Thursday, February 12, 2009

Reading on Lincoln

Today is the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln. I thought I'd provide a list of the Lincoln books I have in my library (with every intention of someday reading them all!).

Kunhardts, eds., Lincoln: An Illustrated Biography (1992). Sadly out of print, this is a wonderful coffee-table book loaded with hundreds of vivid photos of the President and the various people and places in his life.

David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (1995). A standard biography by a Pulitzer-Prize-winning Harvard historian.

Richard Carwardine, Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power (2003). Carwardine, Rhodes Professor of American History at Oxford University, was awarded the prestigious Lincoln Prize for this volume. I bought this one largely based on Mark Noll's brief review in CT, where he wrote: "The result, taken in the round, is the best book on Lincoln since Allen Guelzo's superb Redeemer President (1999) [see below]. These two are simply as good as it gets."

Ronald C. White Jr., A. Lincoln: A Biography (2009). I'm currently reading this one, and would highly recommend it. It's very readable. James McPherson says it's "the best biography of Lincoln since David Donald's Lincoln."

Allen Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (1999). Guelzo is Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College, and Director of the Civil War Era Studies Program and The Gettysburg Semester. This highly praised book, winner of the Lincoln Prize, is considering to be the first "intellectual biography" of Lincoln. Especially significant is Guelzo's exploration of Lincoln's conflicted religious outlook.

Allen Guelzo, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America (2004). This is the first full-scale study of Lincoln's historic state paper that freed the slaves. Guelzo argues that "prudence" was the key to Lincoln's political behavior. He writes, "It would be special pleading to claim that Lincoln was in the end the most perfect friend black Americans have ever had. But it would also be the cheapest and most ignorant of skepticisms to deny that he was the most significant" (p. 11).

Allen Guelzo, Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America (2008). This was published on the 150th anniversary of these seven debates (each 3 hours long) between Lincoln (6 foot 4) and Douglas (5 foot 4) as they campaigned against each other for an Illinois seat in the US Senate. Guelzo sees the debate as one that continues unabated to this date: What is the purpose of liberal democracy? Is it to realize a morally right political order (Lincoln) or only to provide a procedural framework for exercising rights and satisfying the desires of the majority?

Harry V. Jaffa, Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates (1959). The 50th anniversary edition of this book will be published in April. Jaffa, a neo-Straussian political philosopher, looks at the political thought of Lincoln and Douglas.

Ronald C. White Jr.,
The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words (2005). "This portrait of Lincoln focuses on an even more fundamental but overlooked question: what are the relationships among Lincoln's speeches? . . . The contention that underlies this book is that Lincoln's speeches can be appreciated best not in splendid isolation from one antoher, but when they are seen together in all their shimmering beauty."

Ronald C. White Jr., Lincoln's Greatest Speech : The Second Inaugural (2002). Lincoln's second inaugural address (March 4, 1865) was delivered just one month before his assassination. Frederick Douglas commented after the speech, "That address sounded more like a sermon than a state paper." Here are a couple of blurbs about this book. Mark Noll: "Those who think it is not possible to say anything fresh about the life and convinctions of Abraham Lincoln will be surprised by this book. Careful attention to the complex layers of Lincoln's own actions and beliefs leaves Ronald White with a rich harvest of religious, political, and social insight concerning what truly was Lincoln's Greatest Speech." Allen Guelzo: "Without question our best commentary on Lincoln's deepest and most intellectually self-revealing speech."

Harold Holzer,
Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President (2004). Winner of the Lincoln Prize. Holzer's book focuses on Lincoln's significant though little-known 7,000 word speech at Cooper Union (New York City) on February 27, 1860. He asks: "Why did this voluminous, legalistic, tightly argued, fact-filled address prove so thrilling to its listeners, so irresistible to contemporary journalists, and such a boost to Lincoln's political career? How exactly did it transform its author from a relatively obscure Illinois favorite son into a viable national contender for his party's presidential nomination?"

In 2004 actor Sam Waterston (from Law and Order, who played Lincoln in a TV miniseries in 1988), delivered the speech in Cooper Union's Great Hall. You can watch it here, or listen and read it here.

Garry Wills,
Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America (1992). This speech--delivered slowly on Nov. 19, 1863 at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania--was remarkably short. Lincoln was interrupted by applause 5 times, and it only took him three minutes to deliver it. Garry Wills' Pulitzer-Prize-winning book on the speech is 315 pages--Lincoln's speech was 272 words! Wills studies "all the elements of that stunning verbal coup. Without Lincoln's knowing it himself, all his prior literary, intellectual, and political labors had prepared him for the intellectual revolution contained in those fateful 272 words."

Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2006). A popular bestseller, though some have called it mediocre. A Stephen Speilberg-directed film adaption--starring Liam Neeson as Abraham Lincoln and Sally Field as his wife, Mary Tood Lincoln--is planned.

Now to a couple of books I don't own yet, but plan to acquire:

Lewis Lehrman, Lincoln at Peoria (2008). From the book description: "To understand President Abraham Lincoln, one must understand the Peoria speech of October 16, 1854. It forms the foundation of his politics and principles in the 1850s and in his presidency."

Henry Louis Gates Jr., ed., Lincoln on Race and Slavery (2009). From the book's description: "In this book--the first complete collection of Lincoln's important writings on both race and slavery--readers can explore these contradictions through Lincoln's own words. Acclaimed Harvard scholar and documentary filmmaker Henry Louis Gates, Jr., presents the full range of Lincoln's views, gathered from his private letters, speeches, official documents, and even race jokes, arranged chronologically from the late 1830s to the 1860s."

Gates and PBS have also teamed up to do a documentary on this: