Abraham Lincoln has not wanted for biographers since his death, and every year new volumes about his life and presidency are added to shelves already groaning with them. Yet as Michael Burlingame notes at the start of this magnificent book, multi-volume studies of Lincoln's life have been scarce of late, with the most recent one published decades ago. His biography is an effort to fill this gap by providing a comprehensive interpretation of Lincoln's life, one that draws upon the enormous body of material accumulated about our 16th president to provide a deeper understanding of who he was and how he shaped our nation's history.
The result is a breathtakingly thorough account of Lincoln's life. In two volumes Burlingame traces Lincoln's life from his early years on the Indiana and Illinois frontier to his tragic death on the eve of the Union's victory over the Confederacy. Throughout his focus is resolutely on Lincoln, showing how he developed as a person and how that person sought to address the myriad challenges he faced throughout his life. In the process he draws out some fascinating insights, ones that reveal Lincoln as a man of principle and ambition, whose evolution into the "Great Emancipator" only came after a substantial career in the politics and the law.
Yet Burlingame also shows how despite considerable success as a Whig representative in the Illinois state legislature and a term in Congress, Lincoln was continually underestimated by many of his contemporaries, who dismissed him as a pleasant fellow who was not up to the challenges of the nation's highest office. Such assessments ignored (and often enabled) Lincoln's mastery of the political game, and Burlingame almost relishes recounting how he bested his opponents time and again. Where that mastery is best displayed, however, is on the issue of slavery, as Lincoln demonstrated throughout his career an ability to push his constituents to the limits in their opposition to the "peculiar institution" - and sometimes beyond them as well.
By the end of this book Burlingame leaves his readers with a profound appreciation of who Lincoln was as a person and how his personality shaped our nation's history. Even those already familiar with Lincoln's life will learn much from its pages, as Burlingame offers a perspective of his subject gained from a career spent studying the man. Nobody who wishes to understand in depth our nation's 16th president can afford to ignore this book, which is unlikely to be surpassed soon for its breath of research and the depths of its analysis.