I have long been fascinated with Abraham Lincoln. I first encountered him during a family vacation in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Touring the battlefields and the surrounding area we came to that place where he delivered the Gettysburg Address which has rightly gone done in history as one of the greatest English literary accomplishments. A few years later we traveled to Springfield and visited the home where he lived while practicing law. It was there that we found a small book titled Abraham Lincoln: The Man and His Faith. This book traced not only Lincoln’s life but also his Christian faith. Though since his childhood he had lived a life free from serious moral blemish, it seems he did not come to trust in Christ until shortly before his death. And, in fact, it seems that his time spent touring the ravaged fields of Gettysburg served to turn his affections upward to the only One who could bring home from such devastation. But, because the book’s focus was narrow, I have turned to other biographies to provide a more thorough view of his life.
David Herbert Donald’s biography of the man, titled simply Lincoln, gives the life of Lincoln in 700 pages. The author begins by recounting the one time he met President John F. Kennedy. After Donald delivered an address about Lincoln at the White House, Kennedy, surely thinking of how his own administration would be judged, said “No one has a right to grade a President–not even poor James Buchanan–who has not sat in his chair, examined the mail and information that came across his desk, and learned why he made his decisions.” This book was conceived in that spirit. Donald says “I have asked at every stage of his career what he knew when he had to take critical actions, how he evaluated the evidence before him, and why he reached his decisions. It is, then, a biography written from Lincoln’s point of view, using the information and ideas that were available to him. It seeks to explain rather than to judge.”
The book is based largely on Lincoln’s own words through letters, messages or conversations that were subsequently recorded. Donald depends far more on primary sources than on secondary. And generally I’d say this approach works well. In my experience reflection on good biographies will show they fall into one of two camps. In the first the reader feels as if he has spent time with a scholar whose expertise is the subject of the book. In the second the reader feels as if he has spent time with the subject himself. In the case of Lincoln I’d suggest I felt more of the former than the latter. While Donald let Lincoln speak for himself, somehow it still did not translate to feeling as if Lincoln had been the voice of the book. I offer this less as a criticism and more as an observation as I truly did enjoy this biography. It was thorough without being laborious, detailed without being dense.
With the exception of Jesus, Lincoln may well be the man who has been the subject of the most biographies, and this with good reason. He led a fascinating life that in so many ways epitomizes the American dream, rising from abject poverty to lead the nation. He was raised up to guide the nation through its darkest hour and, while meeting with his share of failure and disappointment, did an admirable job. And no sooner did he succeed than he was gone. His life has been an inspiration for generations. While Lincoln certainly deals honestly with the man’s flaws, in the end it shows him to be a truly great man. It helps us better understand the man who may well be, despite the multitudes of biographies, the least understood of all the Presidents.