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A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1849 (Volume 1)
by Sidney Blumenthal
576 pages
Simon & Schuster
Release Date: May 10, 2016


Of the 34 presidents whose biographies I’ve read so far (Washington through Truman) Abraham Lincoln has proven to be my favorite. His extremely humble origins, the momentous decisions he had to make and the quality of the biographers his life has attracted all work together to make his biographies incredibly compelling.

The four months I spent reading twelve of the best biographies of Abraham Lincoln were among the best-spent months of my journey though the best presidential biographies. From David Herbert Donald’s fabulous “Lincoln” to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s best-selling “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” to Michael Burlingame’s surprisingly thorough “Abraham Lincoln: A Life” it seems hard to imagine a need for yet another biography of the 16th president.

However, consider me intrigued by the prospect of a survey of Lincoln’s life authored by someone I have generally disdained as a mere political operative. Sidney Blumenthal is in the process of writing a multi-volume study of Lincoln and this past May published his first volume to a reasonably favorable reception.

I am considering adding this volume to my “follow-up” list which, sadly, means I may only get to it once I wrap-up the remaining presidential biographies on my current list (covering Truman through Obama)…which implies sometime in 2018. In the meantime, if you decide to tackle Blumenthal’s series and have any feedback please let me know!

Third-party reviews and links (some sites may require a subscription):

From the Publisher:

“The first of a multi-volume history of Lincoln as a political genius—from his obscure beginnings to his presidency, assassination, and the overthrow of his post-Civil War dreams of Reconstruction. This first volume traces Lincoln from his painful youth, describing himself as “a slave,” to his emergence as the man we recognize as Abraham Lincoln.

From his youth as a “newsboy,” a voracious newspaper reader, Lincoln became a free thinker, reading Tom Paine, as well as Shakespeare and the Bible, and studying Euclid to sharpen his arguments as a lawyer.

Lincoln’s anti-slavery thinking began in his childhood amidst the Primitive Baptist antislavery dissidents in backwoods Kentucky and Indiana, the roots of his repudiation of Southern Christian pro-slavery theology. Intensely ambitious, he held political aspirations from his earliest years. Obsessed with Stephen Douglas, his political rival, he battled him for decades. Successful as a circuit lawyer, Lincoln built his team of loyalists. Blumenthal reveals how Douglas and Jefferson Davis acting together made possible Lincoln’s rise.

Blumenthal describes a socially awkward suitor who had a nervous breakdown over his inability to deal with the opposite sex. His marriage to the upper class Mary Todd was crucial to his social aspirations and his political career. Blumenthal portrays Mary as an asset to her husband, a rare woman of her day with strong political opinions.

Blumenthal’s robust portrayal is based on prodigious research of Lincoln’s record and of the period and its main players. It reflects both Lincoln’s time and the struggle that consumes our own political debate.”