read them. I found them very enjoyable. I also read Team of Rivals twice, because I got more out of it the second time.
With that as a background, I picked up Lincoln in the Bardo with no expectations. It was a knockout to me how well it fit within the historical accuracy of Lincoln’s life, family, and times while being wildly creative and thought-provoking. I was left pondering insights gained through the characters that I could have only arrived at via the combination of this novel and my extensive reading of Lincoln and my resulting admiration of him. Truly extraordinary work of fiction about Lincoln that I would only recommend to someone who had done the background reading to get the book’s full impact.
I’m not sure why (perhaps because I’m writing this on a Monday morning?) but I found your comment about binge-reading Burlingame’s two-volume (1,600 pg) series amusing. Probably 10% of the biographies I have read were so good I would love to cheat and re-read them on the side – both for fun and to pick up on nuances I may have missed the first time through.
I am intrigued by historical fiction (from an entertainment perspective) but haven’t ever tackled the genre. Lincoln in the Bardo sounds intriguing – and like something I’m going to have to try on the side at some point. Sounds like Saunders really did his homework before letting his imagination run?
What do you think of Gore Vidal’s Lincoln?
I haven’t read it, nor have I read anything that falls into the category of “historical fiction.” I’ve heard it’s captivating but I don’t know much beyond that…
Thank you. Just finished B. Thomas. Excellent. My first Lincoln, based on your advice. What a man. Thinking of Charnwood 60 pages, Guelzo’s epilogue and then Burlingame. I have read one of each prez starting with Washington. I’m thinking about broadening out to other major figures during the period from Revolutionary to Civil Wars and then on up the ladder. Have you done that; read Whitman or Irving for example, works by them of bios of?
What I haven’t done these past five years is read any non-fiction books other than presidential biographies. But I have been assembling a list of biographies of folks I encountered during this process who are, many times, as compelling as the presidents. My ever-evolving list of people & biographies is located under the “What’s Next” tab at the top of the page… If you have thoughts/suggestions for who I’ve missed, let me know.
Thanks for the reference to “What’s Next”. I’ll look. Halfway through Charnwood as of last night and you are right, it is a great short history of early America, especially remarkable as seen through the eyes of an englishman. Stopping at Lincoln and the Civil War seems a perfect point of reference to review and reassess the origin and evolution of America.
i’d just suggest the major cultural figures for the arts, science, philosophy and business. Looks like you have a good list going in that direction.
Marc Mishkin said:
I have read a lot of Lincoln biographies, including most of those on your list. However I keep coming back to Life of Lincoln by William Herndon, his old law partner and friend, and Jesse Weik, published in 1888. I found this first-person account thorough, anecdotal and charming. Indeed Herndon was widely criticized for the informality of his book as Lincoln was by then being widely mythologized.
If you’ve read it I would welcome your comment.
Marc, I haven’t yet read it but it is definitely on my “follow-up” list – along with the series by Hay & Nicolay! I haven’t heard from very many people who’ve read it, so I’m delighted to hear you recommend it so highly. Lincoln has probably been my favorite president from a biographical perspective so I’m looking forward to read about him from some of his contemporaries.
Michael Akos said:
Thanks for this info. Would you have any thoughts on “Lincoln-a life of power & purpose” by Carwardine?
Sorry, I haven’t read that one. But I’ll be interested to see if anyone who has can share their thoughts-
Man, I really would love to dive into Michael Burlingame’s series. I emailed him about the differences between the uncut version and the print version. His answer was that it was a “fuller” version with footnotes. I wasn’t sure if by fuller he meant extra narrative text i.e. dvd deleted scenes or just footnotes included. I’d prefer reading the print version but feel as if I’d miss extra detail. For those that have read the uncut let me know.
Jeffrey Nydick said:
Steve; Rarely do you fail to mention a significant presidential biography, but I noticed you did not mention this highly-praised Lincoln Prize Winner from 2003: Lincoln, A Life of Purpose and Power, by Richard Carwardine. I have been trying to get back to reading the book, which has been on my shelf for at least the past decade. I have perused enough of it to advise it is a VERY serious scholarly book.
“Carwardine combines a new perspective with a compelling narrative to deliver a fresh look at one of the pillars of American politics. He probes the sources of Lincoln’s moral and political philosophy and uses his groundbreaking research to cut through the myth and expose the man behind it.”
Steve: I am trying to understand what Lincoln’s thinking was concerning refusing to let the South secede at the start of the Civil War. Specifically, if not abolishing slavery but saving the Union was Lincoln’s initial motivation, then why was preserving the Union so vital to him that he was willing to have the nation fight over it. Which biographies that you’ve read deals most deeply into this issue?
