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The best books on Abraham Lincoln

recommended by Ted Widmer

He came from humble beginnings and never went to high school. Going into the presidency, he had limited political experience and lacked business, legislative and military achievements. The one thing he did not lack was a moral compass, says historian and author Ted Widmer. He picks the best books on the ups and downs and Shakespearean-style plot twists that were the life of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States.

Interview by Eve Gerber

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There are more than 16,000 books about Abraham Lincoln, America’s 16th president. You’ve agreed to choose the best reading about Old Abe and I insisted that we discuss your thrilling Lincoln on the Verge among the five. Before we hit the books, please introduce our international audience to Abraham Lincoln.

There’s so much to admire about Abraham Lincoln. He comes along at a crucial moment, when every American knew a crisis was coming. Almost all historians would say he handled that crisis extremely well. He prevailed in a military contest, he deepened democracy, he expanded education, and he strengthened infrastructure. He expanded the role of the president in American life. And most importantly of all, he dealt a fatal blow to slavery.

His surprising literary capacity, which few knew about when they voted for him, was key to the impact he had. As president, he delivered extraordinary public addresses that are Shakespearian in some ways and biblical in other ways.

He’s emotionally interesting. Abraham Lincoln has more highs and lows than perhaps any other president. He’s very strong, but vulnerable also. That makes him an attractive central figure for a history book. And he’s tragically struck down at the moment of his greatest triumph, immediately after winning the Civil War. That seems almost like a plot twist out of Shakespeare. So he continues to fascinate.

When Abraham Lincoln ran for president in 1860, his supporters highlighted his bootstraps biography. His rise from a log cabin in Kentucky to the White House is astonishing. What are those basic biographical facts?

His campaign brilliantly turned his disadvantages into advantages. He had a very low level of education, just a few years of school here and there. He didn’t go to high school or university. He had a negligible role in national politics before he became president–just one two-year term as a congressman that was 12 years in the past. He lacked legislative, business and military achievements. But the one thing that was not lacking was a moral compass. And so he came along when America was lost and he really helped us to find our bearings.

Your riveting book, Lincoln on the Verge, focuses on Abraham Lincoln at the precipice of his presidency. Please tell us about the book and the importance of that period you write about.

It’s a story about Abraham Lincoln’s 13-day train trip to his inauguration. We tend to have a static image of Lincoln, posed in a photograph or standing stiffly in a daguerreotype. But he was a man of action. I wanted to show him moving.

Along his train trip to Washington, Lincoln is meeting thousands of people every day. He’s improving his ability to sway people with a speech. Trying to keep the country together was physical as well as intellectual work. He was shaking tens of thousands of hands to keep America from falling apart. It was a physical ordeal but one that he was well-qualified for. We don’t think of Abraham Lincoln as a young man, but he had just turned 52 and he was still vigorous.

“There’s so much to admire about Abraham Lincoln”

This journey also shows America in all of its different shadings. It’s a country that is different, not only between North and South, but between the northern, southern, western and eastern parts of individual states. Southern Ohio is really different from Northern Ohio. Pennsylvania is very diverse. Following Lincoln on this trip through America allows me to show the complexity of the country in the nineteenth century.

America is clearly complicated in 2021 too. Reading about the dramatic differences between nineteenth century Americans, from one region to the next, still resonates today.

One of the things that made the book so gripping for me is how efficiently and effectively you explained what a dangerous moment it was for America’s democracy. Can you encapsulate that aspect of the book?

That too felt resonant to me because of all the upheaval we passed through in 2020. Democracy was not working well in 1860, in DC and around the world. The federal government wasn’t very effective and the lame duck president, James Buchanan, was lame in every way. He was imbecilic in meetings. Southern slave interests had controlled the US government almost without exception since 1789. The vast majority of free people in this huge and complicated country did not want to be governed by slaveowners and their representatives in Washington.

In Congress, disagreements boiled over, resulting in abolitionist Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner nearly being paralyzed after he was brutally beaten by a South Carolinian congressman. Congress was not functioning. There was barely any compromise or negotiation.

1860 is really the end of an era. It’s the failure of the first chapter of American history. They tried a form of democracy from 1789 to 1860. When Lincoln was elected, half the country wouldn’t accept it and so they seceded. That was a sign of an inconsistent commitment to democracy on their part.

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Lincoln had gargantuan challenges. It was up to him to reunite the country. But if he won the war by just crushing the South in a bloodbath, he couldn’t have brought the country back together and it would have been far harder for the country to function as a democracy again. So, he wants to win by persuading all of the people that democracy is worth the gargantuan effort to preserve the union.

