Essential Books on Abraham Lincoln
There are countless books on Abraham Lincoln, and it comes with good reason, aside from being elected America’s sixteenth President (1861-1865), he issued the Emancipation Proclamation that declared forever free those slaves within the Confederacy and preserved the Union while serving as Commander-in-Chief amidst a brutal Civil War.
“Of our political revolution of ’76, we all are justly proud. It has given us a degree of political freedom, far exceeding that of any other nation of the earth,” Lincoln remarked. “In it the world has found a solution of the long mooted problem, as to the capability of man to govern himself. In it was the germ which has vegetated, and still is to grow and expand into the universal liberty of mankind.”
In order to get to the bottom of what inspired one of history’s most consequential figures to the heights of societal contribution, we’ve compiled a list of the 15 best books on Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln by David Herbert Donald
Donald brilliantly depicts Lincoln’s gradual ascent from humble beginnings in rural Kentucky to the ever-expanding political circles in Illinois, and finally to the presidency of a country divided by civil war. Donald goes beyond biography, illuminating the gradual development of Lincoln’s character, chronicling his tremendous capacity for evolution and growth, thus illustrating what made it possible for a man so inexperienced and so unprepared for the presidency to become a great moral leader. In the most troubled of times, here was a man who led the country out of slavery and preserved a shattered Union – in short, one of the greatest presidents this country has ever seen.
Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
On May 18, 1860, William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, Edward Bates, and Abraham Lincoln waited in their hometowns for the results from the Republican National Convention in Chicago. When Lincoln emerged as the victor, his rivals were dismayed and angry.
Throughout the turbulent 1850s, each had energetically sought the presidency as the conflict over slavery was leading inexorably to secession and civil war. That Lincoln succeeded, Goodwin demonstrates, was the result of a character that had been forged by experiences that raised him above his more privileged and accomplished rivals. He won because he possessed an extraordinary ability to put himself in the place of other men, to experience what they were feeling, to understand their motives and desires.
It was this capacity that enabled Lincoln as president to bring his disgruntled opponents together, create the most unusual cabinet in history, and marshal their talents to the task of preserving the Union and winning the war.
We view the long, horrifying struggle from the vantage of the White House as Lincoln copes with incompetent generals, hostile congressmen, and his raucous cabinet. He overcomes these obstacles by winning the respect of his former competitors, and in the case of Seward, finds a loyal and crucial friend to see him through.
This brilliant multiple biography is centered on Lincoln’s mastery of men and how it shaped the most significant presidency in the nation’s history.
Lincoln at Gettysburg by Gary Wills
The power of words has rarely been given a more compelling demonstration than in the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln was asked to memorialize the gruesome battle. Instead he gave the whole nation “a new birth of freedom” in the space of a mere 272 words. His entire life and previous training and his deep political experience went into this, his revolutionary masterpiece.
By examining both the address and Lincoln in their historical moment and cultural frame, Wills breathes new life into words we thought we knew, and reveals much about a president so mythologized but often misunderstood. Wills shows how Lincoln came to change the world and to effect an intellectual revolution, how his words had to and did complete the work of the guns, and how Lincoln wove a spell that has not yet been broken.
Lincoln’s Sword by Douglas L. Wilson
Widely considered in his own time as a genial but provincial lightweight who was out of place in the presidency, Abraham Lincoln astonished his allies and confounded his adversaries by producing a series of speeches and public letters so provocative that they helped revolutionize public opinion on such critical issues as civil liberties, the use of black soldiers, and the emancipation of slaves. This is a brilliant and unprecedented examination of how Lincoln used the power of words to not only build his political career but to keep the country united during the Civil War.
The Fiery Trial by Eric Foner
Selected as a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times Book Review, this landmark work gives us a definitive account of Lincoln’s lifelong engagement with the nation’s critical issue: American slavery. A master historian, Eric Foner draws Lincoln and the broader history of the period into perfect balance. We see Lincoln, a pragmatic politician grounded in principle, deftly navigating the dynamic politics of antislavery, secession, and civil war. Lincoln’s greatness emerges from his capacity for moral and political growth.
Lincoln on the Verge by Ted Widmer
As a divided nation plunges into the deepest crisis in its history, Abraham Lincoln boards a train for Washington and his inauguration – an inauguration Southerners have vowed to prevent. Lincoln on the Verge charts these pivotal thirteen days of travel, as Lincoln discovers his power, speaks directly to the public, and sees his country up close.
Drawing on new research, this riveting account reveals the president-elect as a work in progress, showing him on the verge of greatness, as he foils an assassination attempt, forges an unbreakable bond with the American people, and overcomes formidable obstacles in order to take his oath of office.
A. Lincoln: A Biography by Ronald C. White
Through meticulous research of the newly completed Lincoln Legal Papers, as well as of recently discovered letters and photographs, White provides a portrait of Lincoln’s personal, political, and moral evolution.
White shows us Lincoln as a man who would leave a trail of thoughts in his wake, jotting ideas on scraps of paper and filing them in his top hat or the bottom drawer of his desk; a country lawyer who asked questions in order to figure out his own thinking on an issue, as much as to argue the case; a hands-on commander in chief who, as soldiers and sailors watched in amazement, commandeered a boat and ordered an attack on Confederate shore batteries at the tip of the Virginia peninsula; a man who struggled with the immorality of slavery and as president acted publicly and privately to outlaw it forever; and finally, a president involved in a religious odyssey who wrote, for his own eyes only, a profound meditation on “the will of God” in the Civil War that would become the basis of his finest address.
