Best Lincoln Books

by John J. Miller on February 13, 2010 · 47 comments

in Blog Posts

  • Sumo

In the Wall Street Journal‘s “Five Best Books” column, historian Michael Burlingame suggests titles that offer “distinctive personal portraits of Abraham Lincoln.” If the list had been mine, it would have included Abe Lincoln Laughing, a compendium of jokes and anecdotes that Lincoln is known to have told during his life. The index includes entries such as “Bugs, bed, infest settee,” “Hog: drunk squabbles with,” and “Lincoln, Abraham: appearance–says if uglier, shoot.” For me, the book is not just funny, but useful: Abe Lincoln Laughing helped me write my way through an important scene in The First Assassin.

My favorite book on Lincoln–the one I recommend to people who want to read a standard biography–is With Malice Toward None, by Stephen B. Oates. Another excellent choice is Lincoln, by David Herbert Donald. In the last several years, I’ve recorded a few podcasts with authors of good Lincoln books: Allen Guelzo, James McPherson, and Edward Steers Jr.

What’s your favorite book on Lincoln? Sound off in the comments section.


  • Edens Davis

    I am a fan of Gore Vidal’s “Lincoln”. I loathe Gore Vidal’s politics, but the novel is a masterpiece. Great topic by the way.

  • Tim

    Lincoln on Leadership

  • Greg Woods

    It’s not necessarily a Lincoln book per se, but no Lincoln fan’s collection would be complete without a copy of “Manhunt” by James L. Swanson. It is an absolutely fascinating account of the assassination and the subsequent search for Booth and Herold. It’s nearly 500 pages, and I finished it in about 3 days… could not put it down. Probably one of the top 5 books I’ve ever read.

  • Douglas

    Good Lord, how did Harry Jaffa fail to get a mention? Jaffa’s portrait is not a sentimental one, but Crisis of the House Divided and The Rebirth of Freedom provide the most thorough explanation of Lincoln’s political thought ever written. Jaffa reveals how the Declaration of Independence defined American freedom in 1776 as freedom independent of the state but dependent on God, and how thoroughly that idea charted the political thought of Lincoln. Both books are so rich with ideas that I can’t make it through more than five pages a day so to leave room for all the note taking. These books become permanent sextants of the mind once you’re finished.

  • Steve

    I’ve read a LOT of books on Lincoln, but never heard of any of these! I’ve read, and own:

    The Real Lincoln – by Charles L.C. Minor 1904

    The Real Lincoln – by Thomas J. Dilorenzo 2002

    Lincoln Unmasked – by Thomas J. Dilorenzo 2006

    The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History by Thomas E. Woods

    The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Constitution by Kevin R.C. Gutzman

    When In The Course of Human Events – Arguing The Case For Southern Secession by Charles Adams

    War Crimes Against Southern Civilians by Walter Brian Cisco

    The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War by H.W. Crocker III

    33 Questions about American History Your Not Supposed to Ask by Thomas E. Woods

    Abraham Lincoln: Friend or Foe of American Freedom by The Heartland Institute.

    Who Killed the Constitution? by Thomas E. Woods and Kevin R.C. Gutzman

    I suspect those on the Wall Street Journal Pages are quite Friendly to Abe. But the ones I’ve read, give a complete picture, without the Fluff.

  • Steve

    Jaffa is a pretty bad “Historian”.

  • Pete

    David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln.

  • Steve

    I forgot to add Andrew Napolitano’s excellent books, The Constitution In Exile and A Nation of Sheep. Both Excellent, both discuss Lincoln.

  • Paul

    “The Crisis of the House Divided” by Harry V. Jaffa.

  • Steve

    I think the Best Books on Lincoln, are two books with the same title: The Real Lincoln. One from 1904, one from 2002.

    Both very well researched.

    Walter E. Williams wrote the Forward in DiLorenzo’s book:

    This one book, changed my thinking.

    Charles Minor’s book was all Union Sources, and it would make Jaffa look pretty bad. Pastor Minor did amazing work, as did Dilorenzo.

  • EBV

    I think Oates’ – With Malice Toward None is the best single volume. I still like Sandburg’s treatment, too, however dated the research might be. Catton’s Army of the Potomac series (most people only think of A Stillness at Appomattox) also gives a good picture of the man. Goodwin’s Team of Rivals isn’t bad, either.

  • PAD

    Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America – Andrew Ferguson.

    It’s sort of a hybrid of historiography, humor, and travel.

  • Dan

    I agree with David and Paul re: Crisis of the House Divided–it explains the origin and basis of Lincoln’s political philosophy in great detail, and includes a very interesting and detailed portrait of Stephen Douglas.

