Three Books Explore Lincoln's Complex Genius

Lincoln, primary
Library of Congress

Every generation of Americans reinvents Abraham Lincoln in its own image. Politicians from conservatives to communists, civil rights activists to segregationists, have claimed him as their own. Presidents — most recently Barack Obama — try to model themselves on him.

Lincoln is important to us not because of how he chose his cabinet or what route his train took to Washington, but because the issues of his time still resonate in ours — relations between the state and federal governments, the definition of American citizenship, the long-term legacy of slavery. My three favorite books on Lincoln are not only works of superb scholarship, but speak directly to the times in which they were written.

'Lincoln'

Lincoln, by David Herbert Donald
Lincoln, by David Herbert Donald, paperback, 720 pages

Although there are innumerable biographies of Lincoln, the best remains David Herbert Donald's Lincoln, which was published in 1995. If you want to know what Lincoln was doing and saying at any point in his career, this is the first place to turn. Somewhat surprisingly, however, the book's overriding theme is the "essential passivity" of Lincoln's personality. Unlike most biographies, which are overwhelmingly adulatory, Donald's is a bittersweet portrait. Lincoln emerges as a man buffeted by forces outside his control — rather like Bill Clinton, who, not coincidentally, was president when Donald wrote Lincoln.

'Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power'

Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power
Lincoln : A Life of Purpose and Power, by Richard Carwardine, paperback, 394 pages

Richard Carwardine's Lincoln, published in 2003, is a study of the 16th president's relationship to various kinds of power — military, political, moral and, especially, the power of religious enthusiasm. Lincoln was among the least religious of our presidents. He never joined a church and managed to get inaugurated twice without a single preacher taking part. Nonetheless, as Carwardine shows, he met frequently at the White House with ministers to listen to their pleas for emancipation. And Lincoln shrewdly harnessed the religious view that the Civil War was a divinely ordained battle between national sin and national redemption.

'The Radical and the Republican'

The Radical and the Republican
The Radical and the Republican, by James Oakes, paperback, 352 pages

One problem with many books on Lincoln is that they abstract the president from the context of his times. Some historians assume that to understand Lincoln all you need to do is study Lincoln — his psychology, law career, speeches, etc. This is why James Oakes' The Radical and the Republican, which appeared two years ago, is a must read. Oakes examines the complex relationship between Lincoln and the great black abolitionist Frederick Douglass. He shows how, from very different starting points, their views on slavery and race began to converge during the Civil War. On issue after issue — abolition in the nation's capital, wartime emancipation, enlisting black soldiers, amending the Constitution to abolish slavery, allowing some African-Americans to vote — Lincoln came to occupy positions Douglass and other abolitionists had first staked out.

Here lies the essence of Lincoln's greatness — his capacity for growth, his willingness to abandon old ideas and opinions to meet an unprecedented crisis. As Lincoln wrote, "as our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew." This is a lesson President Obama might well learn.

Three Books ... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Bridget Bentz.

Eric Foner

Eric Foner's most recent book is Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World.

Books Featured In This Story

Our Lincoln
Our Lincoln

New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World

by Eric Foner

Hardcover, 336 pages | purchase

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  • Our Lincoln
  • New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World
  • Eric Foner
Lincoln
Lincoln

by David Herbert Donald

Paperback, 714 pages | purchase

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  • Lincoln
  • David Herbert Donald
Lincoln
Lincoln

A Life of Purpose and Power

by Richard J. Carwardine

Paperback, 394 pages | purchase

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Purchase Featured Books

  • Lincoln
  • A Life of Purpose and Power
  • Richard J. Carwardine
The Radical and the Republican
The Radical and the Republican

Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics

by James Oakes

Paperback, 328 pages | purchase

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  • The Radical and the Republican
  • Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics
  • James Oakes

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