Most enlightening, the man who comes into focus in this gem among books on Abraham Lincoln is a person of intellectual curiosity, comfortable with ambiguity, and unafraid to “think anew and act anew.”
Tried by War by James M. McPherson
As we celebrate the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, this study by preeminent, bestselling Civil War historian James M. McPherson provides a rare, fresh take on one of the most enigmatic figures in American history. Tried by War offers a revelatory (and timely) portrait of leadership during the greatest crisis our nation has ever endured. Suspenseful and inspiring, this is the story of how Lincoln, with almost no previous military experience before entering the White House, assumed the powers associated with the role of Commander in Chief, and through his strategic insight and will to fight changed the course of the war and saved the Union.
Honor’s Voice by Douglas L. Wilson
Abraham Lincoln’s remarkable emergence from the rural Midwest and his rise to the presidency have been the stuff of romance and legend. But as Douglas L. Wilson shows us in Honor’s Voice, Lincoln’s transformation was not one long triumphal march, but a process that was more than once seriously derailed. There were times, in his journey from storekeeper and mill operator to lawyer and member of the Illinois state legislature, when Lincoln lost his nerve and self-confidence – on at least two occasions he became so despondent as to appear suicidal – and when his acute emotional vulnerabilities were exposed.
Focusing on the crucial years between 1831 and 1842, Wilson’s skillful analysis of the testimonies and writings of Lincoln’s contemporaries reveals the individual behind the legends. We see Lincoln as a boy: not the dutiful son studying by firelight, but the stubborn rebel determined to make something of himself. We see him as a young man: not the ascendant statesman, but the canny local politician who was renowned for his talents in wrestling and storytelling (as well as for his extensive store of off-color jokes).
Wilson also reconstructs Lincoln’s frequently anguished personal life: his religious skepticism, recurrent bouts of depression, and difficult relationships with women – from Ann Rutledge to Mary Owens to Mary Todd.
Abraham Lincoln by Lord Charnwood
No other narrative account of Abraham Lincoln’s life has inspired such widespread and lasting acclaim as Charnwood’s Abraham Lincoln: A Biography. Written by a native of England and originally published in 1916, the biography is a rare blend of beautiful prose and profound historical insight. Charnwood’s study of Lincoln’s statesmanship introduced generations of Americans to the life and politics of Lincoln and the author’s observations are so comprehensive and well-supported that any serious study of Lincoln must respond to his conclusions.
Lincoln’s Melancholy by Joshua Wolf Shenk
Giving shape to the deep depression that pervaded Lincoln’s adult life, Joshua Wolf Shenk’s Lincoln’s Melancholy reveals how this illness influenced both the president’s character and his leadership. Lincoln forged a hard path toward mental health from the time he was a young man. Shenk draws from historical records, interviews with Lincoln scholars, and contemporary research on depression to understand the nature of his unhappiness. In the process, he discovers that the President’s coping strategies; among them, a rich sense of humor and a tendency toward quiet reflection; ultimately helped him to lead the nation through its greatest turmoil.
Lincoln at Cooper Union by Harold Holzer
This favorite among books on Abraham Lincoln explores his most influential and widely reported pre-presidential address – an extraordinary appeal by the western politician to the eastern elite that propelled him toward the Republican nomination for president. Delivered in New York in February 1860, the Cooper Union speech dispelled doubts about Lincoln’s suitability for the presidency and reassured conservatives of his moderation while reaffirming his opposition to slavery to Republican progressives.
Award-winning Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer places Lincoln and his speech in the context of the times – an era of racism, politicized journalism, and public oratory as entertainment – and shows how the candidate framed the speech as an opportunity to continue his famous “debates” with his archrival Democrat Stephen A. Douglas on the question of slavery.
Holzer describes the enormous risk Lincoln took by appearing in New York, where he exposed himself to the country’s most critical audience and took on Republican Senator William Henry Seward of New York, the front runner, in his own backyard. Then he recounts a brilliant and innovative public relations campaign, as Lincoln took the speech “on the road” in his successful quest for the presidency.
Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years by Carl Sandberg
Originally published in six volumes, Sandburg’s Abraham Lincoln was called “the greatest historical biography of our generation.” Sandburg distilled this work into one volume that became one of the definitive books on Abraham Lincoln.
We Are Lincoln Men by David Herbert Donald
Though Abraham Lincoln had hundreds of acquaintances and dozens of admirers, he had almost no intimate friends. Behind his mask of affability and endless stream of humorous anecdotes, he maintained an inviolate reserve that only a few were ever able to penetrate.
Professor Donald’s remarkable book offers a fresh way of looking at Abraham Lincoln, both as a man who needed friendship and as a leader who understood the importance of friendship in the management of men. Donald penetrates Lincoln’s mysterious reserve to offer a new picture of the president’s inner life and to explain his unsurpassed political skills.
The Lincolns: Portraits of a Marriage by Daniel Mark
Although the private lives of political couples have in our era become front-page news, the true story of this extraordinary and tragic first family has never been fully told. The Lincolns eclipses earlier accounts with riveting new information that makes husband and wife, president and first lady, come alive in all their proud accomplishments and earthy humanity.
Award-winning biographer and poet Daniel Mark Epstein gives a fresh close-up view of the couple’s life in Springfield, Illinois (of their twenty-two years of marriage, all but six were spent there), and dramatizes with stunning immediacy how the Lincolns’ ascent to the White House brought both dazzling power and the slow, secret unraveling of the couple’s unique bond.
If you enjoyed this guide to essential books on Abraham Lincoln, be sure to check out our list of The 10 Best Books on President George Washington!