on January 18, 2009
What a refreshing read and pleasant experience this book is. Mr. White has the ability to convey so much information in an intelligent yet clear and easy-to-understand style. White takes the time to explain words or concepts that otherwise would send most readers to the dictionary. He couples this friendly presentation with all of the complexity and coverage of any other well-written presidential biography.
The author obviously possesses a wide-ranging and thorough knowledge of President Lincoln, his times and his presidency. As a biographical text about Abraham Lincoln, White's "A. Lincoln" provides great detail without sacrificing the larger picture.
Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals" is an excellent book about the history of and inner-workings of Lincoln and his cabinet - and I highly recommend her book. But White's "A. Lincoln" simply blows "Team of Rivals" out of the water in terms of being a well-focused yet richly detailed historical biography.
Here are a few things I didn't see mentioned in the editorial reviews praising this book: White liberally shares photographs, maps, illustrations, documents, even signatures of key characters. Unlike many history/biography books, these are not confined to a few glossy pages in the middle of the book, but appear frequently throughout the text, and really help give depth to the places, events, people, and times. This book includes an extensive notes section, the most thorough bibliography I've ever seen in a single-volume biography, and a 28-page index.
If you visit this book on randomhouse.com, you can find a link to Mr. White's personal web site. On his website, I found Mr. White's Speaking Dates calendar, which includes a visit here (Portland, Oregon) next week at the Oregon Historical Society. I will be there and I am looking forward to meeting and hearing from Mr. White.
I've read somewhere around twenty to thirty books on Lincoln (along with FDR one of my two favorite American presidents) and this easily ranks among the very best that I have read. This is the one biography that I have read that competes with David Herbert Donald's volume as the best single-volume biography of Lincoln. It joins the short list of my favorite Lincoln books, including Doris Kearns Goodwin's A TEAM OF RIVALS, Allen C. Guelzo's ABRAHAM LINCOLN: REDEEMER PRESIDENT, Herndon's LINCOLN, William Lee Miller's LINCOLN'S VIRTUES, Mark Noll's THE CIVIL WAR AS A THEOLOGICAL CRISIS, the sections in Shelby Foote's THE CIVIL WAR on Lincoln, Gore Vidal's LINCOLN (actually an amazingly accurate depiction of Lincoln as president -- David Herbert Donald worked closely with Vidal to assure the novel's historical veracity), David Herbert Donald's LINCOLN, James McPherson's TRIED BY WAR, the Library of America two-volume collection of Lincoln's writings (I'd love the new three-volume edition, but for now I'm stuck with the older one), and Harold Holzer's IN HIS OWN HAND. All of these books provide new insights into Lincoln, but White's biography might actually provide the finest overview of Lincoln's life, even surpassing Oates, Donald, and Benjamin Thomas as the best single-volume biography.
The biography not only does an outstanding job of recounting all of the major events of Lincoln's life but does one of the best jobs I've ever seen of analyzing the logic of his speeches, letters, and public documents. This is no minor achievement. Lincoln is far and away the most analyzed figure in American history, in fact the most widely written about figure of the past two hundred years of any country (with the possible exception of Karl Marx). White also does a splendid job of showing how Lincoln remolded the United States, establishing the Declaration of Independence as the founding document. Many others have pointed this out (like Garry Wills in his book on the Gettysburg Address), but White does an outstanding job of placing it in the total context of Lincoln's life. He is also outstanding at showing the growth of Lincoln's thinking about the various issues, especially on the religious dimensions of the solution to the slavery.
I have talked to a couple of people who had troubles with this biography. I personally do not feel the force of their complaints, but they are worth mentioning. White's Lincoln is not a person with dark corners or moral ambiguities. White ignores (quite appropriately) the absurd accusations that Lincoln had a homosexual relationship, he does not even address the belief of some that Lincoln suffered from manic depression (my belief is that Lincoln's periods of depression were not indicative of bipolar, simply because the periods of depression of which we are aware were in response to truly traumatic events; depression was appropriate to the death of his child, the death of friends, the progress of the war, and other triggering events), or other aspects of his life. Neither is he especially critical of Lincoln's views on race, situating them in the beliefs of others at the time.
I enjoyed this book so much that it may be the single book that I would recommend to people who want to read a first book on Lincoln. In fact, if someone asked me for a recommend for a book on Lincoln, I would recommend this along with Doris Kearns Goodwin's TEAM OF RIVALS and Gore Vidal's novel LINCOLN (people underestimate it because it is fiction, but Vidal brought Lincoln's presidency to life more vividly than any other writer). This year was, of course, the bicentenary of the birth of Lincoln, which resulted in a deluge of books on Honest Abe, but for my money this was the best book of a very large bunch.
on February 2, 2009
`A. Lincoln' by Ronald C. White Jr.
