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A. Lincoln: A Biography

Ronald White Jr., Random House, 798 pp., $35

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, bookstores are—surprise!—filled with new biographies. One of the most comprehensive is Ronald White’s A. Lincoln, a heavy volume that takes on the monumental task of chronicling Lincoln’s entire life. The results range from outstanding to weak. There are firsts: White uncovers the origin of the “Honest Abe” nickname, probes the Bible to find the “house divided” quote Lincoln made famous, tracks down the titles of books that Lincoln read as a boy and offers a fine portrait of Lincoln the studious, wry and successful circuit lawyer. The section on his early years is arguably overlong but full of information about evolving traits, like young Abe’s habit of jotting down ideas on scraps of paper and putting them in his hat for further study. The book’s best part is its final third, about Lincoln’s presidency and the Civil War. Avoiding deep military history, White writes perceptively of Lincoln’s administration, his family life and relationships with wartime friends and political colleagues. He explains the great effect Lincoln’s first inaugural address had on the nation, underscores his efforts to keep the Border States in the Union (he famously noted he was glad to have God on his side but “I must have Kentucky”), traces his influence on the elections of 1862 and 1863, and details the story of the Gettysburg Address.

One problem facing any biographer is trying to cover the entire story, and White leaves out some key portions of Lincoln’s life. His rather tentative relationships with women get little attention (his early love Ann Rutledge has but one and a half pages). His relationships with his children are left vague. Worse, there is no mention of the deals Lincoln’s handlers made with his rivals to gain the 1860 Republican nomination. Above all, White’s success in depicting Lincoln’s doggedly rational side is frequently offset by his writing’s lack of passion about his subject, a great man who was the victim of numerous personal tragedies and a surprise presidential winner caught in the center of the nation’s most terrible conflict.


Originally published in the June 2009 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here