The Best Books on President Lincoln

Which of the approximately 15,000 books written on President Lincoln should you read? In honor of our greatest leader Allen Barra picks the best reads.

Two years ago, Paul Tetreault, director of Ford’s Theater in Washington, declared that there are more books written about Abraham Lincoln than any other person than Jesus Christ. The estimate then was over 15,000, nearly half of which were included in a tower of books to honor Abe. This makes the life and legacy of our 16th president intimidating to the newcomer, but here’s ten nonfiction works and one novel that will guide the novice through the halls of Lincoln lit.

Abraham Lincoln by Lord Charnwood (1916)

Godfrey Rathbone Benson, the first Baron Charnwood, was an Oxford educated philosopher, politician (both in the House of Commons and as Mayor of Lichfield) and historian whose biographies on both Lincoln (1916) and Theodore Roosevelt (1923) offer a foreign perspective of our greatest president: “When an English writer tells again this tale, which has been well told already and in which there can remain no important new facts to disclose, he must endeavor to make clear to Englishmen circumstances and conditions which are familiar to Americans.” In other words, Charnwood tells the story as if it had not been told before. This makes it an ideal beginning place for American readers nearly a hundred years after its publication. Available in several paperback editions and e-book.

Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade Americaby Garry Wills (1993)

A Pulitzer Prize-winning account by our greatest political writer of how Lincoln wrote the 272 words that has become our country’s most important document since the writings of the Founding Fathers. No other work explains why the Gettysburg Address is the linchpin of Lincoln’s political thought and how it has affected American politics ever since.

Lincolnby David Herbert Donald (1995)

Generally regarded by aficionados as one of if not the best single-volume biography of Lincoln. Donald, who died in 2009, was praised by Eric Foner (professor of history at Columbia and author of The Fiery Trial; Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery) for “Avoiding the two pitfalls that people fall into. One is just hagiography—you know [Lincoln] was born with a pen in his hand ready to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, and the other is the opposite, of course, [Lincoln was] just a racist or didn’t really care about slavery at all. Donald navigates between them.”

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (2003) and Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief (2008) by James M. McPherson

Though it is not a biography of Lincoln, Battle Cry of Freedom is one of the best books about how Lincoln handled the crises of the War, from military to political to social situations. Doris Kearns Goodwin recommended this book on NPR a few years ago, saying that McPherson “is such a narrative genius …what he’s done is to mix together the battles, Lincoln’s leadership, the home front, the finances, the Cabinet, all together, but it drives forward as a story, and you don’t know until finally, perhaps, Atlanta, whether the North is really going to win this war.”

In Tried by War, McPherson maintains that Lincoln’s role as Commander in Chief has been underexamined.; he argues, convincingly, that the President’s violation of civil liberties was not so great as many actions taken by later chief executives in less critical circumstances. His operational device to his commanders was often perceptive—he seemed to have a firmer grasp of grand strategy than some of his generals, particularly McClellan. Though Lincoln was an amateur on the subject of war, McPherson believes he was our greatest war leader.

Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President by Harold Holzer (2005) and Emancipating Lincoln—The Proclamation in Text, Context, and Memory (2012) by Harold Holzer

Holzer, perhaps our greatest contemporary Lincoln scholar, has written and edited numerous essential volumes, including Lincoln as I Knew Him: Gossip, Tributes, and Revelations from His Best Friends and Worst Enemies and Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860-1861. In Lincoln at Cooper Union he does for Lincoln’s 1860 speech what Garry Wills did for the Gettysburg Address. Holzer makes a convincing case that the speech not only made Lincoln the leading Republican candidate for president but defined the policies on which he was elected.

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Perhaps Holzer’s most outstanding recent work is Emancipating Lincoln. Compact and precise—just 172 pages of text and 23 pages of notes—the book is a model of lucid historical writing. There is probably no important document in our country’s history that even Civil War students know so little about than the Emancipation Proclamation. Much of the story, it turns out, is in the back story. Lincoln, once convinced of both the economic and moral validity of freeing the slaves, agonized over the process, rewriting his proclamation three times. (He tested the waters, so to speak, by first abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia, ending, in Holzer’s words, “the incomprehensible anomaly that permitted slavery to exist in the capital of the United States until the second year of a pro-slavery rebellion against the government.”