In this extremely well researched and superbly readable biography, Ronald White brings our 16th US President to life with clarity rarely seen among contemporary biographers. Beginning with a breakdown of the subjects family tree - a family tree, I may add, with branches that remained a mystery to Lincoln during his lifetime - through his congressional, senatorial and finally a remarkable presidential campaign. `Father Abraham' comes to life with vivid imagery of his time spent logically analyzing matters, which in retrospect, were monumental in our nations history. Lincoln's compassion, integrity and honesty shine through clearly in his relationships with cabinet members, old friends such as Joshua Speed and luminaries like Frederick Douglass. Mr. White does a splendid job demonstrating the near dazzling likeability this president possessed; rarely, if ever, did a political friend or foe find Lincoln anything but gracious, kind and magnanimous in most trying of times.
The second half of this book deals with Lincoln's presidency and devotes significant time to his prosecution of the Civil War. Family life takes somewhat of a backseat in the latter 250 or so pages as this time is spent with Lincoln formulating policy and self-educating on military strategy. However, family tragedies are examined and the effect these events had on the Lincoln family are discussed and analyzed.
`A. Lincoln' is an absolutely spellbinding read that I found near impossible to put down. It is as entertaining as it is educational, as comprehensive as it is compelling. Definitely pick it up and enjoy each and every page. Wonderful!
on January 27, 2009
Professor White, a notable expert on Mr. Lincoln, has produced a solid, well-written biography.
The book is divided about equally between the years from birth leading up to the presidency and the years in actual office. Professor White rightly, and quite intelligently, devotes a fair deal of time to explaining the writing and political skills that led this man to greatness. The author is also good at explaining the religious influences, especially those of Rev. Gurley, that informed President Lincoln's thinking on the possible purposes of the horrific war.
While Professor White keeps family matters largely in the background (where they belong), I do think his view of Mary Lincoln is extremely kind. In my view she was the Hell Cat described by John Hay.
All in all, a good purchase for any person seeking the life story of the finest man born 200 years ago (or since).
on April 21, 2012
This text first caught my interest a few years ago, but I waited until I could get a Kindle. White covers Lincoln's entire life, and even gives some helpful info. about the eventual president's ancestors. We find here that Abraham Lincoln was not a perfect man, as some may believe today. In fact, he refused to visit his father before the latter died (even though Abraham Lincoln gave eulogies for both Henry Clay and Zachary Taylor around the same time). We further see Lincoln as one who was perhaps too trusting of those around him. In addition, we find a president who, like those of the modern era, sometimes put political considerations ahead of what was best for his country.
However, in this text we also find a man who was not a career politician. Abraham Lincoln had ample "real world" experience that served him well once elected U.S. president. Further, Lincoln is portrayed as someone who was constantly learning and open to the insights of others. He was a man who practiced James 1:19 ("Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.") and showed great wisdom in other ways as well. Lincoln gave "failures" second chances, even when they did not appreciate him as they should have. He gave his best for the unity of the country he loved, and constantly looked out for the morale of all under him.
In short, I highly recommend A. Lincoln by Ronald C. White, Jr. It's a fascinating work. Those interested in Lincoln's spiritual pilgrimage will especially be pleased with the insights found here.
on December 7, 2009
I have read much about Lincoln, but where I think White's biography adds to the literature is in how he traces the development of Lincoln's thoughts and writings in so many areas -- politics, slavery, race relations, religion, military theory and practice, are all discussed. We tend to think of Lincoln in static terms, but White shows how -- just like all of us -- Lincoln's opinions evolved over time. In the end White makes Lincoln all the more human, and Lincoln's genius all the more compelling.
on March 24, 2011
Anyone who knows me at all is aware that I'm an unapologetic Lincoln fan. I have many books on Lincoln, and have busts, posters and a replica of the Lincoln memorial in my office. So it should come as no surprise that I've read many Lincoln books. I'd like to think my knowledge of Lincoln makes me even more critical than I might normally be about a biography of our 16th President.
So it is no small feat for me to highly recommend A. Lincoln. (The title comes from the way Lincoln signed his name.) The author has done a thoroughly engaging review of Lincoln's life from early childhood up to the time of his assassination. It is clear that White has an immense knowledge of Lincoln and that he is able to present relevant facts in a lively and highly-readable manner.
This richly detailed biography is very different from Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals which I reviewed and thoroughly enjoyed last year. Where Team of Rivals focused on President Lincoln and his cabinet members, A. Lincoln paints the larger picture of Lincoln's entire life.
