Book Review: The Essential Abraham Lincoln

The Essential Abraham Lincoln, edited by John Gabriel Hunt

It is common in the music industry after a singer has died or a band has broken up for a music label to make an essential album out of the hit singles and notable album tracks of the back catalog of musicians and bands. These albums at times become the only album one needs of a band if their best songs are only singles and the occasional excellent album track. At other times, the career retrospective only whets the appetite for more albums, or even the entire discography of the musician. Sometimes the publishing industry does the same with writers, seeking to capture the most notable texts of an author, especially one whose works were as short, in general, as the writings of Abraham Lincoln are. While some writers may satisfy in such abridged form, and although this book hits most of the high points of the writing of Lincoln, this book ultimately is only an appetizer and mainly makes the reader familiar with the writings of Lincoln want a lot more.

In terms of its organization, this book is one of the easiest sorts of work to edit that I can imagine. There is a short introduction, the speeches and other writings are slightly excerpted at times (including the Peoria speech of 1854, and there is no way to tell if the rebuttal of three of the Lincoln-Douglas debates are shown as well), but no commentary is added. The writings are in alphabetical order and include most of the most frequently cited and quoted writings in the Lincoln oevre, although none of the diplomatic correspondence Lincoln wrote to countries like San Marino [1] nor the classic fragments on the Divine Will [2] or the parable of the wolves, the sheep, and the shepherd [3] as it relates to pro-slavery Theology. Nor does the volume contain a great deal of material on the early political career of Lincoln, including his harsh efforts at skinning opponents or his pseudonymous efforts that prompted his famous duel [4] (which is discussed in passing a mock-heroic letter to Joshua Speed located in this volume, but not with any context). Nor are some well-known addresses like the letters he sent to various Sanitation Fairs to encourage the Union war effort. So, while most of the famous works of Lincoln are included from his first foray into politics in 1832 to his last public address just three days before his death that promised Negro suffrage in Louisiana and that pushed John Wilkes Booth over the edge, there is a lot that is not included here for reasons of brevity because 340 pages is not enough to cover all of the really essential writings of Abraham Lincoln, even if this book manages to cover his major political speeches, his debates, some of his notable letters and telegrams, a few of his brief occasional speeches along the way to his first inaugural, both his first and second inaugural messages, and many of his messages to Congress, among other works, like his eulogy to Clay and his acceptance of both nominations for President.

The small size of this book relative to the full body of work of Lincoln and its large size relative to most books that people would casually read place this book in an interesting position. It is probably best viewed as a repository of primary documentation for someone who wants to write a fairly surface-level paper on Lincoln and needs some handy references. A truly deep student of the writing and thought of Lincoln is likely to be aware of texts that are not included in this volume, and will often be looking at the full text of speeches or full categories of the writings of Lincoln, such as his famous T-mails, or his diplomatic efforts with such countries as San Marino or Liberia, two of the nations where Lincoln first extended diplomatic recognition for the United States. Whether someone is looking at this book as a way of becoming familiar with the general tone of writing Lincoln possessed, which was a mixture of pointed and close legal arguments, noble rhetoric, and inspiring perorations, or whether someone is familiar with most of these works already for reading about Lincoln in other places, this book is a worthwhile read, even though it is merely a small sample of his large body of work, which is well worth delving into despite its massive length.

[1] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/08/09/although-your-dominion-is-small-the-curious-connection-between-abraham-lincoln-and-san-marino/

[2] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2010/11/18/a-meditation-on-the-divine-will/

[3] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/01/29/slavery-in-the-bible/

[4] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2010/12/01/how-abraham-lincoln-learned-to-be-a-gentleman/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, History, International Relations and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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