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.
The Papers, which culminate eight years of editorial work and examine more than 50 individual cases, offer two “tours” with Lincoln around the judicial circuit, essays on his career as a lawyer and as a court official, and explanations of the structure of the Illinois and federal court systems and 19th-century pleading and practice, as well as a biographical directory, an extensive legal glossary, and a cumulative index. While such a work is not necessarily recreational reading, this collection is not for scholars only. Its large and admirable body of contextual material offers insight into Lincoln’s professional life as a busy 19th-century lawyer, while the assortment of his most important and most interesting cases—such as the famous William “Duff” Armstrong “moonlight” trial and Illinois Central Railroad v. McLean County—keeps it a lively read. In all, this compendium of a formidable attorney’s practice throws light on the activities that were
uppermost for more than half of his working life.
The most original—and arguably the most astonishing—contribution from 2008 is a two-volume work, The Physical Lincoln Complete (Mt. Vernon Book Systems, 820 pages, $49.95), by Dr. John G. Sotos. Sotos, a renowned cardiologist and a medical advisor for the television show House M.D., has written the most exhaustive study on Lincoln’s health ever published, and the first attempted in 75 years. The book’s main diagnosis is that Lincoln suffered from the genetic cancer syndrome MEN2B—multiple endocrine neoplasia, type 2B. This diagnosis, Sotos shows, explains more than 50 previously unsolved mysteries about Lincoln, including the manifestations from which other observers have concluded that he suffered from clinical depression, Marfan syndrome, and stress-related physical illness.
The Physical Lincoln Complete is aimed at scholars and laypersons alike. Volume 1, The Physical Lincoln, is for general readers, telling the story of Lincoln’s medical history in nontechnical language. In the author’s words, it “takes you on a tour of [Lincoln’s] body”—his arms, legs, hands, feet, skull, joints, eyes, and heart. It also reviews the health histories of his family. The second volume, The Physical Lincoln Sourcebook, is for scholars: taking the raw information from historical sources and organizing it as a medical record. The first volume contains frequent references to the second volume, making the two essentially companionate, although they can be purchased and read separately. The Physical Lincoln Complete may sound daunting, but is so compelling, revelatory, and well-written as to be a remarkable and truly recommend able reading experience.
Another original take last year was Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer (Harper, 416 pages, $27.95) by Fred Kaplan, an English professor and biographer of authors, who examines his subject primarily from a literary viewpoint. Unlike the critically acclaimed 2006 book Lincoln’s Sword by Douglas L. Wilson, which examined Lincoln’s writing as a political instrument, Kaplan declares Lincoln to be one of the great writers of his day and second perhaps only to Thomas Jefferson as a writing president. Kaplan treads familiar ground in examining Lincoln’s reading, such as his beloved Shakespeare, Robert Burns, and the Bible, and their influences. But he undertakes an unparalleled analysis of Lincoln the creative writer, digging more widely and deeply than any of his predecessors in examining Lincoln’s writings from early notebook jottings and poems, to love letters and legal briefs, to the masterful presidential speeches and writings that are a significant part of American literature. One of the more interesting aspects of Kaplan’s exegesis is his recasting of a Lincoln speech on agricultural improvements as a free verse poem.
Kaplan’s great strength is his experience and expertise in examining literature and those who make it—he has to his credit admirable biographies of Mark Twain, Henry James and Charles Dickens. Because of this, he can go farther than any previous commentator in showing the growth and maturation of Lincoln’s literary skill and how his great talent helped to form his policies and ideas. Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer is an innovative offering in a crowded field and will become a staple for Lincoln enthusiasts and scholars.
The most anticipated contribution of 2008—and of the past 10 years at least—is another two-volume work that may prove to be the greatest biography of the 16th president ever written: Abraham Lincoln: A Life by Michael Burlingame (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2,024 pages, $125), embodying 10 years’ research and writing by one of the field’s most respected historians (and certainly the most indefatigable ransacker of archives). Burlingame has written and edited numerous books on Lincoln and his associates. His first such offering, The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln, revealed aspects of Lincoln’s life never before known or exposed. Abraham Lincoln: A Life continues this tradition with an avalanche of previously unknown information. Burlingame has scoured thousands of 19th-century newspapers; read hundreds of oral histories, unpublished letters, and journals from Lincoln’s contemporaries; and reexamined vast manuscript collections around the country long neglected by the most assiduous of his colleagues. One of the book’s many highlights is its revelation of more than 200 anonymous editorials written by Lincoln during his early political career in Illinois.
Burlingame goes deeper than any previous biographer in examining Lincoln’s psychology. He scrutinizes Lincoln’s marriage and what help and harm it did him; how his years at the Illinois bar and as a local party hack sharpened his abilities; and how his mental development and life experiences ultimately prepared him for the ultimate triumph and catastrophe of his election to the presidency and the Civil War. This vast, profound book follows in the grand tradition of Carl Sandburg’s epic biography—albeit with far more fact and far less poeticized fiction in the telling—and will hardly, if ever, be surpassed. Like the idiosyncratically acute biography by Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, Burlingame’s biography will undoubtedly be hotly debated, but it will certainly become the paradigm and primary reference for all future endeavors to pin down Lincoln the man and leader.