The best books on Abraham Lincoln, his life, and his words

Garry Wills Author Of Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America
By Garry Wills

Who am I?

In high school (the best time for doing this) I read the first two volumes of Carl Sandburg’s six-volume biography of Lincoln. A year or so later I made my first trip on an airplane (Saint Louis to Detroit) and an easily recognizable Sandburg was one of the few passengers on our small commercial prop-plane. I was too shy to approach him, but I did sidle up the aisle to see what he was reading or writing (nothing that I could make out). He had boarded the plane alone, but there was a small party meeting him when we landed. I suppose it was Sandburg’s poetic approach to Lincoln that made me alert to the President’s astonishing feel for the English language.


I wrote...

Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America

By Garry Wills,

Book cover of Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America

What is my book about?

When, later, I fell in love with the ancient Greeks and got a doctorate in that field, I was surprised at the rhetorical and logical rules that Athenians formulated, rules that Lincoln, with little schooling, grasped intuitively. With an almost miraculous appropriateness, Lincoln gave a funeral oration over the graves at Gettysburg that resembles the Athenian addresses in honor of their fallen military men of the preceding year. The religious ceremonies at the Greek cemetery (Kerameikos) were like the Transcendental cult of nature in the new scenic cemeteries (like Gettysburg) that were replacing the old church graveyards.  Lincoln spoke into a charged air that let him make his brief but powerful address call his audience back to the real meaning of the Constitution.

The books I picked & why

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The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution

By James Oakes,

Book cover of The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution

Why this book?

Some people assume that Lincoln at first faintly disapproved of slavery but did not think of abolishing it until the chance was almost forced upon him. Oakes argues, rather, that he hated slavery from the outset and held that the Constitution viewed it as temporary, something deplorable and to be disparaged. Armed with this knowledge, he was able in practice to strike at it whenever opportunity made that possible.


Lincoln's Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words

By Douglas Wilson,

Book cover of Lincoln's Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words

Why this book?

Other presidents used ghostwriters to compose their speeches and other personal writings. Lincoln, who knew he could express himself better than anyone else, wrote not only his own texts but many of those issued by departments or agencies of the government. He needed to frame policies in just the right way, to guide history and make its outcomes clear. His best sword was the perfectly wielded word.


Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion

By Harold Holzer,

Book cover of Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion

Why this book?

When newspapers were the only medium before radio and TV and the internet, they were omnipresent in their own way, and highly partisan. They played dirty, and Lincoln did too. He knew that his careful words would have no impact unless he could get them printed in at least some of the papers he favored, bribed with access and rewards, or helped outflank their (and his) rivals.


Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln

By Don E. Fehrenbacher (editor), Virginia Fehrenbacher (editor),

Book cover of Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln

Why this book?

People known for witty sayings or informative stories – think Mark Twain and Dorothy Parker, or Yogi Berra and Samuel Goldwyn – tend to have any such items foisted on them. Lincoln, who was a genuine purveyor of funny and biting remarks is a victim of this form of theft in reverse. Any pointed or funny words get more dignity or heft if attributed to him. It is amazing how many such pseudo quotes are collected and sifted by the Fehrenbachers. There is a whole false American history that could be woven together from these fakes.


Abraham Lincoln: A Life

By Michael Burlingame,

Book cover of Abraham Lincoln: A Life

Why this book?

All right, children, it is time to eat our vegetables. This massive work of two volumes, each about a thousand pages, is biography as encyclopedia.  And the original text has been trimmed down to this published version. The original text, in all its length and density, can be read online at the  Lincoln Studies Center of Knox College. If the book seems too daunting, just look up in the informative index something you think you know about Lincoln – his Cooper Union address, say, or the Gettysburg Address, or the Second Inaugural --- turn to the relevant pages and see how much more there is to know about your subject. Or, for some racy material, look up “Mary Todd Lincoln, adultery.” Lincoln biographers have always been tough on his wife, but not as harsh as Burlingame is. Once you start looking up something you thought you knew, you will be led on, page after many pages, by the revelation of things you didn’t know.  It is a daunting book, but addictive. 


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