Despite all my readings about Lincoln, I'm delighted that I learned many new facts about this great leader. For example: Lincoln's family tree is explained in the book and it's interesting to know that even Lincoln was unaware of parts of his family history during his lifetime; a comprehensive discussion about the seven debates between Lincoln and Stephen Douglas is presented and White explains that the location where the debates were held in Illinois affected the tone of each debate; and some newly discovered letters and photographs present a better picture of how Lincoln's thought process and stance on slavery changed throughout his lifetime.
White excels at explaining some of the nuances of Lincoln's speeches and letters, and how Lincoln would often write out notes on scraps of paper and stuff them in his hat or keep them in a desk drawer. These notes would help him crystallize his thoughts and would often end up being incorporated into later speeches and public letters. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the book was seeing Lincoln's thought process evolve.
Lincoln was a difficult man to thoroughly understand. White says it best when he writes:
"One of the reasons we have never settled on one definition of Lincoln, and, indeed, never will, is that Lincoln never stopped asking questions of himself. Painfully aware of the shortcomings of his early education, Lincoln - whether as schoolboy, Illinois legislator, prairie lawyer, or as president - always continued his self-study, growing in wisdom and self-knowledge with each passing year. He read, discussed, and pondered the great ideas not only of his time, but of those of the generations before him. He also thought into the future, anticipating the moral questions of subsequent generations."
If, like me, you're a Lincoln fan, A. Lincoln should be at the top of your reading list.
During the last several months, I have read a number of biographies of Abraham Lincoln and recently finished two, this one and James M. McPherson's Abraham Lincoln. How different they are in terms of length as well as their scope and depth of coverage and yet they will, I am certain, attract and reward an abundance of appreciative readers. As Ronald C. White, Jr. explains in the first chapter, "He signed his name `A. Lincoln.' A visitor to Abraham Lincoln's Springfield, Illinois, home at Eighth and Jackson would find `A. Lincoln' in silvered Roman characters affixed to an octagonal blue plate on the front door. All throughout his life, people sought to complete the A - to define Lincoln, to label or libel him. Immediately after his death and continuing to the present, Americans have tried to explain the nation's most revered president. A. Lincoln continues to fascinate us because he eludes simple definitions and final judgments." Whereas McPherson's brief biography (only 65 pages plus Notes and Bibliography) captures "the essential events and meaning of Lincoln's life without oversimplification or overgeneralization," White offers 645 pages of rock-solid historical material and brilliant commentary that probably accommodate the needs and interests of most non-scholars such as I.
Of special interest to me is what White has to say about what he correctly describes as Lincoln's "journey of self-discovery to the very end of his life." When asked to provide information for a campaign biography, Lincoln responds in the third person: "A. now thinks that the agregate [sic] of all his schooling did not amount to one year. He was never in a college or Academy as a student; and never inside of a college or academy building till since he had a law-license. What he has in the way of education, he has picked up." There can be no doubt of his insatiable intellectual curiosity, his passion for learning. Throughout his childhood and adolescence, despite severely limited resources and opportunities to access them, we know that Lincoln was an avid reader and determined to become a skilled writer as well as public speaker.
Early on in Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer, Fred Kaplan establishes several critically important facts about young Lincoln: he had an insatiable hunger for learning ("he read everything he could lay his hands on"), he constantly asked questions (`he had an alert interest in the world'), he was eager to be heard (being someone with a "private personality who already had a stage persona, he began to think about serious issues and connect them to his speaking and writing performances"), and like Benjamin Franklin, he was convinced that he would rise in the world (confident that `ambition and hard work would win out') despite his humble circumstances, modest resources, and dim prospects when, in 1821 at age 12, he became an avid reader of poetry. The young man was at the beginning of an extraordinary education" that would prepare him to become one of the most eloquent among history's greatest leaders. As White explains, Lincoln would look back on his part-time studies in rustic Indiana schoolhouses with a mixture of affirmation, amusement, and regret." As Lincoln once explained, "There were some schools, so called; but no qualification was ever required of a teacher, beyond readin', writin', and cipherin' to the Rule of Three...There was absolutely nothing to excite ambition for education."
Lincoln's learning skills enabled him to prepare for and then pass the bar examination in Illinois and, subsequently, to read and understand voluminous documentation when preparing for various trials. He diligently prepared for each political campaign as well as for each of the debates with Stephen Douglas. Years later, the 18th President of the United States read every book he could find about military leadership, management, and strategy so that he could prepare himself to assume (in effect) the duties of military commander of Union forces after his generals in the field (notably General George McClelland) were stricken by what he characterized as "the slows." This passion to learn what he needed to know at various times throughout his life clearly demonstrates that Lincoln was a tenacious and highly-disciplined student.
