Speaking as someone who admires Abraham Lincoln to a very deep degree, I found this small but powerful biography to be a beautiful addition to my collection of hefty Lincoln tomes.
The book itself in hardcover is a joy to hold with its compact size, readable typeface and bound-in ribbon bookmark. Whoever worked on this project obviously did it as a labor of love. They worked the details on this one.
You can't honestly compare this work to others like Carl Sandberg's "Lincoln" or "With Malice Towards None" or even my nice coffee table book of photographs taken of Lincoln. This work COMPLEMENTS those more comprehensive volumes. That said, it is not incomplete. It does an excellent job of hitting the hundreds of high - and low - points in Lincoln's too brief life. The pace moves quickly and precisely along so that you never have the feeling that you're being 'written down to' if that's the phrase I'm looking for. This one has NOT been dumbed down for the reader.
Personally I see this smaller volume as an 'annual read' to remind me of just how special Lincoln was as a man and as our nation's leader. He was willing, even at great personal cost, to do the right thing on the toughest, most entrenched issues in our nation's history to that point. Through all that he had to work through, he never lost his sense of empathy towards all who were involved. He knew personally what it was like to lose in what he thought was a good cause.
And I guess that's what stands out most about this very brief work. As you read along, you still get the sense of Lincoln as a man and as our finest President, and you do it in such a short time! What's that worth these days?
This would make an ideal first book on Lincoln OR it would make a fine addition to a collection of works on Lincoln... and it won't take you four score and seven years to read it.
One thing's for sure: this is a very short book. Not only is it a mere 65 pages, but the pages themselves are rather short. I read this in one sitting, and it took me less than an hour and a half (I would say that I read at a moderate pace).
I must admit, I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I couldn't shake the feeling that I was reading a magazine article or a chapter in a larger book about the great American presidents. I felt at times that rather than seeing a concise account of Lincoln's life, the author just breezed through the telling, i.e. This happened, then this happened, then this happened. Rather than painting a full picture of Lincoln, the book zeroes in on how a man from Illinois came to win the Civil War and free the slaves. No doubt, that's the driving force of any Lincoln biography, but to devote merely a couple of pages to Mary Todd is to ignore the fact that Lincoln married and lived with a woman with deep psychological problems. Lincoln's own depression is glossed over. And there is no mention, for example, of his premonitions regarding his own death. While the Big Events are accounted for here, the "poetry" of his life is completely ignored.
On the other hand, I wasn't in the mood to sit down with a massive, 800 page biography of Lincoln. It was refreshing to read about him and not get bogged down in every last detail of every Lincoln/Douglas debate or of every Civil War battle. And, as I mentioned, I read this in one sitting. This is written in clear, concise language, and the story itself is among the most compelling (if not THE most compelling) in our nation's history. McPherson does not talk down to the reader, too. He speaks of the Dred-Scott case, and the suspension of habeus corpus, and if you aren't familiar with these things, you'll just have to look it up for himself. His analysis of the Gettysburg Address requires that you already know it, because only his paraphrase is presented.
Overall, I think the "short book" notion was taken a little too far. What was done in 65 pages could have had a little more flavor at perhaps 100 pages without losing the integrity of a "short account." But the goal of the book was achieved: As a brief overview of arguably America's greatest president, Abraham Lincoln: A Presidential Life succeeds.
Many noted authors have written countless volumes about the life and times of Abraham Lincoln. When I read that Civil War historian James McPherson had attempted, in only 65 pages, to capture the essence of the man who shepherded our nation through its greatest trials I was curious to see how well he could do.
I had my doubts at the first. When the first sentence starts out with "Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809..." I started to worry that there would be no more substance than a high school term paper. Fortunately, McPherson soon soothed my misgivings. After a somewhat dry synopsis of Lincoln's early life, McPherson briefly and with great insight touches on each and every key facet of Lincoln's career. He addressed the debates with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln's election and subsequent efforts to prevent secession, his role in the war, his relationship with his cabinet, his personal and official views on slavery and emancipation, and his attempts to negotiate a peace with the Confederacy.
In every chapter, McPherson's admiration for our sixteenth president shines through, even when discussing Lincoln's questionable suspension of habeas corpus. I found this part especially interesting in light of recent events. The Bush administration used the same arguments that Lincoln put forth to justify its suspension of civil liberties. One could argue that, justifiably or not, Lincoln opened a Pandora's Box that subsequent less-scrupulous presidents have taken advantage of.
I have read a great deal about this period in history and yet, on a page-for-page basis, there are few books that can shed as much insight into the heart and mind of our greatest president. I highly recommend this book.
This delightful small volume from Oxford Press written by one of the eminent Civil War historians of our time pays tribute to Abraham Lincoln, the 16th and arguably most revered President of the United States of America.
