Book Review: Lincoln In His Own Words

Lincoln In His Own Words, edited by Milton Meltzer, illustrated by Stephen Alcorn

I read this book, as I read quite a few books, largely because it was referred to as a good source of Lincoln quotes by my local church pastor in our most recent Spokesmen’s club meeting. Being fond of reading books about Abraham Lincoln, though [1], and being aware of the thousands and thousands of books on Lincoln that exist, it is fair to wonder what sets this book apart. In many ways, this book, which is fairly short (at just over 200 pages) and full of striking illustrations by Stephen Alcorn, is best viewed as a gateway book to read the works of Abraham Lincoln, in that it provides works from a broad area of Lincoln’s own writing, with accompanying biographical sketches of the people in the pictures of each section of the book and with a mostly helpful introduction to the context of each of the selected speeches. It is a gateway book, though, and not the ultimate destination because the book lacks the depth of scholarship of the writings of, say, Harry Jaffa, and the fact that the speeches are often redacted means that although highly quotable excerpts are included herein, the whole context and content of the speeches are not.

The contents of this book are straightforward, and the book is appropriate for any audience from preteen and above. This is the sort of book I read happily at around eight to ten, and can read with pleasure even now, even though it is somewhat basic. The writings of Lincoln are divided into fourteen chapters based on the period of Lincoln’s life that the writings refer to: his childhood and youth, his early days in New Salem, his time as a roving lawyer, his career in Congress, his unsuccessful effort in 1854 to secure election into the Senate, his efforts against Stephen Douglas in 1858 and afterwards as a party figure, as well as his Cooper Union speech (his contribution to the 1860 Presidential campaign), his short speeches on the way to Washington DC, the period of his early presidency before the war, the early part of the war, the middle part of the war where he announced the Emancipation Proclamation, his speeches in 1864 as he thought he was a sure one-term president, and his final speeches from his second inaugural to his death. After the writings there are some profiles of some of Lincoln’s contemporaries, a chronology of his life, and a note for sources for further reading, which many readers will want to take advantage of as an encouragement to read more books on Lincoln.

Although this is definitely a worthwhile work on Lincoln, especially for a younger audience and as an introductory book to Lincoln’s prolific body of work as a political and philosophical writer, it is not without criticism. Some will object to the book because of the way that it condenses some of Lincoln’s longer speeches, which is understandable on account of their length—Lincoln’s debates with Douglas included an hour and a half of speaking, and some of his speeches, like Peoria, went to three hours or so. Even if Lincoln did not speak as quickly as some of us do, that is still a lot of writing to include, more than the author was willing to do, and understandably so for questions of balance and scope of work. Aside from that, though, the book contains occasional factual errors which are more problematic. For instance, the author states that eleven states had seceded by the time Lincoln took office (108), which is incorrect, as only seven had seceded by this time, the last four of which seceded after Fort Sumter. These minor factual details make the book an unreliable source on American history, except to provide general background and context for Lincoln himself, and since this book best serves those readers who take it as an invitation to read longer and deeper works on the Civil War or Lincoln’s political thought, those readers will not be led astray by the book’s occasional errors, which were hopefully corrected in later editions of the book after 1993.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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