In the final chapter of his brilliant book, Ronald White observes, "One reason that we have never settled on one definition of Lincoln, and, indeed, never will, is that Lincoln never stopped asking questions of himself. Painfully aware of the shortcomings of his early education, Lincoln - whether as a schoolboy, Illinois legislator, prairie lawyer, or as president - always continued his self-study, growing in wisdom and self-knowledge with each passing year. He read, discussed, and pondered the great ideas not only of his time, but of those of the generations before him. He also thought into the future, anticipating the moral questions of subsequent generations. And Lincoln underwent a religious odyssey that deepened as he aged, inquiring about everlasting truths until his last day."
Just in time for the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth comes Ronald C. White's fabulous tome, A. Lincoln: A Biography. From the opening words of the first chapter, this book is a literary work of art.
Lincoln signed all his papers with A. Lincoln. His friends called him simply Lincoln. "All through his life, people sought to complete the A--to define Lincoln, to label or libel him." For generations, "Americans have tried to explain the nation's most revered president." White provides for us a comprehensive look at his life. But the author also tries to define Lincoln through his words--both written and spoken. This job was made easier by the discovery of new Lincoln documents (especially legal documents) in recent years.
White begins Lincoln's journey with his humble birth, and takes us through his rustic childhood, his adventurous young adulthood, his awkward romantic experiences, his legal training, his circuit riding, political experiences and finally, his presidency. But what makes A. Lincoln so special is that White shows these events through the magnifying glass of Lincoln's writings. Whether it is a letter or a speech or just a note that Lincoln wrote to himself and stuffed in his silk top hat, White shows us how Lincoln evolved throughout his life to become one of our greatest leaders. The author also explains to us why Lincoln's writings are relevant today. "When contemporary Americans try to trace an inspired idea or a shimmering truth about our national identity, again and again we find Lincoln's initials carved on some tree--AL--for he was there before us." I had the pleasure of seeing Ronald White at the Free Library of Philadelphia recently. For his author talk, he passed out six different writings by Lincoln and analyzed them for us. But one gets the impression that White is just as much a lover of words, and of writing and a wordsmith as was Lincoln.
One section that I most enjoyed was how Lincoln started out as a bit of a bumbling president and ended up becoming a formidable leader and commander-in-chief. As in most everything, Lincoln was self-taught and once presented with a dilemma, went on a crash course to close the gaps in his meager education. The two major issues during his administration were the Civil War and the slavery issue. Halfway through his term, the president realized that he was not simply trying to preserve the Union, but to create a new Union. During the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln speaks of "a new birth of freedom" and a "new Union. The old union had attempted to contain slavery. The new Union would fulfill the promise of liberty."
A. Lincoln is just about as fine a biography as you could hope to read about Lincoln. It is made even more enjoyable by the dozens and dozens of photos, drawings, letters and maps that are scattered throughout. You can enjoy these things as you're reading--instead of having to keep leafing back and forth. Also, while this is a very comprehensive effort, one still has to realize that you won't find every single detail of Lincoln's life here. For instance, White treats Mary with sympathy and you won't find anything in his book about her apparent physical abuse of Lincoln. But overall, if you want the essence of the man, A. Lincoln will stand at the top of a very short list.
on April 15, 2009
If you are new to Lincoln this book is a great starter. Its well written, thoughtful and comprehensive in the grand scheme of things. I do wish the biographer had spent more time puzzling over some of the war time events. For instance the author didn't address Lincoln's role in taking the North's war effort from quaint 1812 origins to a total war effort akin to what happened in 1914.
I also wish the author hadn't ended the book with his assassination but continued on to compare and contrast Lincoln's known views on Reconstruction with the actual events.
The author did deeply delve into Lincoln's thoughts on politics, slavery, religion and governing. The author did an excellent job of weaving Lincoln's letters into a portrait of Lincoln's intellectual development.
Lincoln's views on blacks and their future role in American society was complex, contradictory and always evolving in the author's presentation.
You will come away with a deeper understanding of Lincoln the thinker but you won't really understand Lincoln the father or Lincoln the husband or Lincoln outside of his official duties as Commander in Chief.
I read this on the Kindle and do have complaints.
The maps were useless, just unreadable on the K2.
The photos weren't always crisp either after enlarging.
These flaws give me pause about ever buying a Kindle book heavy on illustrations or maps, such as history books.