Short on literary flourish, the Proclamation was long on impact. Its reputation in our own time has declined so much that the Proclamation “is now often viewed not as revolutionary but as delayed, insufficient, and insincere.” Holzer, though, makes a reasoned argument that the lack of fire in Lincoln’s prose was deliberate as he did not wish to enflame moderates and that, whatever it did not accomplish at the moment was largely irrelevant; once the Proclamation was made slavery was doomed. Perhaps Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew said it best: “a poor document, but a mighty act.”

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincolnby Doris Kearns Goodwin (2006)

It took 141 years after the death of Lincoln for a book to appear which put into detail his genius for reading character and establishing relationships. Lincoln found admirable traits in, among others, William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates, Edwin M. Stanton, four men who not only sought the Republican nomination for president in 1860 but held Lincoln himself in contempt. (Stanton referred to the President as “a long-armed ape.”—and you thought Obama got no respect.) No other history has probed the backgrounds of Lincoln’s cabinet members in such depth nor revealed the machinations that Lincoln used to mold a winning team from such disparate players. (Team of Rivals served as the historical basis for Spielberg’s film Lincoln.)

Lincoln: The Biography of a Writerby Fred Kaplan (2008)

Just when you thought there were no new angles to approach Lincoln from, Fred Kaplan, a distinguished professor emeritus of English at Queens College and, among others, author of The Singular Mark Twain, defined Lincoln through his own words, words that were shaped through early exposure to Shakespeare, the King James Bible, Aesop’s Fables, the writings of Thomas Jefferson, John Bunyon, the speeches of Henry Clay, Classical writers, and poets such as Thomas Gray and Oliver Wendell Holmes and others. “For Lincoln,” writes Kaplan, “words mattered immensely. His increasing skill in their use during his lifetime, and his valuation of their power, mark him as the one president who is both a national leader and a genius with language.” William Dean Howells called Mark Twain the “Lincoln of our literature. Lincoln, Kaplan claims, “was the Twain of our politics.” Kaplan, the editor and critic, and Lincoln, the writer, are a wonderful combination.

Lincoln and the Worldby Kevin Peraino (2013)

“There can be no new Lincoln stories,” one of the President’s former secretaries wrote in 1900, “the stories are all told.” And yet, as Kevin Peraino writes in his compelling book, Lincoln in the World, “One of the unexpected joys of studying Lincoln in the 21st-century is how much astonishing new material about him has come to light.”

Lincoln in the World focuses on several distinct challenges that defined “Lincolnian foreign policy.” As a young Congressman, he opposed President Polk’s aggressive policy towards Mexico and the subsequent war. (His enemies in Illinois dubbed him “the Benedict Arnold of our district.”) He struggled with his brilliant but irascible secretary of state, William Seward, to control the direction of foreign policy. His standoff with British prime minister Lord Palmerston over the Trent affair, in which U.S. sailors forcibly boarded a British ship to remove Confederate agents. Wisely, he decided to appease the British.) He also engaged in an ongoing chess match with Napoleon III over France’s interference in Mexico.

The thread that runs through each episode is Lincoln’s common sense, good judgment and, above all, patience. He often proved “more adept at the arts of diplomacy that then polished and gold-braided envoys of Europe.” Lincoln in the World isn’t the first work to point out Lincoln’s brilliance as a seminal foreign policy president, but it is the first to gather all the key episodes. Among the choice nuggets Peraino unearths is a letter to Lincoln from none other than Karl Marx, who congratulated him on “the triumphant war cry of your reelection.”

Lincolnby Gore Vidal (1984)

Probably the greatest fictional account of Lincoln’s presidency as well as Vidal’s best novel. Lincoln is seen mostly through the eyes of those who knew him—Vidal’s scholarship is admirable, and he seems to draw from every period source who came in contact with the man Vidal has described as “the American Bismarck.” In other words, the philosophy behind the fiction is that Lincoln did not so much preserve his country as create it, an idea that derives from Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore (no relation to Vidal) but which Vidal brings to life. Vidal uses modern literary technique to bring period detail to life.