In recognition of Abraham Lincoln’s brithday, 200 years ago today, I thought I would mention some of my favorite Lincoln books. Two books published recently are very good. First, I would highly recommend Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer, by Fred Kaplan. It paints a unique portrait of Lincoln and how he developed his craft of language. It’s very good. As the book’s description states, “An admirer and avid reader of Burns, Byron, Shakespeare, and the Old Testament, Lincoln was the most literary of our presidents. His views on love, liberty, and human nature were shaped by his reading and knowledge of literature.”
Another book that I’m finishing at the moment was just published a few weeks ago: Angels and Ages by Adam Gopnik. In this book of collected essays, New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik compares the two towering figures of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin–showing how their views, approach to life, and shared life experiences (they both suffered the death of a young child) shaped their perspective and yet enabled them to make profound impact on the world today. Much of what they espoused (liberal democracy, fundamental scientific principles based on careful observation) are taken for granted in today’s society, as if they were always so and will always be. It’s a good book.
As many Lincoln readers out there, I agree that the single volume Lincoln by David Herbert Donald to be the best biography out there. (However, I just purchased the two-volume work Abraham Lincoln: A Life by Michael Burlingame, which many scholars believe will become the definitive biography of Lincoln, surpassing the work done by .) In this NPR post, noted Lincoln biographer Eric Foner shares his belief about why Donald’s book ranks high: “Somewhat surprisingly, however, the book’s overriding theme is the “essential passivity” of Lincoln’s personality. Unlike most biographies, which are overwhelmingly adulatory, Donald’s is a bittersweet portrait. Lincoln emerges as a man buffeted by forces outside his control.” I agree.
Of all the Lincoln books out there, I have to say that my favorites are the two books written by historian William Lee Miller: Lincoln’s Virtues, and most recently President Lincoln. The second volume only covers Lincoln’s time in the White House, illuminating the president’s decion-making through a time of crisis, holding firm in his belief of the moral cause. But by far my favorite work about Lincoln is Millers’ Lincoln’s Virtues, an illuminating work about how Lincoln cultivated his beliefs through ambition, his reading, firm moral beliefs, and legal mind. Like Kaplan’s recent work, it is a biography of Lincoln (although not about his time in the White House) that examines a life not simply through a typical biographical approach of names, dates and stories, but in a more psychological understanding of the man as he came to be who he was. It’s a hard book to describe properly. Here is the book jacket description from Barnes and Noble:
“Miller shows us a man who educated himself through reading, had a mind inclined to plow down to first principles and hold to them, and combined clarity of thought with firmness of will and power of expression, a man whose conduct rose to a higher moral standard the higher his office and the greater his power. The author takes us into the pivotal moments of “moral escalation” in Lincoln’s political life, allowing us to see him come gradually to the point at which he was compelled to say, “Hold fast with a chain of steel.” Miller makes clear throughout that Lincoln never left behind or “rose above” the role of “politician,” but rather fulfilled the highest possibilities of this peculiarly honorable democratic vocation.
“Lincoln’s Virtues approaches this much-written-about figure from a wholly newstandpoint. As a biography uniquely revealing of its subject’s heart and mind, it represents a major contribution to the current and perennial American discussion of national moral conduct, and of the relationship between politics and morality.”
Of course, I’ve left off some wonderful books from my short list (including Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals), but these are a good start. If you agree or disagree, let me know how you feel.