Everything I Wanted to Know About Abraham Lincoln, I Learned From These Books

2009 marks the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. As such, those who enjoy studying Lincoln enjoyed a large crop of new books. These books represent general biographies, but also goes into more depth about Lincoln’s youth, pre-presidency, Civil War leadership and assassination. Enjoy!


We Are Lincoln Men: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends

by David Herbert Donald

Because Lincoln was such an outgoing personality in public, it is interesting that he had such a small, narrow group of close friends. Perhaps it stems from his humble roots. Perhaps it stems from the fact that while he married into high society, he never felt he belonged there. And perhaps it stems from the fact that John Wilkes Booth robbed Lincoln of a post-presidency when he could relax in the company of friends and bask in the glory of his many and varied victories. This book tells the story of that small band who earned the rare descriptor: Friend of Lincoln.


Abraham Lincoln: A Biography

by Benjamin P. Thomas, foreword by Michael Burlingame

There are two general biographies on the list. Although I've read many, I picked two from different eras to represent the lot. The first was written by Benjamin Thomas. A fun game amongst Lincoln scholars is to look back on Lincoln, the people who knew him, and later biographers and pass judgment on their stories. Thomas writes a strong biography that takes on this game in a large way attempting to deduce which legends attributed to Lincoln are actually true and which were fabricated in the imaginations of William Herndon and others. The book is an easy read, but affords the reader a well-researched and thought-out survey of Lincoln's life.


The Great Comeback: How Abraham Lincoln Beat the Odds to Win the 1860 Republican Nomination

by Gary Ecelbarger

How does a guy who's been out of elected office for nine years, unsuccessfully vied twice for the U.S. Senate, and is from the state of the opposing party's likely nominee win the Presidency of the United States? I'm not going to tell you, you have to go out and get this book. It starts with a silly whisper just shortly after the 1858 defeat when a friend encouraged Lincoln to seek the Presidency and it ended in Chicago with Illinois' favorite son overcoming more respected, well-known, and organized machines from Missouri, Ohio and New York to take the nomination. This is a relatively new book, but it's an extraordinarily interesting look at the political maneuverings that helped make Lincoln President.



by David Herbert Donald

The other full biography on the list comes from Lincoln scholar David Herbert Donald. Here's what I think separates Donald from earlier biographers: those early writers were smitten with Lincoln and let it affect their thinking. Donald respects and likes Lincoln, but does not allow that to stand in the way of what he sees as accurate history. Because of that, there's a certain detachment not present from many early biographies (and not just about Lincoln - this could be a whole other list: "smitten biographies"). But with that detachment comes top-notch scholarship, and Donald is a Pulitzer-prize winning author so you get good narrative too. This is probably the most solid full biography in the last 25 years.


Following in Lincoln's Footsteps: A Complete Annotated Reference to Hundreds of Historical Sites Visited by Abraham Lincoln

by Ralph V. Gary

I wanted to put a fun book on here, and for fans of Lincoln this is a pretty fun book. First, you have to come to terms of the stalker-ish tendencies of Lincoln fans. Like Washington before him, Lincoln people like to mark each footstep, put a plaque up for every stop, preserve every structure and idolize every trinket associated with the man. This book can help anyone like that in a big way - it categorizes and tells the story of hundreds of locations where Lincoln traveled, stayed, spoke and slept. Want the Inaugural train ride? It's all there. Want the visit to Columbus and Cincinnati where he honed the speech later given at Cooper Union? It's there. Want the Soldier's Home where Lincoln's family stayed during Washington's summer heat? It's there too. It's all there - so you can read about them and visit them. It's okay, it's not stalker-ish at all.


Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

by Doris Kearns Goodwin

While not a Lincoln Biography in the purest sense of the word, Doris Kearns Goodwin manages to provide us a glimpse at Lincoln's wartime cabinet — made up largely of men he challenged for the 1860 Republican nomination. But in a grand way, the book speaks to Lincoln's decision-making abilities and leadership prowess that lead the nation from disunity to reconstruction.


The Long Pursuit: Abraham Lincoln's Thirty-Year Struggle with Stephen Douglas for the Heart and Soul of America

by Roy Morris Jr.

Popular legend often paints a picture of a bushy-haired frontiersman emerging with an ax from the woods outside Washington to take residence in the White House. Lincoln and his supporters clearly used "the rail-splitter" image to their political gain, but Lincoln was anything but a political neophyte in 1860. In fact Lincoln had been a state legislator, Congressman, had run unsuccessfully (though beating expectations) for the U.S. Senate in 1858 and was a noted orator for Republican causes. This book tells the story of Lincoln's political ambition. It just so happens that another emigrant to Illinois - Stephen Douglas - proved the perfect foil for Lincoln's career. Douglas often bested Lincoln, including during that 1858 Senate contest; but Lincoln won the race that mattered most in 1860 when he once again faced Stephen Douglas (the Democratic nominee) for President.


American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies

by Michael W. Kauffman

Finally, we have to include a book about the assassination. This was a tough one for me — it could have been "Manhunt" it could have even been the historical fiction "Henry and Clara" (I'm partial to the Greek tragedy that is the story of Major Henry Rathbone and his wife Clara Harris), but I think American Brutus tells the story of John Wilkes Booth and the assassination in such depth that it can't be ignored. American Brutus tells Booth's life story, and along the way you see what motivated Booth. As a stage actor, he sought audience adulation. As a conspirator first to kidnap the President and then murder him it thought it would be his greatest role. How sad that he so completely misread popular sentiment — that he missed the fact that most people just wanted to go back to living after 4 long years of war. This is a well researched, compelling narrative and has citations galore for you to check out as you learn Booth's story.