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

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...

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.

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The books I picked & why

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

Garry Wills Why did I love 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.

By James Oakes,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Crooked Path to Abolition as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The long and turning path to the abolition of American slavery has often been attributed to the equivocations and inconsistencies of anti-slavery leaders, including Lincoln himself. But James Oakes's brilliant history of Lincoln's anti-slavery strategies reveals a striking consistency and commitment extending over many years. The linchpin of anti-slavery for Lincoln was the Constitution of the United States.

Lincoln adopted the anti-slavery view that the Constitution made freedom the rule in the United States, slavery the exception. Where federal power prevailed, so did freedom. Where state power prevailed, that state determined the status of slavery and the federal government could…


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

Garry Wills Why did I love 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.

By Douglas Wilson,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Lincoln's Sword as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Widely considered in his own time as a genial but provincial lightweight who was out of place in the presidency, Abraham Lincoln astonished his allies and confounded his adversaries by producing a series of speeches and public letters so provocative that they helped revolutionize public opinion on such critical issues as civil liberties, the use of black soldiers, and the emancipation of slaves. This is a brilliant and unprecedented examination of how Lincoln used the power of words to not only build his political career but to keep the country united during the Civil War.


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

Garry Wills Why did I love 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.

By Harold Holzer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Lincoln and the Power of the Press as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“Lincoln believed that ‘with public sentiment nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed.’ Harold Holzer makes a significant contribution to our understanding of Lincoln’s leadership by showing us how deftly he managed his relations with the press of his day to move public opinion forward to preserve the Union and abolish slavery.” —Doris Kearns Goodwin

From his earliest days, Lincoln devoured newspapers. As he started out in politics he wrote editorials and letters to argue his case. He spoke to the public directly through the press. He even bought a German-language newspaper to appeal to that growing electorate in…


Book cover of Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln

Garry Wills Why did I love 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.

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

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is the first comprehensive collection of remarks attributed to Abraham Lincoln by his contemporaries. Much of what is known or believed about the man comes from such utterances, which have been an important part of Lincoln biography. About his mother, for instance, he never wrote anything beyond supplying a few routine facts, but he can be quoted as stating orally that she was the illegitimate daughter of a Virginia aristocrat. Similarly, there is no mention of Ann Rutledge in any of his writings, but he can be quoted as saying when he was president-elect, "I did honestly and truly…


Book cover of Abraham Lincoln: A Life

Garry Wills Why did I love 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. 

By Michael Burlingame,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Abraham Lincoln as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the first multi-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln to be published in decades, Lincoln scholar Michael Burlingame offers a fresh look at the life of one of America's greatest presidents. Incorporating the field notes of earlier biographers, along with decades of research in multiple manuscript archives and long-neglected newspapers, this remarkable work will both alter and reinforce our current understanding of America's sixteenth president. Volume 1 covers Lincoln's early childhood, his experiences as a farm boy in Indiana and Illinois, his legal training, and the political ambition that led to a term in Congress in the 1840s. In volume 2,…


You might also like...

The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

By Alexander Rose,

Book cover of The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

Alexander Rose Author Of Empires of the Sky: Zeppelins, Airplanes, and Two Men's Epic Duel to Rule the World

New book alert!

Who am I?

A long time ago, I was an early-aviation historian, but eventually realized that I knew only half the story—the part about airplanes. But what about airships? Initially, I assumed, like so many others, that they were a flash-in-the-pan, a ridiculous dead-end technology, but then I realized these wondrous giants had roamed and awed the world for nearly four decades. There was a bigger story here of an old rivalry between airplanes and airships, one that had since been forgotten, and Empires of the Sky was the result.

Alexander's book list on Zeppelin airships

What is my book about?

From the author of Washington’s Spies, the thrilling story of two rival secret agents — one Confederate, the other Union — sent to Britain during the Civil War.

The South’s James Bulloch, charming and devious, was ordered to acquire a clandestine fleet intended to break Lincoln’s blockade, sink Northern merchant vessels, and drown the U.S. Navy’s mightiest ships at sea. Opposing him was Thomas Dudley, an upright Quaker lawyer determined to stop Bulloch in a spy-versus-spy game of move and countermove, gambit and sacrifice, intrigue and betrayal.

Their battleground was the Dickensian port of Liverpool, whose dockyards built more ships each year than the rest of the world combined and whose merchant princes, said one observer, were “addicted to Southern proclivities, foreign slave trade, and domestic bribery.”

The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

By Alexander Rose,

What is this book about?

From the New York Times bestselling author of Washington's Spies, the thrilling story of the Confederate spy who came to Britain to turn the tide of the Civil War-and the Union agent resolved to stop him.

"Entertaining and deeply researched...with a rich cast of spies, crooks, bent businessmen and drunken sailors...Rose relates the tale with gusto." -The New York Times

In 1861, soon after the outbreak of the Civil War, two secret agents-one a Confederate, the other his Union rival-were dispatched to neutral Britain, each entrusted with a vital mission.

The South's James Bulloch, charming and devious, was to acquire…


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Interested in Abraham Lincoln, the news media, and abolitionism?

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