    I also very much enjoyed Vindicating Lincoln by Charles Krannawitter. He takes on a number of “Historians” that have been critical of Lincoln (including DiLorenzo), in particular that he placed expediency over principle and respect for the Declaration and Constitution.

  • Kim

    I personally found The Crisis of the House Divided not only the best Lincoln book I ever read, but probably one of the best books, period. I also think William Miller’s two books on Lincoln, (especially the second book President Lincoln) while falling a bit on the hagiographical side, generally correct the more rampant and insidious errors of cynicism which tend to predominate in academic scholarship on Lincoln.

  • Boz

    Jaffa’s “Crisis” was interesting at the time it was written, but he got bogged down for 40 years trying to respond to Wilmoore Kendall’s devastating criticism (published in NR, I believe). “New Birth” is tedious, boring and desperate.

    The best recent book is Richard Carwardine’s “Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power.” Carwardine is a Brit so he’s not as invested in bizarre apologies for the Confederacy or Jaffa’s (Kranwitter and Claremont generally) tortured rereading of the entire Western political tradition to justify an idiosyncratic reading of Lincoln.

  • I read one Lincoln book a year, whether I need it or not. I know the general story so well, I am now focusing on a more microscopic look at specific periods in Lincoln’s life. I find Harold Holzer’s overall take on Lincoln’s personality, work ethic, and world view absolutely compelling, and his books are always engagingly written. His Lincoln at Cooper Union, explains brilliantly a question I had always asked: How did L transition from a regional politician to a truly national name? I am currently reading Holzer’s Lincoln: President Elect, which turns the notion of Lincoln as weak in the transition period on its head. I almost hate to admit it, but Lois Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivalsmay be the best overall book on Lincoln I have ever read, containing much I didn’t know before despite reading thousands of pages on the great man’s life. Finally, the book that drew me in to the subject in the first place, the now underrated classic, by Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and the War Years.

  • Steve J

    A couple of Lincoln books to add to the fray:

    – Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850s, by Don Fehrenbacher: It’s a bit dated, but it’s still an absolute classic, I think. The best text of Lincoln’s emergence.

    – Honor’s Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln, by Douglas Wilson: This book profiles Lincoln as a young man, and the research is just first-rate.

  • Herndon’s Lincoln and Abraham Lincoln by Charnwood. From the lists above, though, I see I need to hit the books.

  • Joe Cor

    I though Love is Eternal by Iring Stone gave an interesting take on the personal life of Lincoln, told from the point of view of Mary Todd.

  • William Safire’s novel, “Freedom”, is a page-turner historical fiction of the best sort — fact with details filled in. All Lincoln’s quoted words are attributed in the extensive endnotes. Safire says not only that all the quotes of actual persons are accurate, but also that their paraphrases are based on actual reported conversations.
    Whether you love Lincoln, or merely recognize his historical transcendence, this book will be a fascinating read. And, of course, Safire’s style is inimitable.

  • Mike G

    You don’t have to agree with Vidal’s Lincoln– let alone with Vidal in general– to think that his novel restores an essential sense of Lincoln as a masterful player in the snakes’ pit of Washington politics that was missing from so many hagiographic portraits. It’s The Godfather of Lincoln books, and Lincoln the enigmatic Don Corleone at its center. And I mean no disrespect by any of that; the moments when he outfoxes Chase and the rest of his cabinet, or when Seward realizes how strong Lincoln is and feels almost ravished by his willingness to use power, are marvelous moments that take a fine novelist, not a historian, to realize.

    Among histories, I admire William Lee Miller’s Lincoln’s Ethics for a superb portrait of how Lincoln managed his ambition in a way not to compromise his morals as he rose to prominence; but even more I’d recommend Miller’s Arguing About Slavery, about the debates over slavery in Congress in the 1850s. Lincoln appears only briefly, but it was these debates, led by John Quincy Adams and by others who would be Lincoln backers such as Joshua Giddings, which created the political climate in which he operated.

  • Paul

    Gary Wills’ “Lincoln at Gettysberg” is, in my mind, one of the finest Lincoln books.

  • Emile

    Among shorter works: I quite enjoyed Lincoln’s Sanctuary: Abraham Lincoln and the Soldiers’ Home, by Matthew Pinsker (2003). It’s a very fine description of Lincoln during the summer months of his presidency.

  • Wesley J. Smith

    I agree with Mike G., but I’ll go a step farther: Arguing About Slavery may be the best book on abolition ever written.

  • Wesley J. Smith

    I agree with Mike G., but I’ll go a step farther: Arguing About Slavery may be the best book on abolition ever written.

