The Essential Lincoln Bookshelf

By Mel Maurer and William F.B. Vodrey
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2010, All Rights Reserved

We will not be surprised if everyone who comes to this web page shouts, “Fools! With at least 16,000 books on Abraham Lincoln written over the years, how could anyone hope to boil them all down to a mere handful?” A fair question, but throwing caution to the wind, here is our idiosyncratic list of favorites. Disagree? Have at it!

by David Herbert Donald
Simon & Schuster, 1996

Probably the best recent, detailed, one-volume biography of Lincoln. When busy people ask us what single book to read on Lincoln, this is the book we always recommend. In less-skilled hands, this would be a three-volume work, but in Donald’s, it is just one – giving us virtually everything we need to know about the 16th President in readable, highly engaging prose.

Team of Rivals:
The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Simon & Schuster, 2005

Doris is not the Lincoln scholar that Donald is, as she would readily admit, but she has done an excellent job of essentially combining, in one very readable book, five biographies woven together in the Lincoln Cabinet. It is a very good overview of Lincoln in the White House, as he manages both the talents and the egos of his disputatious Cabinet secretaries, some of whom thought – at least at first – that they would make a better President than their boss.

Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, 1832-1858
ed. by Don E. Fehrenbacher
Library of America, 1989

Here is Lincoln in his own words, from his earliest days in public life to his failed 1858 campaign against Stephen Douglas for the U.S. Senate. It is not enough just to read about Lincoln, you also have to read Lincoln himself – a master thinker and wordsmith. To get the full effect, many of his pieces really need to be read aloud.

Lincoln: An Illustrated Biography
by Philip B. Kunhardt Jr. et al.
Knopf, 1997

Lincoln’s life and times, along with a great collection of pictures. We would also include a second book by the same writing team, Looking for Lincoln. They offer valuable perspectives on Lincoln and his times in very readable segments, along with some striking images. These look like coffeetable books but are much more.

Reelecting Lincoln: The Battle for the 1864 Presidency
by John C. Waugh
Crown, 1997

A fascinating book about the topsy-turvy 1864 campaign, which pitted Lincoln against his former top general, George McClellan, to whom the President thought he would almost certainly lose. Waugh is an excellent writer on the tangled, hardball politics of that time.

Honor’s Voice:
The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln

by Douglas L. Wilson
Knopf, 1998

This very well-researched book focuses on the years 1831-42 as Lincoln develops from a store clerk into a skilled politician, overcoming many problems along the way. These were the years that made him the man he was.

Lincoln at Gettysburg:
The Words that Remade America

by Garry Wills
Simon & Schuster, 1992

A Pulitzer Prize-winning analysis of the Gettysburg Address, taking it apart almost word by word and putting it back together again. Wills is a brilliant thinker and writer. He notes how Lincoln drew from classical Greek funeral oratory in redefining the Constitution, and goes on to rebut the most common misconceptions about the Address. Wills may overanalyze a bit, but overall, this is a fine and very insightful book.

A. Lincoln And Me
by Louise Borden, illustrated by Ted Lewin
Scholastic, 1999

A great kids’ book on the 16th President, as told in the present day by a boy who shares Lincoln’s birthday and wants to learn more about him. An ideal introduction to Lincoln for younger readers.

Abraham Lincoln
by James McPherson
Oxford University Press, 2009

A very short, extremely concise overview of Lincoln’s life which, although lacking virtually any humanizing detail, is still well worth a read. This book is a good way to get started on Lincoln. It makes you want to learn more about him, which is probably the highest praise that can be given to any brief biography.

Lincoln and the Civil War:
In the diaries and letters of John Hay

by John Hay
Greenwood, 1972

This is an “inside the White House” kind of book which gives us an up-close-and-personal look at Lincoln. This is one of the best; a great way to learn what Lincoln the man was really like.

Lincoln: A Novel
by Gore Vidal
Random House, 1984

Yes, a novel, but a very good one that was edited by David Herbert Donald, giving the reader added confidence in its historical accuracy. Vidal is good with politics and the language – this makes for a good read on a great man.

Lincoln on Leadership:
Executive Strategies for Tough Times

by Donald T. Phillips
Warner Books, 1992

This management guide may almost be called “Applied Lincoln.” Among other things, it is a good companion book to Team of Rivals as we see Lincoln’s unique skills in getting people to do what was needed. (Most of noted Lincoln portrayer Jim Getty’s appearances these days are for corporations with him, as Lincoln, speaking on leadership.)

Blood on the Moon:
The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln

by Edward Steers Jr.
The University Press of Kentucky, 2001

No library on Lincoln is complete without a book on his tragic and momentous assassination. This very well researched and documented book has become the “go to” source on its subject since its publication.

There, we did it – stuck our necks out on the essential books on Father Abraham. These are our choices for your bookshelf, the table next to your reading chair, your book bag, or your nightstand. Who knows, maybe even ol’ A. Lincoln himself would have enjoyed these books, too?

Well, all right, probably not the Steers book…

Note: All books featured on this page may be purchased from Amazon, with part of the proceeds from each purchase being returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs. Click on the title to go directly to Amazon, and the CCWRT will be automatically credited for your purchase.