I have to be honest – too much time has elapsed for me to remember that specifically, but what I can tell you is that you ought to find the free, online version of Michael Burlingame’s series (the online version is much longer than his printed two-volume series) and see if it suits your need. I’ll be somewhat surprised if it doesn’t (since it’s so detailed)…
Wayne Baker said:
For those who love historical novels, Gore Vidal’s “Lincoln”, and William Saffire’s “Freedom” are enjoyable reads.
Jim Back said:
Any comments on Life of Lincoln-Phebe A. Hannaford 1883-Belford, Clarke & Co Chicago
I haven’t read it. As I recall it is hard to find copies and it was less a biography than a series of essays or character sketches. If you’ve read it I would love to know what you thought-
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John Duffy said:
Among the most enjoyable Lincoln books are William Lee Miller’s two volume bio: “Lincoln’s Virtues” and “President Lincoln”. Both these books are highly laudatory (as are most books about Lincoln) and Lincoln’s Virtues particularly looks at Lincoln’s rise from 1854-1860 very closely. Miller is an engaging writer who looks at the 1850’s arguments over slavery from various angles, concluding that Lincoln was a skillful politician who artfully expressed views on slavery that were both radical and politically viable. Miller, who also wrote “Arguing About Slavery”, a book about the gag rule that focused on J. Q. Adams attack on it, is obviously quite steeped in the national argument that resulted in the Civil War.
I totally agreed with the commenter above who touts Carwardine’s short one volume book on Lincoln. For someone who doesn’t really have a lot of time to read biography this is the best one volume to get at the heart of who Lincoln was and is beautifully written.
Lastly (and believe me, I could go on), I would recommend Giants, a dual biography of Lincoln and Frederick Douglass by John Stauffer. These two men are my favorite figures in American history and this book shows why they had such an affinity towards each other: both autodidacts who insisted on following their own judgement while maintaining a keen ear for the political realities of their times. A very enjoyable read.
None of this is to downplay the amazing accomplishment of Mr. Lloyd in reading so many presidential biographies and then writing well written and helpful reviews about each one. This is a major accomplishment. I just wanted to make sure that folks knew about these books.
Felippe Gontier said:
Thank you about your review. I will choose David Hebert book 🙂
I’m also interested about American Civil War. Can you indicate a book?
Good luck and happy reading! I think you’ll like the David Herbert Donald book.
Since I read so many biographies of Abraham Lincoln (and Ulysses S. Grant) I haven’t felt the need – and haven’t really had the time – to read a book or series dedicated to the Civil War. But I do own, and intend one day to read, the famous three-volume series by Shelby Foote. It might be a bit more than you want to tackle, but it’s what I plan to read at some point.
Steve H said:
Battle Cry of Freedom, by James McPherson, is an incredible one-volume work on the Civil War and a Pulitzer Prize winner. I highly recommend it if you are still interested in that topic.
Patsy Newell said:
Lincoln and Garfield are my two favorite presidents to research. I don’t see it mentioned, but one of the books I have enjoyed the most is, “Lincoln’s White House: The People’s House in Wartime”, by James B. Conroy. I’ve read it twice even though I have a full library of books I am overdue to read. Hope you get the chance to check it out.
Your mission was successful: I’m checking it out! It’s not clear to me that it will be “enough” biography to really fall under my mission on this site, but it looks interesting enough that I’ve got in on order and can’t wait for it to arrive!
Just wanted you to know how much I’ve enjoyed your website over the years. If I’m at a book store and come across a presidential bio I have not read before, I always pull up your site to see if you have reviewed it and if so, what you thought. I’m currently writing my dissertation on President Lincoln’s view of human dignity and I’m sure I’ll be hopping over here frequently to get a survey of your thoughts as I am working. Thank you!
Thanks for your note, and I’m a little bit jealous you get to spend so much time with Lincoln! (But…only a little bit jealous as the thought of writing a dissertation right now might make me break out in hives). I’m curious what the most helpful sources have been so far for you – books, journal articles, correspondence, etc, or whether it can’t really be narrowed down as everything is potentially a source of insight?
Fukuzawa Yukichi said:
What about Harry Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided? It’s the finest intellectual biography of Lincoln – and perhaps of any President – I have read.
I looked at this a while back and concluded it was too narrowly focused to read as part of my early effort, but it does seem like an interesting “intellectual” analysis of the Lincoln-Douglas debates which I should probably get to at some point.
Fukuzawa Yukichi said:
Yes, I would strongly encourage you to read it! Otherwise, I love your presidential biographies ratings. I got a lot out of them.
Steve H said:
Time to add Jon Meacham’s “And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle” to your follow-up list for Lincoln.
Yes, I’ve got it on my short list but haven’t gotten around to formally adding it to the master list. I need to do that. Now that he’s got this Lincoln book out of the way perhaps Meacham can get back to James and Dolley Madison?!? 🙂