Around the world, people have their eye on the U.S. because democracy is failing all over. Germany’s 1848 revolution has failed. In France, likewise, a revolution in 1848 has failed. In Italy, popular uprisings were faltering. So, if American democracy had completely collapsed, it could’ve been the final nail in the coffin for democracy. If Lincoln had failed, democracy might have been seen as just another strange utopian movement.

Lincoln had to keep this complicated country united, defend democracy at home and around the world, and begin to offer the benefits of citizenship to all of the Americans who had been denied it, including formerly enslaved Americans.  These benefits included voting, education, jury service and running for office. It’s remarkable how many of these goals he accomplished in four years.

One of your recommended books is about the strength that made Abraham Lincoln such an effective president. Tell us about Lincoln’s Sword by historian Douglas Wilson.

Douglas Wilson is a superb Lincoln scholar, based at Knox College in Illinois. He’s an extremely close reader of Lincoln. Lincoln’s words are very important because they are kind of scripture for Americans. Sometimes the words are hard to pin down because three or four people hearing a Lincoln speech might each write them down differently. Douglas Wilson meticulously verifies every word spoken and helps us to understand Lincoln’s writing process. With all of the most famous Lincoln speeches, Wilson tells us why the speech needed to be given, the process of writing the speech, and the various iterations of the speech. His intense literary focus is exciting. Every time I read Douglas Wilson’s work, I feel re-energized by Lincoln’s words.

According to Richard Norton Smith, Wilson “reconstructs the man by deconstructing his words.” What does Abraham Lincoln’s writing reveal about him?

It reveals a lawyer’s logic. There is a remarkable clarity to Lincoln’s arguments that builds from paragraph to paragraph. That is Lincoln the lawyer who was very used to persuading juries in Illinois. But poetical inspiration is also evident in Lincoln’s word choices. His writing shows that Lincoln was a deep reader, especially of Shakespeare and the King James Bible. We wouldn’t love Lincoln if he just made clear arguments. Lincoln got to us emotionally with the beauty of his words. Wilson breaks down, sentence by sentence, how Lincoln moved public opinion with specific words.

That leads us to a Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Garry Wills about one of Lincoln’s most powerful speeches, delivered in 1863 at the dedication of a cemetery for war dead. Tell us about Lincoln at Gettysburg.

It’s a wonderful book that concentrates all of the author’s formidable erudition on a single short speech. The Gettysburg Address is only 272 words. It probably took him three minutes to say. Wills makes the moment crackle with electricity. He explains how Lincoln wrote the address, on the way to Gettysburg. He deconstructs the speech itself and contextualizes it. All of American history was pivoting, in these three minutes, from a states-based way of thinking about our society to a nation-based way of thinking. In this speech, Lincoln re-dedicated the United States to citizenship for all of its people. Up until this point, African-Americans were largely excluded from citizenship. In this speech, Wills shows Lincoln is realigning the stars of our country to make us a federal union that is stronger than the states and dedicated to the rights of all of citizens, including African-Americans. It was a big step forward.

The phrase from those 272 words that has resounded ever since is “a new birth of freedom.” What does that phrase mean?

Those words were crucial, and they refer, I believe, to the Emancipation Proclamation which had already happened, also to the ongoing process of emancipating African Americans and working toward the reconstruction amendments that would follow the Civil War. The 13th Amendment, which abolishes involuntary servitude, happens while Lincoln is still alive. The 14th Amendment comes into force a few years later. It promises “equal protection under the law” and provides all of the rights of citizenship to anyone born in the United States. And the 15th Amendment, preventing states and the federal government from denying a man the right to vote based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” is ratified in 1870. So, a “new birth of freedom” basically means that America is finally focused on living up to the promises of the Declaration of Independence. In 1776, the founders wrote that “all men are created equal.” The 13th and 14th and 15th amendments made that idea legally enforceable.

Next is Harold Holzer’s Emancipating Lincoln: The Proclamation in Text, Context and Memory. The Emancipation Proclamation declared that, as of New Year’s Day of 1863, enslaved people in the rebelling states would be free “thenceforward, and forever free; and the executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.”

It’s hard for me to pick a single Harold Holzer book because there are so many, and they’re all so good. Emancipating Lincoln is very cogent and relatively short. Three chapters from three talks he gave at Harvard, about what made the Emancipation Proclamation such a remarkable document. The Emancipation Proclamation had more of an impact on policy and law than Lincoln’s speeches, which are far more familiar to students of history.

