Essential Lincoln Reading

I’ve already received a few emails asking for recommendations on books about Abraham Lincoln.  Since I anticipate more of these requests after tomorrow, I thought it might be a good idea to put together a short list of Lincoln books.  My recommendations are for those of you who walk out of the theater in the next few weeks and want to learn something more about our 16th president, but are not interested in a dry scholarly study.  It’s a good thing that Steven Spielberg’s movie, Lincoln, is being released not so much after the election, but after the Lincoln bicentennial as the offerings are broad and deep.

The best overall biography of Lincoln remains David H. Donald’s Lincoln.  You can find it at most bookstores as well as most decent used books shops.  Though not a traditional biography, Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery is the best broad study of Lincoln and the evolution of his views on race and slavery.  If you are looking for something that you can read in short bursts that debunks many of the long-standing myths about Lincoln, I suggest Gerald Prokopowicz’s Did Lincoln Own Slaves?: And Other Frequently Asked Questions about Abraham Lincoln.  Finally, since the movie is loosely based on her book you may want to read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals.

Here are a couple of books on aspects of Lincoln’s life that are worth reading.  One of my favorite books on Lincoln’s early life (1831-1842) is Douglas Wilson’s Honor’s Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln.  Check out Harold Holzer’s Lincoln President-Elect for a detailed, but very readable overview (600 pages) of the period following his election in 1860.  Although it is a bit dated, Gary Wills’s Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America offers a thoughtful analysis of his famous speech and its place in American memory.

I mentioned in a previous post that I am very interested to see whether Sally Field finally gives us a more rounded and sympathetic portrayal of Mary Todd and her relationship with her husband.  Jean H. Baker’s Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography is worth reading and I suspect Catherine Clinton’s book Mrs. Lincoln: A Life is as well, though I have not read it.  Finally, for a light-hearted look at Lincoln’s continued hold on American memory and culture I highly recommend Andrew Ferguson’s Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America.

We could add any number of books to this list, but I hope this at least will get you started.  See you at the movies.

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30 comments… add one
  • Ernest Nov 16, 2012 @ 5:36

    Not sure if anyone mentioned it, but “Lincoln and His Generals” by: T. Harry Williams and
    “Tried By War” By James McPherson.

  • Brad Nov 13, 2012 @ 18:56

    I love Ronald White’s Lincoln’s Greatest Speech as well as his larger bio. Douglas Wilson’s Lincoln’s Sword is a classic as is anything by William Harris. Also check out William Miller’s two books on Lincoln. I loved those. Brian Dirck has written a recent book that is quite interesting, Lincoln and White America. I also liked Holzer’s Emancipating Lincoln.

  • Robert Ortega Nov 11, 2012 @ 20:01

    After looking at the different choices for the best books about Abraham Lincoln, one that I am surprised nobody has mentioned yet is “With Malice Toward None” by Stephen B. Oates. This biography might be dated, but I would have to consider it to be one of my favorite books about Lincoln.

    • Chris Evans Nov 12, 2012 @ 8:03

      I like Oates also. I thought someone had mentioned it.

      I think Thomas, Donald, and Luthin are superior though.


  • Chris Evans Nov 10, 2012 @ 8:31

    I forgot to mention the fabulous ‘Lincoln’s Herndon’ by David Herbert Donald. It does a great job showing how one of the most influential biographies of Lincoln was constructed and put together. It really is hard to do justice how excellent and important to Lincoln studies that book is.


  • Chris Evans Nov 10, 2012 @ 7:10

    Nice list.

    Two of my favorite older biographies of Lincoln that I still find excellent are: ‘The Real Abraham Lincoln’ by Reinhard H. Luthin (goes without saying that it is much better than the other book that stole its title) and ‘Abraham Lincoln: A Biography’ by Benjamin P. Thomas.

    Though hard to find ‘The Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia’ by Mark E. Neely, Jr is spectacular.


  • Pat Young Nov 8, 2012 @ 19:20

    Really? It is online?

  • Keith Harris Nov 8, 2012 @ 18:40

    That’s a damn good list, Kevin. Someone else recommended Peterson’s Lincoln in American Memory. I am going to go out on a limb and second that nomination.

  • Al Mackey Nov 8, 2012 @ 17:35

    It does have the virtue of being available online at no cost. 🙂

    • Kevin Levin Nov 8, 2012 @ 17:59

      Good point.

  • Al Mackey Nov 8, 2012 @ 16:37

    How about Michael Burlingame’s 2-volume Abraham Lincoln: A Life?

    • Kevin Levin Nov 8, 2012 @ 16:39

      I can just imagine dumping that one on that poor soul who leaves the theater looking for an intelligent, but manageable read on Lincoln. 🙂

  • Rob Wick Nov 8, 2012 @ 9:53


    Can’t really argue with your list at all, although I still have a soft spot for Benjamin Thomas’s ABRAHAM LINCOLN as better than Donald’s biography, which I rank a close second.

    Also a bit dense for the average reader, Barry Schwartz’s memory studies of Lincoln ABRAHAM LINCOLN AND THE FORGE OF NATIONAL MEMORY and ABRAHAM LINCOLN IN THE POST-HEROIC ERA are excellent studies. Merrill Peterson’s LINCOLN IN AMERICAN MEMORY is more accessible for the average reader.

    As the assassination is the red-headed stepchild of Lincoln studies, I would recommend Ed Steers BLOOD ON THE MOON and Mike Kauffman’s AMERICAN BRUTUS as the two best on that topic.

