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A. Lincoln: A Biography
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on November 29, 2017
There are a lot of biographies of Lincoln and many are very good. I am not certain but this biography by Ronald White seems unique in two ways. One is the emphasis on Lincoln’s personal writings to himself. I had not known of Lincoln’s tendency all his adult life of writing brutally honest notes to himself. I found these deeply humanizing, whether it be Lincoln’s real thoughts about himself in his adult years or his personal thoughts about slavery. These self-reflective, highly personal notes let the reader get to know Lincoln and not just the mythic image. Americans accept as a sort of cultural doctrine how great Lincoln was. These personal notes, never intended for publication, display the heart and mind of the man and they showed me what “great” means not just for a president but for a human being. Brilliant, self-reflective, deeply honest – this was our 16th president.

The other unique thing White does in this book, especially in the second half, is to parse out how Lincoln developed some of his most famous speeches. White shows how Lincoln used English – the choice of words, the rhetorical and stylistic structures – to craft the final speech. These structural elements show why so many of Lincoln’s speeches are both simple to understand and at the same time highly memorable. Lincoln would take a draft, perhaps work it through with Seward, and then often redo it in a way that improved its presentation enormously. What is worth noting, especially in today’s world, is that these stylistic and grammatical elements were not just rhetorical devices but what Lincoln actually thought and felt put in a way that moved his listeners. It was a creative fusion of honesty and public presentation.

We desperately need to remember the person of Abraham Lincoln today. This excellent biography does Lincoln justice and is a lesson to us of what true leadership and the best of humanity can be in the midst of a terrible crisis on American history.
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on April 14, 2014
It has been estimated that over 11,000 books and other writings have been devoted to Lincoln. It is as if there is something elusive about him, which no book can satisfy. Indeed there is something mystical about him and profoundly unknowable. The trend today in writing about Lincoln is to write more and more about less and less. It is like tasting the apple but never finishing it. This book by Ronald White is a complete biography. We now get a chance to ingest the entire fruit. Although no event is treated in depth, that is not the point of the book. It is more than a repetition of the well-known events. It is an exploration of Lincoln’s thoughts and ideas. For those who are frustrated by the mystery of Lincoln, this book represents an opportunity to get to know him more intimately and completely.
The book consists of a chronologic account of Lincoln’s life. But it is more than simply a listing of events. The events themselves are like the chords, which accompany the melody of his deepest thoughts. White allows Lincoln to speak to us through his speeches and writings. These works are not always repeated verbatim, but White summarizes them and expands upon them so as to give us an understanding of what Lincoln was actually thinking. In so doing, we hear Lincoln as he bears his soul to the reader.
White begins his book before Lincoln is born. His family history in America dates back to the 17th century, even before the birth of the nation. His parents were religious Baptists and he was born into their Calvinist beliefs. However, he soon abandoned organized religion when he became repelled by the emotionalism of revival meetings, which were intrinsic to the Second Great Awakening. Turning his back on revealed religion he sought refuge in reason and became a lawyer. As Patrick Cleburne, a confederate general noted, the law provided a stepping-stone to “distinction and civil importance”. White, in his insightful way, draws attention to the fact that Lincoln learned to examine issues from every angle before settling on a conclusion. This ability would serve him well, not only in his career as a lawyer but as a legislator and then President of the United States. It was is in the legal profession that he first encountered moral conflict, a condition that would plague him until nearly the end of his life. The law is adversarial and is thus based on conflict and confrontation, whereas Lincoln preferred mediation. He preferred to settle a case rather than argue it in court. He felt that after all is said and done, the adversaries would need to live together following their confrontation, a notion presaging his sentiments regarding reconstruction.
At age 28 while running for re-election to the Illinois state legislature, he delivered a speech at the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois. The speech was ostensibly about the role of memory and our responsibility for preserving our political institutions. However, more importantly, it dealt with creating a secular religion with its morality based on reason. It became one of the most notable speeches ever delivered.

Reason, cold calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defense. Let those materials be molded into general intelligence, sound morality and in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws.

The collision of politics, morality and divine will occurred most acutely over the issue of slavery. Lincoln was always concerned about slavery, but the issue came to a head as the Civil War approached. The Lincoln Douglas debates were mostly about the moral issue of slavery. Although both Lincoln and Douglas were practical men and recognized the role of necessity in dealing with slavery, it was Lincoln’s insistence on recognizing the immorality of slavery that distinguished him from Douglas. For Lincoln, the issue became one of intolerable moral conflict. Only elimination of slavery would resolve the conflict and the attendant cognitive dissonance. With the end of the Civil War the conflict between morality and necessity came to an end. The slaves were at last freed and the country was saved.
An important subtext of the book is how Lincoln’s devotion to reason was eventually tempered by his surrender to God. In a letter to Albert Hodges in 1864 Lincoln described the evolution of his thinking evoking the role of God in directing man’s actions. Here he came full circle from the religion of his parents to an embrace of reason as a reaction to those teachings and finally to submission to God’s will. He described his beliefs in a private communication uncovered after his death, termed The Meditation on God’s Will. Lincoln counseled that one must defer to God, in all of his mystery and lack of transparency, a mystical notion divorced from reason:

The will of God prevails. In great contests, each party claims to act in accordance with God’s will. Both may be and one must be wrong. In the present Civil War, it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party
The journey for Lincoln was a long one. The word God is rarely mentioned in Lincoln’s earlier writings and in fact is absent in the First Inaugural Address. It appears once in the Gettysburg Address, but then 14 times in the Second Inaugural Address. One of the pleasures of this book is that one discovers for oneself what God meant to Lincoln. In the Second Inaugural address, Lincoln submitted to God who is totally opaque and unknowing. This notion is more Islamic than Christian. If one understands how Lincoln came to understand God, then one comes closer to understanding Lincoln. His journey was intensely personal. Hence, the book is voyeurism at its titillating best.
It took real courage for White to write another book about Lincoln, much less a complete biography. Those who complete the book of over 750 pages hear beyond the background noise an entire Lincoln symphony. It is a real treat.
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on May 19, 2017
I concur with the cover quote - if you read one book about Abraham Lincoln, let it be A. Lincoln. I've read numerous books on Abraham Lincoln and this is by far my favorite. It covers a lot of good ground on his childhood and early life which many biographies gloss over but which directly impact his values and decisions in adulthood.
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on March 20, 2017
One of the best biographies I've ever read. Love all the details and additional information about Abraham Lincoln that I never realized or you wouldn't get in a history book. A great read and worth it. A bit tedious in parts, but you get more in the strategy of Lincoln here than anywhere else. The only complaint, which really shouldn't matter in a biography, was the lack of information that might be found after Lincoln's death if anything was to be found in records, the papers, and so on. I feel a good legacy chapter would have been a great compliment. Otherwise, I enjoyed reading this book quite a bit.
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on November 8, 2017
Ronald White was great at providing enough detail to weave the intricate events that made Lincoln without going too far into the weeds. There are many specific events in Lincoln’s life that can be further expounded upon, however, I enjoyed this book because it gave me a complete picture of Lincoln which now allows me to focus in on the specific areas that piqued my interest. Well written and well researched.
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This is, at least in my opinion, one of the best Lincoln biographies around. And there are some fine volumes already available, such as Donald's "Lincoln."

There are some strong features in this book--the character sketch of Lincoln is pretty compelling; his family background is laid out in more detail than in some other works on him that I have read; his development in Illinois is portrayed nicely; his tour as President is, finally, well detailed; the book covers his major speeches and letters in good depth, allowing his words to speak for themselves. Of course, many of the stories are already well known from other biographies.

The book begins with Lincoln's early life and his understanding of his family history (which did not go back very far). It is ironic that he was somewhat dismissive of his heritage, when--if he had known of more distant relatives in history--he had some forebears who had achieved some repute. The somewhat strained relationship with his father comes through, as well as his affection for his mother and stepmother. The story of the family's move from Kentucky to Indiana and, finally, to Illinois unfolds smoothly.

In Illinois, we see his growth and development from his years in New Salem to his move to Springfield. We see his passion for politics, his efforts to better himself, his development as an attorney.

Some of the high points. . . . His rise from a defeated candidate for the Senate in a campaign against Stephen Douglass to his ascent as a national politician (even though losing the election against Douglass, he gained wider visibility). His speaking tour of the East marked him as a player in the early Republican Party. The way he placed himself as the fallback candidate in the Republication Convention of 1860 is well told.

Then, the war years and all that went with that. His relations with political figures, private citizens such as Frederick Douglass, his generals, and so on.

The book moves along crisply and is a good read. People who are interested in Lincoln, I think, will find this a good volume to take a look at.
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on December 20, 2017
Wanted to like to like it more than I did. Found much the same material, with more depth, in Oates' biography, With Malice Towards None. Indeed, much of White's material seems to rely on the exact same source material as Oates, so there is not only much overlap in the narratives, but what appears to be verbatim arguments.
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on August 22, 2017
An excellent biography with careful attention to facts and details. It was enjoyable to learn so much about this amazing leader and the America he lived in - the author did an excellent job of painting a very realistic picture of the USA and its troubles and its heroes.
I don't usually read biographies but this was spectacular!
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on January 14, 2013
It's clearer to me now why Abraham Lincoln is a larger than life figure. This is an outstanding biography, first and foremost because it is the story of an outstanding man. I'm embarrassed to say I hadn't read a Lincoln bio until now, so I can't compare it to any other, but I don't see how his story could be presented in a more compelling, insightful way. The illustrations and photos disbursed through the book make it all the more captivating.

I wish everyone in public office would read this book. Our politicians could certainly benefit from a better understanding of Lincoln's wisdom, temperance, kindness, compassion, humility, and his earnest desire to be guided from Above. I understand better now what an amazing accomplishment it was to abolish slavery and keep the Union intact
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This book provides an exceptional recount of our nation's best rated President by historians. What I enjoyed the most was the inclusion of so many quotes of Lincoln's, and those that surrounded him, written and spoken words.

The author does a magnificant job of telling the life story of Lincoln and those that would shape the man and the 16th Presidency. The inclusion of the many photographs and images also helped to bring the characters to life.

I especially found reading this book on the Kindle to be useful because of the built in dictionary feature. I am not ashamed to admit that I learned several knew words while reading this book and the built in dictionary aided this tremendously. That being said, I do think that the author over used the word 'acquiesce'.

Bottom line is this is a book that was hard to put down and is highly recommended. Despite enjoying this book on the Kindle, I plan on purchasing the hardback to keep on a bookshelf. I found the old world pages to be rich in style and fitting for this grand book.
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