Ten Staff Picks: Favorite Books on Abraham Lincoln

By President Lincoln’s Cottage Staff

Welcome to the second installment of the President Lincoln’s Cottage Book List. In the first list, we reviewed 10 recent publications on Lincoln. This list doesn’t discriminate based on publication date. Staff members of President Lincoln’s Cottage were invited to submit reviews of any of their favorite books on Lincoln, past or present.  We hope you enjoy these books as much as we did.

Note:  This list reflects the personal selections staff members and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of all staff members or of the organization as a whole. 

A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War, Harry V. Jaffa (Roman and Littlefield, 2000)
In this sequel to his masterful Crisis of the House Divided, Jaffa gives us in A New Birth of Freedom, a superlative account of the political ideas that framed the coming of the Civil War.  More specifically, Jaffa explores and explains Lincoln’s rock-solid belief that the nation’s Founding Fathers considered the idea of equality and freedom to be at the heart of the American Constitution from its inception. Only by understanding this can Lincoln readers grasp his undying commitment to leading a war-torn country towards gradual emancipation while adhering to the limits that the Constitution placed upon his presidential power. “For Lincoln,” Jaffa concludes, “the wrongness of slavery and the wrongness of arbitrary power are one and the same. That is what we must understand if we are to understand Lincoln as he understood himself, which is to say, if we are to understand what is most important about the Civil War.” (p. 78)   It may not be the easiest Lincoln book to read – but this book unlike any other book that I have read helped me grasp what made Abraham Lincoln tick.
-Frank Milligan, Director


Assassination Vacation, Sarah Vowell (Simon and Schuster, 2005).
This is a favorite of every staff member who has had read it. Witty and well researched, this book is a quirky tale of one woman’s pilgrimage to sites associated with assassinated Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley.  Vowell takes the reader on her personal journey (with friends along for the ride) to uncover the histories, conspiracies, and cultural legacies of these three presidents.
-Callie Hawkins, Education Coordinator

Lincoln’s Sanctuary: Abraham Lincoln and the Soldiers’ Home, Matthew Pinsker (Oxford UP, 2003).
The book that started it all!  The National Trust for Historic Preservation commissioned Lincoln’s Sanctuary as the first history about Lincoln and the Soldiers’ Home.   In a world where there are books on every aspect of Lincoln’s life, it’s a wonder no one else had thought to research Lincoln’s time at a place where he spent a full quarter of his presidency, a place where he began to develop the Emancipation Proclamation.  Pinsker’s research for this book uncovered a wealth of new information on Lincoln’s summers at the Soldiers’ Home from those who witnessed it, and we have continued to build on that research.
-Erin Mast, Curator

Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America, Allen C. Guelzo (Simon and Schuster, 2008)
Lincoln and Douglas is an interesting and insightful look at the debates that helped Lincoln become a national political leader and a eventually president of The United States. Guelzo in this well written and accessible book does a very good job of explaining why the debates were so influential and also puts them in context of the larger political climate of the 1850s.
-Niles Anderegg, Historical Interpreter

Lincoln, David Herbert Donald (Simon and Schuster, 1994).
Donald’s biography of Lincoln is the most comprehensive one volume biography written to-date. Donald sets forth in the beginning of his work to judge Lincoln’s actions by what had come across his desk. In other words, what he knew and when he knew it. The result is an elegantly written, fair critique of Lincoln that has yet to be matched.
-Scott Ackerman, Historical Interpreter

Lincoln’s Melancholy, Joshua Wolf Shenk (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005)
In Lincoln’s Melancholy, Shenk offers an in-depth exploration of how Abraham Lincoln battled chronic depression through most of his adult life. Lincoln, driven by the ‘right to rise’ ethic of his era, coupled deeply held goals with an intense self-discipline to rise above personal challenges and lead our nation through its gravest internal crisis. This work shows how Lincoln became our greatest president in spite of himself, a lesson we would all do well to ponder.
-Jon Blackman, Historical Interpreter

Lincoln: A Photobiography, Russell Freedman (Houghton Mifflin, 1989)
Folks, this is a gateway book on our 16th president and a great choice for visual learners.  In my youth, I was more a fan of history in general (e.g. a favorite t-shirt featured Rosie the Rivetter) and this was probably the first Lincoln book I read.  Freedman’s book is the perfect selection if you want to give or get some written background on Abraham Lincoln, though it’s the wealth of photographs that will leaving you feeling familiar with the man.  An image is indeed worth 1,000 words.
-Erin Mast, Curator

Lincoln’s greatest speech: The Second Inaugural, Ronald C. White Jr. (Simon and Schuster, 2006)|
Lincoln’s greatest speech is a short (250 pages) but fascinating look at one of the most revered speeches that the President would ever give. White approaches the speech from the perspective of a religious history scholar and demonstrates with clarity and brevity where Lincolns theological Ideas came from and how the speech reflected these Ideas as well as how the speech fits with the rest of Lincolns legacy.
-Niles Anderegg, Historical Interpreter

The Radical and The Republican, James Oakes. (WW Norton and Co.,2007)
In this joint biography (winner of the 2007 Lincoln Prize), Oakes traces the paths of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln along two very different, but ultimately converging arcs. Douglass is the radical reformer bent on Emancipation, but struggling with how best to achieve this in the racially hostile world of 19th century America. Abraham Lincoln is the moderate Republican who is wary of letting his moral opposition to slavery (both to its expansion, and the institution itself), overrule his instincts as a pragmatic politician.  Oakes leads the reader through a discovery of how and why the Civil War created a situation for Douglass and Lincoln  to meet in the middle and pave a path for what we call civil rights.
-Scott Ackerman, Historical Interpreter

Freedom Rising: Washington in the Civil War, Ernest B. Furgurson (Knopf, 2004)
Freedom Rising is a multi-faceted portrait of Civil War Washington. During the Lincoln administration, the nation’s capital, situated on the war’s front lines, experienced a variety of unique circumstances, including explosive growth, a strong military presence, the ongoing threat of attack, prostitution and crime, confederate espionage, and a highly divisive social and political climate. Through a series of well developed vignettes, Furgurson provides the color and flavor of our capital as Abraham Lincoln guides the country through the Civil War.
-Jon Blackman, Historical Interpreter

View this past President Lincoln’s Cottage Book List:

Check back soon for these President Lincoln’s Cottage Book Lists:

  • Children’s Lincoln Reading List
  • Our Visitors’ Top 10 Lincoln Reading List
  • Lincoln’s Own Summer Reading List
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