    Finally, although many would disagree, I think a place should be made at the table for Carl Sandburg and Ida Tarbell’s works on Lincoln. Both are highly readable and not as convoluted as some scholars make them out to be. And, it must be said, both have been read more than any Lincoln scholar since 1865.


  • Michael Lynch Nov 8, 2012 @ 8:47

    Here at LMU, every student is required to take a one-hour introductory course on Lincoln and relevant issues in American history. We use William Gienapp’s Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War: A Biography, which is great little overview, very concise but also very solid. We also use a one-volume edition of Lincoln’s writings.

    It’s been a while since I taught this course, but I’ve got a section next semester and I’m looking forward to it. It’s always a lot of fun.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 8, 2012 @ 9:01

      I’ve used the Gienapp book in the past to teach. Good choice, but pretty dry.

  • Pat Young Nov 8, 2012 @ 8:37

    Great suggestions. Those are some of my favorites too. You neglected to mention that Gerald Prokopowicz’s book of one or two page Q&As is the perfect book to be kept in the bathroom library.

    Also, folks should consider the Library of America’s two volume “Lincoln : Speeches and Writings”, especially volume II which covers the election, the secession crisis, and the Civil War. Lincoln was one of our best writers and folks will enjoy his style as well as insights into his vision of America. Really thought provoking stuff in those pages. He was an American original.

  • Bjorn Skaptason Nov 8, 2012 @ 7:59

    Hi Kevin,

    As a guy whose business is Lincoln lit, I feel that these are all fine suggestions. Differences would be minor. I prefer Ronald White’s “A. Lincoln: A Biography,” for a one-volume life, but one can hardly pretend to have an “essential” book shelf without Donald. People who want essential should just get both books.

    The notion of “essential” is where I might suggest reconsideration. I think a lot of folks who might ask for reading suggestions after seeing Spielberg’s Lincoln will want shorter overviews that still have real merit as scholarship and lit. Southern Illinois University Press is bringing out a series called Concise Lincoln Library that is designed to satisfy that need. I would steer people to Michael Burlingame’s 180 page “Lincoln and the Civil War” ($19.95) before asking them to wrestle with Burlingame’s 2,000 page Green Monster ($125.00). Brian Dirck gives us “Lincoln and the Constitution.” If the topic fascinates, then I think somebody could move on to Mark Neely’s analytical “Lincoln and the Triumph of the Nation.” It goes on. Every title in SIU’s list leads to fine, larger works on the subject, and they are usually pretty recent scholarship. See their list here

    There are probably about 16,000 titles on Lincoln right now, and there will be another book published next week, and so on. Abraham Lincoln Book Shop offers a free checklist called The Essential Lincoln Book Shelf. It has 164 titles at this point. From a body of over 16,000, that is still pretty concise.

    That overwhelming volume of Lincoln stuff makes SIU’s Concise series all the more valuable. It can help a newcomer get into the topic without getting overwhelmed.

    They can get overwhelmed later.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 8, 2012 @ 8:26

      Hi Bjorn,

      I agree that short overviews are worth mentioning and the SIU series is certainly a good place to begin. My list was driven as much by the pleasure I experienced reading as the argument itself. Neely’s book on the Lincoln and the Constitution is well worth looking at, but I don’t see too many moviegoers, who are looking for more to read, getting through that one. Thanks again.

  • Ken Noe Nov 8, 2012 @ 7:17

    I’d also recommend two very different biographies, Michael Burlingame’s The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln, and Allen Guelzo’s Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President.

    • Bruce Clary Nov 8, 2012 @ 20:32

      I admire Redeemer President tremendously. Glad to see it get a mention here. I have a copy of Fateful Lightning and hope for an opportunity to get to it soon.

  • Bummer Nov 8, 2012 @ 6:30


    Bummer welcomes the Lincoln reading suggestions. In addition, The Gettysburg Gospel by Gabor Boritt is one of my favorites regarding the genesis of the address.


    • Kevin Levin Nov 8, 2012 @ 7:07

      Another good one.

  • Harry Nov 8, 2012 @ 6:16

    I’d also toss in Russell McClintock’s “Lincoln and the Decision For War” as a much, much more insightful look at the new President than that provided by Holzer. Holzer’s book is more like a checklist of who, what, when, and where, while McClintock provides deep analysis. However, none of this really relates to the film 😉

    • Kevin Levin Nov 8, 2012 @ 6:19

      I think this is one of the best books of the period. Like I said, I was going for more casual reading, but I am glad you mentioned it here.

  • Harry Nov 8, 2012 @ 6:13

    Larry Tagg’s “The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln.” Far from a hit piece, Tagg examines how Lincoln was viewed during his presidency, sans post-assassination deification filter. Really, really good stuff. Best AL book I’ve read – or even skimmed – in a long, long time. And I’ve read and skimmed a boat-load of them.

  • Ray Ortensie Nov 8, 2012 @ 6:11

    And don’t forget Harold Holzer’s works. Finishing up right now “Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech that made Abraham Lincoln President.”

  • Laura McCarty Nov 8, 2012 @ 5:21

    Thanks for the great list.

    Two other suggestions:

    Vernon Burton’s The Age of Lincoln
    Stephen Berry’s House of Abraham (which is about the Todd family siblings)

    • Kevin Levin Nov 8, 2012 @ 5:23

      Steve’s book is excellent as is Burton’s but his is a much broader history of the period between 1830 and 1900. Just something to keep in mind.

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