“His surprising literary capacity…was key to the impact he had”

And Holzer is also restoring how hard it was for Lincoln to do that. That is important because we sometimes take him for granted, or worse, take potshots at him. Recently statues of him have been torn down and his name has been stripped from public schools. It is possible to find imperfect things that were not racially sensitive to our pitch-perfect ears. But what Harold Holzer brilliantly demonstrated is that emancipation was politically difficult to achieve, and had a huge impact, as African-Americans, in particular, understood. It’s a beautiful small book that restores Lincoln to what was probably his most important role, the role of the emancipator, the man who ended slavery.

In his introduction, Holzer casts Emancipating Lincoln as a reply to “harsh revisionist scholarship” that stripped Lincoln of credit for abolition and “the new birth of freedom” he called for at Gettysburg. Revisionism, needless to say, is nothing new. One of the statues you’re referring to was across the river from me in Boston. The only text my middle schooler receives, in a social studies class focused on 1860 onwards, casts Lincoln as a cynical politician who was adamantly opposed to equal rights for Black Americans. How and why has Lincoln’s reputation risen and fallen in the 158 years since he signed the Emancipation Proclamation?

That statue was built after Lincoln died; he had nothing to do with it.  It’s troubling in many ways, the body language is wrong but, still, we should proceed cautiously, and listen to the voices of Lincoln’s time.

If Frederick Douglass, who takes a backseat to no one as a courageous uncompromising witness for his people, were alive, he’d be appalled by those who assess Lincoln out of context. Douglass was skeptical when Lincoln won. Lincoln moved slowly against slavery at first. But four years later, when he saw what Lincoln had done, he was filled with praise for him. By 1865, after the Emancipation Proclamation and the North’s victory, and the second inaugural, and Lincoln’s final speech promising the vote for African-American veterans, it was clear that he had moved America a great distance.

Finally, please tell me about the last Abraham Lincoln book on your list, John E. Washington’s They Knew Lincoln.

It’s a great book and an unusual book, first published in 1942 by an African American teacher who grew up in the shadow of the Capitol. The book was recently republished with an excellent introduction by historian Kate Masur. John E. Washington gathered a lot of fantastic oral history and documents to tell the untold story of the African Americans who knew Lincoln.

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Black Americans from many walks of life came into contact with Lincoln. There were African Americans working in the White House. He was friendly with a young man named William Johnson who worked in the Treasury Department. His barber back in Illinois, William De Fleurville, was born in Haiti and they knew one another well.  The stories in this book deepen our understanding of Lincoln and his presidency. It wasn’t just white men in blue uniforms; there were many African Americans playing important roles behind the scenes.

By reconstructing the lives of the African American people who knew Lincoln is Washington originating social history of the sort that became popular in the 1960s?

I’m sure we could find earlier examples of social history. For instance, there are really interesting books written about the experience of average soldiers in the American Revolution. But despite the efforts of historians like W.E.B. Dubois, there had not been enough work focused on the African Americans during the civil war. This book helps to fix that imbalance and shows how much Lincoln’s presidency depended on the aid he received from others in his extended household.

Last question: As you pointed out earlier, like the thirteen days you wrote about in Lincoln on the Verge, the United States just passed through a period between presidencies when democracy was under great strain. What lessons does Lincoln’s life offer about how the present president, Joe Biden, can deal with the divisions in America? What lessons does Lincoln’s life offer for all leaders?

There’s a great lesson to be learned from Lincoln’s efforts to speak to all Americans. Lincoln always takes pains to speak to the South.  He always was striving to “bind up the nation’s wounds,” as he said in the second inaugural. To survive, the United States needs presidents who are focused on the entire country, not just the party or interest groups that elect them. I’m encouraged that President Biden has been that way so far.

Lincoln also provides an example of action. Although he was a little slow coming out of the box, when the South attacked Fort Sumter, he responded with alacrity, raised the Northern Army and ramped up an overwhelming military response. While leading the war, he signed the Morrill Act in 1862, which expanded our public education system with land grant colleges. He signed the Homestead Act, which helped immigrants and ultimately freed slaves start new communities in the West. He helped the railroad and telegraph stretch across the country. He did not hesitate in using the powers of the presidency to act boldly and push actions through Congress that he believed would help Americans. That has also been true of Joe Biden to date.

So far, Biden’s combination of unifying rhetoric and focused action has been impressive and yes, Lincolnian.

Interview by Eve Gerber

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Ted Widmer

Ted Widmer

Edward (Ted) Ladd Widmer is a historian, author and librarian who served as speechwriter in the Clinton White House. He is a professor at Macaulay Honors College, part of City University of New York.

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Ted Widmer

Ted Widmer

Edward (Ted) Ladd Widmer is a historian, author and librarian who served as speechwriter in the Clinton White House. He is a professor at Macaulay Honors College, part of City University of New York.