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Six Of The Top Recent Books On Abraham Lincoln
Spring 2009 | Volume 59, Issue 1
Abraham Lincoln is the most written-about person in American history, and the third most in world history—ranking below only Jesus and Napoleon. The deluge of books about the Great Emancipator has only increased with the bicentennial of his birth this year. Lists of the “essential” Lincoln books have been published, and one renowned Lincoln scholar has even suggested that a book be written on the worst, so readers will know which to avoid. In 2008 and into the first months of 2009, many notable books on our 16th president have appeared, but some exceptional ones stand above the rest.
Lincoln’s presidential years have drawn more scholarly attention than the period before he entered the White House; some scholars argue that, despite the glut of biographies, much remains to be uncovered and examined about his early life. In July 2008 Lewis E. Lehrman rescued one such segment of Lincoln’s life from the shadows with his masterful Lincoln at Peoria: The Turning Point (Stackpole Books, 350 pages, $29.95), a study of Lincoln’s speech at Peoria, Illinois, in October 1854, in response to Stephen A. Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act that year. It marked Lincoln’s return to politics after a five-year hiatus and indeed the beginning of his advance to the presidency.
Lincoln later said of the Kansas-Nebraska Act that it “aroused him as he had never been before,” and indeed his response, based on moral principles rather than political expediency, transformed him from a regional party politician to a national statesman, shifting the focus of his politics away from local issues to a stance against the national expansion of slavery. As Lehrman deftly explains, the Peoria speech was the foundation of Lincoln’s political ideology and rhetoric for the rest of his life: its influence is palpable in his debates with Douglas in 1858, his Cooper Union Speech in 1860, and many of his ideas and policies as president toward slavery. Lincoln in Peoria traces the context, rhetoric, and consequences of that utterance and its place in Lincoln’s rise to greatness. Lehrman spent 20 years researching and writing this book, and it shows. Lincoln in Peoria will not easily be surpassed as the best account of this speech.
The next significant milestone in Lincoln’s political rise was the series of Lincoln-Douglas debates four years later, when the two political giants battled for Douglas’s seat in the U.S. Senate. Many transcripts have been published over the years, but the newest edition, The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The Lincoln Studies Center Edition (University of Illinois Press, 392 pages, $35), edited by Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, is certainly one of the highlight Lincoln publications of 2008. Wilson and Davis have, in this third book from Knox College’s Lincoln Studies Center, established an authoritative text through meticulous editorial techniques and a comprehensive understanding of the man and his times. While previous books have simply published the contemporary coverage—whether from newspapers friendly to the candidates or, as in Harold Holzer’s significant 1993 version, from the opposing side’s reporting—Wilson and Davis have compiled the first critical edition, parsing what the candidates actually said, regardless of the source, and clarifying and extending the speakers’ words by correcting the originals’ irregular paragraphing, arbitrary punctuation, and occasionally confused transcriptions. They also offer textual annotations; a glossary of persons, issues, and events; and an introduction for each of the seven debates to put the overall campaign into context with the individual events. (Another notable book of 2008, in fact, focuses more on the context than on the transcripts, and can and should be read as a complement to Wilson and Davis: Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America by Allen C. Guelzo (Simon & Schuster, 416 pages, $26). The complete transcripts are required reading for anyone seeking to fully understand Lincoln’s life and politics—and American 19th-century politics—and the Lincoln Studies Center edition now offers the definitive text.
Last year also produced an unusual number of outstanding large-scale works about the great man. No Lincoln library will be complete without the four-volume edition of The Papers of Abraham Lincoln: Legal Documents and Cases (University of Virginia Press, 2,328 pages, $300), edited by Daniel W. Stowell and five assistants. Lincoln’s work as a lawyer rarely has been studied as extensively as it deserves, and never have the details and depths of his law practice been so fully plumbed. The vast literature about him offers mostly generalities concerning his legal work and studies of specific cases. The release of the four-volume papers—which complements the three-CD The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln: Complete Documentary Edition, published by the University of Illinois Press in 2000—changes this.