Abraham Lincoln: A Life
by Michael Burlingame
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008,
Volume 1, 942 pp., Volume 2, 1,034 pp.
IN 1936, the great Lincoln historian J.G. Randall provocatively asked, “Has the Lincoln theme been exhausted?” At a moment when close to four thousand Lincoln titles were already in print, it seemed a sensible question, but Randall’s answer was, counterintuitively, “no.” An advocate of empirical, professional history, Randall lamented that the study of the sixteenth president had been dominated by amateurs. Lincoln, he argued, needed to be brought into the academy and subjected to rigorous research. Randall’s summons did not go unheeded. Beginning in the mid-twentieth century, Lincoln attracted some of the most talented historians of the age, among them Richard Hofstadter, David Donald, Eric Foner, and James McPherson. The results were extraordinary. Donald produced what is still the best political biography of Lincoln to date. Foner situated Lincoln’s Republican Party in a decades-long struggle over labor, slavery, and territorial expansion. And McPherson turned from finely grained histories of abolition to sweeping accounts of Lincoln’s leadership in the first modern war. But as fine as post-Randall Lincoln scholarship was, it did not stanch the flow of new books. Although there is no accurate count, by best estimate about sixteen thousand titles have been published on the sixteenth president of the United States. For those strapped for time, the federally-funded Lincoln Bicentennial Commission compiled a list last year of 155 books that belong on the “essential Lincoln book shelf.” Even if a mere 1 percent of the output on Lincoln is indispensable, it might be time, two hundred years after Lincoln’s birth, to ask Randall’s question again, but this time to answer it differently.
In the last decade, there has been a resurgence of interest in Lincoln, in part because of an insatiable popular hunger for great man biographies, many of them bestselling accounts of America’s “Founding Fathers” or memorable presidents, among them Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy. More recently, best-selling authors have expanded the genre, penning group biographies (like Joseph Ellis’s generational study of the “founding brothers”), popular accounts of “founding mothers” and first ladies, and, most recently, biographies that bring together cutting-edge work in social and cultural history with more traditional biographical methods, most notably Annette Gordon-Reed’s recovery of Thomas Jefferson’s long-standing sexual relationship with his slave Sally Hemings and the mixed-race family that he and his white descendents never acknowledged. But of all of these biographies, none have compared in their number and popularity to books on Abraham Lincoln. For tha...
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