Every element of this book pays tribute to Lincoln, right down to its brevity, which echoes the terseness of the Gettysburg Address which itself lines the internal covers.
This volume, timed to release with the 200th anniversary of the birth of Lincoln, couldn't be more timely as America welcomes it's 44th President and the first beneficiary of the office Lincoln held from those oppressed classes whom he freed. The timely reminder being that leadership can make a difference and can guide a nation at war and struggling with its identity.
While that message can only be inferred and is a happy coincidence of timing, it is a timely message nonetheless and masterfully reflected in McPherson's brief book which can easily be read in one sitting.
This is a worthy volume for anyone's library to return to for inspiration and a reminder of what made us great in the past in terms of vision and drive. There are certainly more thorough volumes to be read on Lincoln, but for catching the salient elements that arise time and time again to remind us of this great man, there are none better.
on December 1, 2008
This is a very short book printed in large type on a topic that has been covered in hundreds of books. And it's a joy. It is the perfect stockng stuffer. It presents the full story of Lincoln's growth to leadership, the evolution of his beliefs and commitments, and his leadership as President. In general, this is achieved in such a short space and so vividly by letting Lincoln's own words -- speeches, letters, drafts -- do the work. They move the narrartive ahead while also bringing out his extraordinary and often breathtaking magnanimity, vision and tenacity. The compressed space shows better than most biographies the inner moral and political debate within hiself concerning slavery. Abolition and social justice were at his center, but he was also Presidential at the core, too; the slender narrative shows this aspect of honor and duty above self superbly.
This book is a small marvel.
on November 26, 2008
It took Abraham Lincoln less than 300 words to explain the Civil War. This essay is only somewhat longer. In under 70 readable pages, McPherson gives us the life of Lincoln, with a focus on his attitudes toward slavery and his Presidential ambition and accomlishments.
"Abraham Lincoln: A Presidential Life" is a well-conceived project, and McPherson accomplishes more in his brief essay than many popular historians do in two-inch thick tomes. His prose is clear and spare, his thoughts well-reasoned and carefully explained. Our appetite is whet by Lincoln's legend and his broad historical context, but our curiousity is not fully satisfied. The book is not enough (unfortunately) to help us understand the intricate historical drivers of the period or the implications of Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus or the debate over the constitutionality of the Emancipation Proclaimation. It is also not enough (quite fortunately) to explore new diagnoses historical-hypens may have of Mrs. Lincoln's personal despairs.
The brevity requires intensive focus on a limited set of issues and questions, but McPherson, focusing on slavery and unity, chooses well. For other aspects of Lincoln's life, such as the formation of the Republican party, his attitude toward territorial and economic expansion, and his personal affairs, we will have to mine other works. What McPherson covers, however, he covers well, and he is particularly adept at weaving wonderful selections from Lincoln's finest speaches into his explication.
McPherson's essay is a workmanlike product of a professional historian. He sheds no new light on the era or man for a well-informed reader, but he does give us a wonderful little overview and a bit of perspective. I would love to see High School history classes pick up a book like this in lieu of the lengthier but more questionable popular histories or the laconic and insipid texts often favored. Likewise, a foreign reader looking for an introduction would have trouble doing better without devoting several days of reading rather than a couple hours before dinner.
My review now exceeds the length of the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln's under-300-word explanation of the Civil War. Incredible brilliance and insight is achievable without undue length. McPherson's essay is capable and useful, but not either groundbreaking or profound. A solid 3 stars, and a recommendation to read it as a nice appetizer before some other full meal.
on March 2, 2016
Anyone wanting to know the basic "external" facts and forces that shaped Lincoln's life is well-advised to spend the hour or two necessary to digest this book. But whole aspects of Lincoln's "internal" life are covered with little more than a tantalizing subordinate clause, such as this gem: "Although ill at ease with women, Lincoln in 1836 began a half-hearted courtship of Mary Owens." One longs here and elsewhere for at least three or four more sentences that would put some flesh on Lincoln's bones, though doing this might have stretched the book to a mighty 70 pages! Oh well -- there are still some memorable pages. Chief among these might be the comments on Lincoln's curtailment of civil liberties during the Civil War, the description of the battle over reconstruction that would have led to Lincoln's defeat in the 1864 election had not a few last minute military victories saved him (Sherman's capture of Atlanta, the Battle of Shenandoah Valley), and, most importantly, McPherson's report of Lincoln's evolving ideas about slavery that eventually led to his unambiguous opposition to that "monstrous injustice."