  • Charles R. Disque

    Allen Guelzo’s “Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation” is gripping and probably vindicates Lincoln better than Thomas Krannawitter’s book (severely criticized by Stewart Winger in a review in the Winter 2010 Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Associaton.) Guelzo’s “Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President”, winner of the 2000 Lincoln Prize, is also excellent. He has a new book out on the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

  • Sarge6

    “Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography” by William Lee Miller. Of all the Lincoln stories told, I think that his unhappy experience in the McCormick-Manny Reaper case, where he was “introduced” to Edwin M. Stanton, his future Secretary of War, is the sum and substance of the man and how he arrived at his place in history. Lee’s telling is the most poignant account of any historical vignette I’ve ever read.

  • DesScorp

    The problem with Lincoln bios is that they’re either worshipful hagiographies (hello, Carl Sandberg), or utter bile-fests (Yes, you, Thomas Dilorenzo). It’s very, very hard to find a non-biased account of Lincoln, with both his full virtues and his ugly warts in one work. Lincoln is a hard man to grasp. He loved the country deeply and wanted to save it, but essentially wiped his rear with the Constitution in order to do so.

  • Thomas L. Jewell

    It’s limited in scope, but President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman by William Lee Miller paints an informative picture of Lincoln’s Character in describing the decisions he made as president.

  • Jon S.

    Just to name a book that hasn’t been mentioned, let me suggest Glenn Thurow’s Abraham Lincoln and American Poltical Religion. Very lucid account of Lincoln’s political thought. Also, why not just read Lincoln and get it over with? De Capo Press has the one volume “Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings” edited by Roy Basler. This is the best one volumne edition of Lincoln. Finally, it cannot be said often and strenously enough that Thomas DiLorenzo is a hack whose scholarship is either laughably incompetent or sadly dishonest. You be the judge.

  • PackerBronco

    For those interested in Lincoln’s development, I strongly recommend:

    “Lincoln’s Virtues” by William Lee Miller is an excellent study of the development of Lincoln’s moral and political philosophy prior to his election to the Presidency.

    “Lincoln at Cooper Union” by Harold Holzer is an excellent book on perhaps Lincoln’s most important speech prior to his election.

    Also, I have to say that “Lincoln at Gettysburg” by Wills is highly overrated. It’s okay, but I can think of 30 Lincoln books I would place above it.

  • Win Schaeffer

    Go right to the source:

    “Complete Works of Abraham Lincoln,” John G. Nicolay and John Hay (Eds).

    This massive compendium really helps you get a deep understanding of Lincoln’s development, untainted by worshipful or spiteful biographers.

  • Alex

    I really enjoyed The Long Pursuit: Abraham Lincoln’s Thirty-Year Struggle with Stephen Douglas for the Heart and Soul of America by Roy Morris. It’s basically the story of Lincoln and Douglas’s political careers from when they were young men all the way up until the presidential election of 1860. It’s a fascinating story about all the ups and downs of their lives in politics and how they intersected at various points.

  • Donald H.

    I determined February last to dedicate all of my spare reading time to Lincoln. Vallandigham must have overheard me; I’ve had less spare reading time this year than any in a long time. Still, I plowed through Burlingame’s two volumes. Some tried to warn me away from his work. And the first two chapters gave me concern. But I stuck with it and have been richly rewarded. No author better illuminates the tightrope Lincoln walked than Burlingame. His is not a traditional biography, but it is a work of monumental scope and careful focus – not easy plates to spin.

    I am a few hundred pages in to Ronald White’s one-volume work and (reserving final judgment) find it on par with Donald’s volume. Neither rise to (or is rising to) the bar set by Thomas in the 1950s.

    Earlier, I read Randall’s multi-volume work on Lincoln’s presidency. It was a slog-fest but worth it if you are deeply interested in the material. He gives one a better appreciation of McClellan, one Burlingame relishes in dismantling.

    Kenneth Winkle’s Young Eagle is perhaps the best one-volume work on Lincoln’s early life, contrasting him with his fellow pioneers.

    Douglas Wilson picks up the story admirably in Honor’s Voice. Wilson is a good writer and deserves a lot of credit for his original research.

    McPherson’s short work on Lincoln, The Second American Revolution, is a worthy study of Lincoln’s role as commander in chief.

    There are other works that other posts have covered. I would lend my support to any who praise Guelzo and Wills’ works. Guelzo, for my money, is the best at mixing the factual history with the intellectual history of the 19th century.

  • Bonnie R

    Fabulous, recent book: “They Have Killed Papa Dead,” by Anthony Pitch. I heard the author speak, and his fascinating book about the assassination is the result of 9 years of meticulous research, in which he unearthed previously unseen documents. The focus is maybe 1/3 on Lincoln himself, and the rest is about the men and women involved in the conspiracy. Great read.

