MELISSA BLOCK, host:
President Abraham Lincoln was born 200 years ago this week, so we gave historian Eric Foner an assignment. We asked him to choose his favorite books on President Lincoln. It's for our series "Three Books," where writers pick three books on one theme.
Mr. ERIC FONER (Author, "Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World"): Every generation of Americans reinvents Abraham Lincoln in their 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.
Although there are innumerable biographies of Lincoln, the best remains David Herbert Donald's "Lincoln," 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 his book.
Richard Carwardine's "Lincoln," published in 2003, is a study of Lincoln's relationship to various kinds of power: military, political and 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. President Obama, please take note.
Nonetheless, as Carwardine shows, Lincoln 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.
One problem with many books on Lincoln is that they abstract Lincoln 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. 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, 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 from Abraham Lincoln. He might start by reading these three books.
BLOCK: Eric Foner is a professor of history at Columbia University. He's the author of "Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World." And his three book choices are "Lincoln," by David Herbert Donald; another also titled "Lincoln," by Richard Carwardine; and "The Radical and the Republican," by James Oakes. You can find other Three Books recommendations at npr.org.