Abraham Lincoln: A Presidential Life by James McPherson

I think I am pretty clearly on the record in favor of short biographies but even I might blanche at a book that covers a subject as immense as Abraham Lincoln in a mere 70 or so pages.  Such is the boldness of James McPherson‘s Abraham Lincoln.  But this essay/book turned out to be an enjoyable and interesting approach to the enigma that is Lincoln.

I was trolling the library when I saw it and decided it was short enough to read over the President’s Day weekend. Alas, I was not organized enough to post a review on either President’s Day or Lincoln’s birthday. But I wanted to report back anyway.

Here is whay PW had to say:

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian McPherson (Battle Cry of Freedom) contributes to the slew of Lincoln biennial books with this succinct biography, weighing in at a lean 70 pages (plus notes), that delivers gracefully on McPherson’s promise to capture “the essential events and meaning of Lincoln’s life without oversimplification or overgeneralization.” McPherson is a precise writer with a masterful command of the subject, guiding readers through the evolution of Lincoln’s thinking on race, his lifelong struggle with depression, his improbable rise to political power, his anguish over the breakup of the union and his determination to see it made whole again. For anyone wanting to fill the gaps in their understanding of the Great Emancipator by the end of President’s Day, this efficient account from a noted Civil War scholar is a near-perfect solution.

McPherson touches on Lincoln’s political career leading up to the presidency, the issue of slavery as a constitutional and political issue and the conduct of the war in particular. Drawing out in each one the critical role Lincoln played and how his character and decision making impacted the outcome. He notes criticisms and controversies and offers succinct responses of his own.

The usefulness of a book like this is that its succinctness can be perfect for a variety of readers. Those who know very little can read it without being overwhelmed. Those who have a deeper knowledge can appreciate the author’s command of the subject and engage the big issues touched on within.  And anyone who struggles for reading time can enjoy the concise overview without having to tackle a large tome but still feel comfortable with the author’s knowledge and expertise.

It can be an entry point into a larger study of the subject or just a nice refresher on the subject and underlying issues.

The book itself is a well put together volume typical of Oxford University Press with a built in ribbon book mark.

All in all a great read for anyone interested in Lincoln no matter their expertise.  Would make a great gift for any student of history.  Of course, if you are hard up on funds you could always do what I did and pick it up at the local library.

The few hours it will take you are more than worth it given the important issues addressed and the historical significance of the subject in American history.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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