  • Steven Chaffin

    Jaffa is awesome, but very, very, very, deep — not for a first time Lincoln student. DiLorenzo –and all of his ilk — are hacks — completely demolished by Thomas Krannawitter in “Vindicating Lincoln” (I get so tired of the “Scession was constitutional” crowd. READ IT AND WEEP you people!!! I agree that for a first time Lincoln reader David Herbert Donald is great. I would also recommend anything by Harold Holzer.

  • Everyone should read the one-volume version of Sandburg’s Lincoln. Granted, it’s more like a novel than a biography, and it definitely sentimentalizes Lincoln, but it’s moving all the same, and if you want to come to grips with Lincoln mythology, it’s an essential starting point.

    As for Andy Ferguson’s “Land of Lincoln,” it’s a little masterpiece. I wrote about it here:

  • Brett K.

    I encountered an incredible Lincoln book entitled “The Darkest Dawn – Lincoln, Booth and the Great American Tragedy” by Thomas Goodrich. It was published in 2006. It is an imbeccably researched and footnoted accounting of the assassination and hunt for Booth, which is admittedly well-documented, but more interestingly, a study in the nationwide fallout in the days and weeks following Lincoln’s death. I loved it because it was so in-depth I felt as if I had a taste of that horrific event as it unfolded.

  • Quin Hillyer

    I have a 10-volume Lincoln biography by John Nicolay (Lincoln’s private secretary) and John Hay (assistant private secretary to Lincoln and later US Sec. of State), 1886, dedicated to Robert Todd Lincoln, wonderful condition. I bought it at an auction, but the purpose for which I bought it is no longer applicable. I will gladly re-sell it. Anybody interested? If so, do some quick due diligence with a web search about these books (mine at one point were in the library of the Metropolitican Club in DC, which tells you something about their quality), and then send me an email with an offer.
    Oh, and I thank John for allowing me to try to seel these books at his site. And for all the great work he does at National Review.

  • Chris Paine

    One not mentioned yet that I’ve found useful in understanding Lincoln: Brian Dirck’s “Lincoln the Lawyer.” The book explains not just why Lincoln’s experience as a lawyer matters, but also the role of lawyers in antebellum America.

  • No thank you

    I thought David Herbert Donald’s biography on Lincoln was excellent.

  • Phil Griffin

    There are a lot of good biographies, but for the best sense of his personality, there is no substitutute for reading his own work. Both Modern Library and New American Library have collections of his letters and speeches from the 1830’s to a day before his death.

  • ray martin

    nobody mentions sandburg??

  • Richard

    Thomas Krannawitter, of Hillsdale College, has written a terrific book, “Vindicating Lincoln,” which clears up a lot of the mud thrown at Abe by people on both the left and right. Highly recommended!

  • Jane Waligorski

    Second kudos for Lincoln at Cooper Union by Harold Holzer, also Lincoln as I Knew Him by Holzer.

  • Big Mo

    Henry Shaw Paludin’s The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln, part of the University of Kansas’ The American Presidency Series, is indispensible.

    Also, check out the three separate “parallel lives” biographies of Lincoln and Frederick Douglass put out in 2007 and 2008: Paul Kendrick, Douglass and Lincoln: How a Revolutionary Black Leader and a Reluctant Liberator Struggled to End Slavery and Save the Union, 2007; James Oaks, The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Anti-Slavery Politics, 2007; and John Stauffer, Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, 2008.

    Finally, read Douglass’ magnificent speech on Lincoln for the unveiling of the emancipation monument on April 14, 1876. “Oration Delivered upon the Occasion of the Unveiling of the Freedman’s Monument in Memory of Abraham Lincoln” is a masterpiece of the spoken word, and I don’t say that lightly. In the first part, Douglass made his listeners quite uncomfortable as he laid out the case against Lincoln—but then he pulled back to make the case for Lincoln.

  • A.C.

    Jaffa may be “deep” as an analyst of the glories of Lincoln’s saintly rhetoric, (though that’s highly debatable) but he’s not an historian at all. Interesting that there are no substantive refutations of DiLorenzo or any other dissenters of the Church of Abe, just the usual Jaffaite ad hominem. If you want a real honest and alternative view of the “presidential messiah”, read Edgar Lee Masters’s great “Lincoln, the Man”. Otherwise Donald’s book is the most impartial (and tedious) of the mainstream books. Krannawitter offers nothing new to what Jaffa has been revisionizing about for fifty years. And since Miller did a podcast with Harry Crocker at NRO for his great Regnery PIG book on the Civil War, which obviously touches on Lincoln, he could’ve included that as well in the links above. In the early days of NR, they actually, you know, “debated” things like this, concerning Lincoln, the War, southern conservatism, the original understanding of these United States, subsidiarity, etc. If you just want read more books about Father Abraham continuously forever, then by all means, just find the Claremont reading list and knock yourself out.

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