I admire McPherson's ability to pack his small book with so much information. Perhaps the book's chief merit is to make one want to read a considerably more comprehensive Lincoln biography. One major weakness is that McPherson does not provide a definite thesis statement. Only by completing the book will the reader fully understand that McPherson set out to present Lincoln as a flawed human being who possessed a strong determination to see this country through one of its most trying times.
on June 7, 2015
I downloaded this e-reader edition of Abraham Lincoln after reading the author’s history of the Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom. McPherson says that only after years of studying the history of the Civil War and the “political and military pressures on Lincoln did I come to appreciate the skill with which he steered between the numerous shoals of conservatism and radicalism, free states and slave states, abolitionists, Republicans, Democrats, and border-state Unionists to maintain a steady course that brought the nation to victory---and the abolition of slavery---in the end.” (p. x) Of course, neither of these two goals seemed likely to be achieved, even as late as August 1864, when Lincoln became resigned to the idea that he and his party were to be swept out of office in the coming November election. He was near despair as he realized that, if the Democrats and their candidate General George McClellan won the election, it would be on the basis of their promise of signing an armistice of peace with the Confederacy. This would be a peace treaty that would, in effect, recognize the independence of the Confederate states and the dissolution of the Union. It would be the end of the United States and the experiment in democracy. It would also end all hope of the end of slavery in America. No wonder Old Abe was in despair.
This nutshell biography of Abraham Lincoln tries to provide a brief sketch of the life of this man who arrived on the national stage at the precise moment in his nation’s history when it needed his talents most. These talents included political genius combined with a matchless dexterity with the written and spoken word, love and respect for the law, and a hatred of slavery and cruelty in general. The outlines of Lincoln’s life are well known to every American student: born in poverty on the frontier, almost no formal schooling, self-educated (he treasured any book he could put his hands on), a youth of hard labor (splitting rails and other manual labors), and then the slow rise from local to state and then national politics. But this short book attempts to flesh out those bare bones with details that explain Lincoln’s rise and why his election caused the United States to split apart. (It was his party’s principal plank to exclude slavery from the territories. But the country had been headed for this showdown long before Lincoln came on the scene.)
This book is not the place to find a thorough understanding of Lincoln and his times, but it is not a bad place to start. McPherson’s little book gives the reader a good overview of the man and his times. The motivated reader can then delve in deeper with any one of hundreds of more thorough biographies. A bibliography at the end of this book gives the reader some guidance for further reading.
on October 21, 2011
James M. McPherson's 2009 biography Abraham Lincoln attempts to capture the life of our 16th president in a mere 65 pages (plus 12 pages of notes and bibliography). As I just finished reading David Herbert Donald's magnificent Lincoln (see my review that work here on Amazon), which weighs in at 600 pages (plus 114 pages of notes and bibliography), this is an interesting contrast.
McPherson's account moves briskly through Lincoln's life, and is very precise and efficient. You don't get much in the way of specific details or anecdotes, but McPherson doesn't miss any of the major points of Lincoln's life, either. The writing is engaging, and given that it's only 65 pages, it ends up being a page turner without many pages to turn. You'll find more facts about Lincoln on the many Wikipedia pages dedicated to him than in this book, but you won't find the well-crafted narrative that McPherson presents (and I say this as a huge Wikipedia fan).
It's difficult to compare McPherson's biography to a full-length work like Donald's as they strive towards different goals. With Donald's Lincoln, the sum of all the well-told details and insights adds up to paint a clearer picture of the man and his era, and allows the reader to develop a greater appreciation for Lincoln. McPherson does a great job and conveying Lincoln's life in a short and interesting manner, but it just won't let you get to know Lincoln as well as a longer biography.
I enjoyed McPherson's Abraham Lincoln, and I would recommend it to either the Lincoln novice looking to get a brief overview of the man, or to the well-read Lincoln fan looking for a quick refresher. The latter reader will not find much that they aren't already familiar with in McPherson's book, but the familiar is well-told by McPherson.
I admit being surprised when I received my copy of Abraham Lincoln for review. It was the size of Strunk and White's Elements of Style, and even shorter than the fourth edition of that work. But it's impact is in inverse proportion to its size.
I read the book's 77 pages in a single afternoon, and barely set it down until I was done, and then only because of duty to family. It is without doubt the best introduction to the life and career of Abraham Lincoln that I have ever read.
Again and again, McPherson hits the critical points on the head, presenting in concise terms his view of Lincoln, whose name, he asserts, "more than any other American," has gone down in history.
Beginning with Lincoln's birth in 1809, McPherson takes us through the trials and tribulations of Lincoln's youth, his career as an attorney, his troubled personal life, and follows him from there into his public career, first in the state legislature and then Congress, before his election as president.
He moves with equal grace through Lincoln's wartime years, discussing not only his conduct of the war, but his trials with his cabinet, as well as the Emancipation Proclamation and even Lincoln's plans for Reconstruction.
It is a truly remarkable book, one that everyone interested in Lincoln should own. And I dare say that anyone who has not read a biography of Lincoln, once opening this book, will feel compelled to correct that error by reading one of the works discussed by McPherson in his excellent bibliography.