The best books on the political and moral power that made Abraham Lincoln a great president

Why am I passionate about this?

How could a historian of the US not find Lincoln an endlessly fascinating figure? As a young(ish) university teacher, I jumped at the invitation to write a study of the 16th president, but didn’t expect it to win the coveted Lincoln Prize. When it did, in 2004, the community of American Lincoln scholars made me, a Welsh professor from Oxford University, doubly welcome. In several books I’ve examined Lincoln’s political skill, strategic ambition, and moral purposes. But he was more than a gifted pragmatist. His greater goal was to leave his nation stronger and a little closer to realizing the principles of equality laid out in the Declaration of Independence of 1776.


I wrote...

Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power

By Richard J. Carwardine,

Book cover of Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power

What is my book about?

My book addresses the key question about Lincoln: what explains his rise to power and his masterly leadership of the Union during the civil war? At the heart of my narrative, I place his moral core, fixity on the big picture, exceptional political skill, sensitivity to public opinion, and self-punishing work ethic. In working to reunite the nation and end slavery, he used every lever of power. In a wartime democracy these included his party, the churches, and the volunteer Federal army. His talent bordered on genius.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America

Richard J. Carwardine Why did I love this book?

I first encountered Lincoln as an Oxford undergraduate, spellbound by his public jousting with the “Little Giant,” Stephen Douglas, his Democratic opponent in the US Senate race of 1858. The campaign crisscrossed the plains of Illinois and brought the Republican Lincoln to national attention. Guelzo, a Lincoln Prize-winner, writes stylishly, capturing the feel of the prairies, and above all gets to the heart of the issues that divided the candidates: race and slavery. An unapologetic white supremacist, Douglas was neutral on slavery; Lincoln argued against it and its westward spread. He declared slavery wrong and at odds with the principles of the Declaration of Independence. Douglas was elected but Lincoln’s raised profile would help elect him to the presidency two years later.

By Allen C. Guelzo,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

From the two-time winner of the prestigious Lincoln Prize, a stirring and surprising account of the debates that made Lincoln a national figure and defined the slavery issue that would bring the country to war.

In 1858, Abraham Lincoln was known as a successful Illinois lawyer who had achieved some prominence in state politics as a leader in the new Republican Party. Two years later, he was elected president and was on his way to becoming the greatest chief executive in American history.

What carried this one-term congressman from obscurity to fame was the campaign he mounted for the United…


Book cover of The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery

Richard J. Carwardine Why did I love this book?

Eric Foner, the dean of US historians, has written many superb books. None surpasses The Fiery Trial. It’s been a pleasure to share projects and platforms with him. We both recognize how sincerely Lincoln believed slavery was a terrible wrong, but protecting it was a constitutional duty. The Civil War changed all that. His commitment to emancipation never wavered once he had made it a weapon of war. His racial prejudices, common among white people, melted in wartime. As black troops fought for the Union, he came to recognize their claims of citizenship. Foner’s definitive study puts Lincoln at the heart of the interplay of race, slavery, and politics, and is a compelling riposte to those who denigrate his role in black freedom.

By Eric Foner,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Fiery Trial as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Selected as a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times Book Review, this landmark work gives us a definitive account of Lincoln's lifelong engagement with the nation's critical issue: American slavery. A master historian, Eric Foner draws Lincoln and the broader history of the period into perfect balance. We see Lincoln, a pragmatic politician grounded in principle, deftly navigating the dynamic politics of antislavery, secession, and civil war. Lincoln's greatness emerges from his capacity for moral and political growth.


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

Richard J. Carwardine Why did I love this book?

Lincoln was a great communicator, whose greatest speeches deliver emotional power through unfussy language. Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of the best-selling page-turner Uncle Tom’s Cabin, knew a thing or two about language. She said Lincoln’s compelling words had “the relish and smack of the soil.” Douglas Wilson’s study is an exercise in historical detection. Sleuth-like he uses the successive manuscript drafts of Lincoln’s speeches and public letters to show his care in choosing his words, and how alert he was to sense, sound, imagery, context, and clarity. Lincoln’s Sword is a masterpiece, a showcase of the literary and political sensibilities that made Wilson an acclaimed winner of the Lincoln Prize.

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's Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural

Richard J. Carwardine Why did I love this book?

Lincoln’s religious faith, a puzzle to many, has been a central interest of mine. As a young man Lincoln was accused of infidelity; in maturity he made no religious profession. Yet he read and reread the Bible, attended church in Washington, reflected on God’s purposes, and shared ideas with ministers. White has written several studies of Lincoln, including a fine biography, but none surpasses this bright gem of a book. He explains why Lincoln considered his second inaugural address, delivered as the war ended, to be his greatest speech—a sermon rooted in faith. Believing the war to be God’s judgment on the whole nation for its complicity in the sin of slavery, he urged postwar charity to all. Fittingly, its text is paired with the Gettysburg Address in the Lincoln Memorial.  

By Ronald C. White Jr.,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

After four years of unspeakable horror and sacrifice on both sides, the Civil War was about to end. On March 4, 1865, at his Second Inaugural, President Lincoln did not offer the North the victory speech it yearned for, nor did he blame the South solely for the sin of slavery. Calling the whole nation to account, Lincoln offered a moral framework for peace and reconciliation. The speech was greeted with indifference, misunderstanding, and hostility by many in the Union. But it was a great work, the victorious culmination of Lincoln's own lifelong struggle with the issue of slavery, and…


Book cover of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom

Richard J. Carwardine Why did I love this book?

Some critics have dismissed Lincoln as a white supremacist, citing his words in 1858 about Black inferiority, and call his emancipation edict an act of simple pragmatism. This does not square with the rounded judgment of Frederick Douglass, the runaway slave, ardent campaigner for racial equality, and arguably the most influential African American of all time. David Blight’s definitive Pulitzer prize-winning study serves him with eloquent authority. He shows how the radical activist, after initially calling Lincoln a "heartless" pragmatist, grew to appreciate Lincoln’s qualities. The president treated "my friend Frederick Douglass" as an equal, asking him to organize Black scouts to penetrate enemy lines and guide slaves to freedom. Douglass would come to declare him a legitimate hero for African Americans.

By David W. Blight,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked Frederick Douglass as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

**Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in History**

"Extraordinary...a great American biography" (The New Yorker) of the most important African-American of the nineteenth century: Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave who became the greatest orator of his day and one of the leading abolitionists and writers of the era.

As a young man Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) escaped from slavery in Baltimore, Maryland. He was fortunate to have been taught to read by his slave owner mistress, and he would go on to become one of the major literary figures of his time. His very existence gave the lie to slave owners: with…


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Book cover of The Hunt for the Peggy C: A World War II Maritime Thriller

John Winn Miller

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What is my book about?

The Hunt for the Peggy C is best described as Casablanca meets Das Boot. It is about an American smuggler who struggles to rescue a Jewish family on his rusty cargo ship, outraging his mutinous crew of misfits and provoking a hair-raising chase by a brutal Nazi U-boat captain bent on revenge.

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By John Winn Miller,

What is this book about?

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The normally aloof Rogers finds himself drawn in by the family's warmth and faith, but he can't afford to let his guard down when Oberleutnant Viktor…


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