Abraham Lincoln, Allen Guelzo, American history, Benjamin Thomas, biographies, book reviews, Carl Sandburg, David Donald, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Eric Foner, James McPherson, Michael Burlingame, presidential biographies, Presidents, Pulitzer Prize, 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.
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* 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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In November 2020 I 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 maneuvered through 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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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”