Thousands of biographies of Abraham Lincoln have been written in the hundred and fifty years since his death. This group includes many of the most important of the early biographies written in the fifty years after his death in 1865. The early biographies were mainly written by those who worked with or had a personal relationship with the President. They tended to portray Lincoln as hero and martyr and to romanticize his life. Issues that might be viewed as negative such as his lack of traditional religious views and his political ambition often were ignored or distorted. His image was seen as more important than the actuality of his life.
Biographers continue to be fascinated by Lincoln and to write about all aspects of his life and career. This year’s bicentennial has seen a large number of new works produced that analyze his character and reevaluate his political and ethical decisions.
The Inner Life of Abraham Lincoln: Six Months at the White House. New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1866.
In 1864, Carpenter went to Washington to work on a painting of the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. He had access to the inner offices of the White House and saw the Lincolns on a daily basis. He published a memoir the year after the assassination, making it one of the earliest histories of the president. It is not an unbiased view as Carpenter was a strong admirer of Lincoln, but provides insight into the daily life of his family.
The Life of Abraham Lincoln. Springfield, Mass.: Gurdon Bill, 1866.
This book, the first serious biography of Lincoln, introduced to a wide audience many of the stories of Lincoln’s boyhood and family relationships. Holland stressed Lincoln’s Christianity although the president’s personal religious beliefs were never clearly articulated and not specific to any denomination.
The Life of Abraham Lincoln. Chicago: Jansen, McClurg & Co., 1885.
Arnold was a close friend of Lincoln. They had practiced law together in Illinois and as a Republican congressman, Arnold was a strong supporter during the Civil War. The book stressed Lincoln’s abolitionism and spiritual beliefs, issues that were questioned in other contemporary biographies.
Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln by Distinguished Men of His Time. New York: North American Review, 1888.
This collection of essays was written by Lincoln’s friends, fellow politicians, and journalists. While uneven in significance, they give a rounded portrait of the president. The most important of these was “Lincoln and the Colored Troops,” written by Frederick Douglass.
Herndon’s Lincoln: the True Story of a Great Life. Chicago, New York: Belford, Clarke & Co., 1889.
Herndon was Lincoln’s law partner for twenty years and his personal knowledge of the Lincoln family makes this the most important of the early biographies. It is the source of many of the anecdotes used in later books, especially those concerning Lincoln’s early life.
Abraham Lincoln and Men of War-Times. Philadelphia: the Times Publishing Co., 1892.
McClure was a journalist and political insider who was a great supporter of Lincoln. This book is unusual for the period because of its emphasis on the president as politician and manager rather than as hero and martyr.
A Short Life of Abraham Lincoln. New York: The Century Co., 1904.
Abraham Lincoln A History. New York: The Century Co., 1908.
Nicolay was Lincoln’s private secretary in the White House. Nicolay and Hay, who had worked alongside him as assistant secretary to Lincoln, collaborated on the official biography of the 16th president. It appeared in The Century Magazine serially from 1886 to 1890 and was then issued (1890-94) in book form as ten volumes.
The Life of Abraham Lincoln; from his Birth to his Inauguration as President. Boston: James R. Osgood and Co., 1872.
Lamon, an Illinois lawyer, was a friend and bodyguard to Lincoln during his White House years. This biography was largely ghostwritten and was based on the author’s memories and some papers of William Herndon, which Lamon had purchased. The book was considered scandalous when it was published primarily because it questioned Lincoln’s religious convictions.
The Early Life of Abraham Lincoln. New York: S. S. McClure, Ltd., 1896.
Tarbell is best known as a crusading journalist who wrote an expose of the Standard Oil Corporation at the beginning of the twentieth century. She had a deep interest in Lincoln and wrote numerous books on him.
In the Footsteps of the Lincolns. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1924.
In this genealogical work, Tarbell follows the story of the Lincoln family from the first Lincoln to come to America in 1637 to the birth of Abraham Lincoln in 1809.
Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1926.
Abraham Lincoln: The War Years. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1939.
Written by one of the greatest American poets of the twentieth century, these biographies are the best-selling, most widely read, and most influential books about Lincoln. They have also provided the basis for many adaptations for various media, including Robert Sherwood's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Abe Lincoln in Illinois in 1938. The books have been criticized for their romanticism and lack of historical scholarship while still being praised for their lively style and depth of character.
Abe Lincoln and Nancy Hanks. East Aurora, NY: The Roycrofters, 1920.
This tribute to Lincoln’s mother was part of Hubbard’s series of “Little Journeys,” biographies of famous people in many fields of endeavor. Hubbard was an author, publisher, artist, and philosopher who established a utopian community devoted to producing handmade furniture, books, and decoration.
Inside the White House in War Times. Illustrated by Dan Beard. New York: Charles L. Webster & Co., 1890.
Stoddard worked as an undersecretary at the White House and did not have the close relationship with Lincoln that Nicholay or Herndon did. However, the book provides an interesting description of Washington during the Civil War and the many people who visited the White House.
Stories of Abraham Lincoln’s life always have been popular with children and adults. Many of the books emphasize Lincoln’s character and teach moral lessons. Other books for children highlight the adventures of his frontier upbringing. The story of his life has been turned into poetry, stage and screenplays, and operas.
Honest Abe; Words by Edith Kunhardt; Paintings by Malcah Zeldis. NY: Greenwillow, 1993.
Young Abe Lincoln: His Teenage Years in Indiana. New Albany, IN: FBH, 1992.
Abraham Lincoln. New York: Scholastic Book Services, 1976.
Mr. Lincoln's Whiskers. Honesdale, Pa.: Boyds Mills Press, 1996.
The Death of Lincoln: A Documentary Opera by Edwin London; on an original libretto by Donald Justice. Illustration by Claire Van Vliet. Austin: W. Thomas Taylor, 1988.
Abe Lincoln in Illinois: A Play in Twelve Scenes; with a foreword by Carl Sandburg. New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1939.
Abe Lincoln, Kentucky Boy. Chicago: Reilly & Lee Co., 1931.
Three Rivers South: A Story of Young Abe Lincoln; illustrated by Thomas Hart Benton. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1966.
Little Abe Lincoln; with illustrations by W.H. Wolf. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1926.
Mary Todd Lincoln
The life of Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-1882) encompassed romance, political power, multiple tragedies and mental illness. As little is known of her interior life, biographers often have interpreted her life from the perspectives of their own time and values.
Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House. New York: G. W. Carleton & Co., 1868.
Born a slave, Mrs. Keckley’s skills as a seamstress bought her freedom and she began a business in Washington, D.C. When the Lincolns came to the White House, Keckley was hired to make dresses for Mrs. Lincoln and they became confidantes. Her book, which was ghostwritten, gives an intimate portrait of the president’s family life and includes stories of the death of Willie Lincoln and Mrs. Lincoln’s profound grief.
Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckley. New York: Broadway Books, 2003.
The Madness of Mary Lincoln. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2007.
Love is Eternal. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1954.
A highly romanticized and very popular novel of the Lincoln’s marriage.
Mary Lincoln: Wife and Widow. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1932.