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Abraham Lincoln

The American Presidents Series: The 16th President, 1861-1865

George S. McGovern; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and Sean Wilentz, General Editors

Times Books

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ISBN10: 0805083456
ISBN13: 9780805083453


208 Pages



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Abraham Lincoln, who came into the presidency in the country's greatest hour of need, towers above the others who have held the office of president—the icon of greatness, the pillar of strength whose words bound up the nation's wounds. His vision saw the United States through the Civil War. His presidency is the hinge on which American history pivots, the time when the young republic collapsed of its own contradictions and a new birth of freedom, sanctified by blood, created the United States we know today. His story has been told many times, but never by a man who himself sought the office of president and contemplated the awesome responsibilities that come with it.

George S. McGovern—a Midwesterner, former U.S. senator, presidential candidate, veteran, and historian by training—offers his unique insight into our sixteenth president. He shows how Lincoln sometimes went astray, particularly in his restrictions on civil liberties, but also how he adjusted his sights and transformed the Civil War from a political dispute to a moral crusade. McGovern's account reminds us why we hold Lincoln in such esteem and why he remains the standard by which all of his successors are measured.


Praise for Abraham Lincoln

"McGovern's Lincoln is a finely wrought gem. In this small volume McGovern captures Lincoln's character and leadership strengths better than many weighty tomes. It is a worthy addition to the brilliant American Presidents Series."—Doris Kearns Goodwin

"If you like your biographies very short and sweet with a dash of corrective moralism, you might try George McGovern's Abraham Lincoln, a well-timed entry in Times Books' presidents series, written by the former White House candidate."—David Waldstreicher, The Boston Globe

"Lincoln is one of the few presidents to be claimed by both liberals and conservatives. This volume by the former Democratic presidential candidate (in the American President Series from Times Books, edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and Sean Willentz) examines Lincoln's record from a liberal point of view, particularly his early and apparent contradictory views on slavery—his platform made clear that his purpose was to contain slavery in the Southern states, not to abolish it. An example: In our 16th president, writes McGovern, 'We see the decency of popular government. Its role, then as now, was, as Lincoln wrote "to elevate the condition of men . . . to afford all an unfettered start in the race of life" . . . To him, democracy was an experiment that the world had not seen before.' Simply put, McGovern makes a convincing case that America's first Republican president was really our first democratic president."—Allen Barra, The Star-Ledger (Newark)

"Following the lead of 'one book, one community' programs across the country, the Louisiana Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission has chosen a 'common book' about Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln by George McGovern is the pick for Louisiana residents to learn about Lincoln as part of the celebration surrounding his 200th birthday. This book is part of Times Books' American Presidents series. It's short, 155 pages, but succinctly covers Lincoln's life from boyhood to his death at age 56. The late Arthur Schlesinger, who served as editor of the American Presidents series, laid out the publisher's aim in the preface to the Lincoln volume: 'to present the grand panorama of our chief executive in volumes compact enough for the busy reader, lucid enough for the student, authoritative enough for the scholar' . . . The resulting book is a frank look at a man who succeeded despite facing many obstacles. One of the things that shaped Lincoln's character and constantly challenged the 16th president, McGovern said, was his struggle with depression . . . McGovern doesn't gloss over Lincoln's shortcomings in his book. He writes extensively about the suspension of habeas corpus—the right to be released after arrest if the charges against you are without legal merit. Lincoln suspended the right for certain areas in rebellion. It was an action that legal scholars still debate . . . McGovern's book is an excellent source to get a nice overview of Lincoln's life and career. It is heavily footnoted and indexed, and readers who want more detailed information can consult McGovern's listed sources. In his book, McGovern gives one of the most concise and best reasons for studying Lincoln: 'We examine his life and we wonder what we can make of our own.'"—Greg Langley, The Advocate

"The greatness and imperfections of America's 16th president, captured by a former Democratic nominee for the White House. With considerable skill and insight, McGovern crafts a biography snappy, clear and comprehensive enough to please general readers, students and scholars alike. In eight short chapters, six of which deal with Lincoln's presidency, he nails the essential strengths, flaws, failures and achievements of America's most revered leader. Born in a Kentucky log cabin, Lincoln was a melancholic who suffered more than his fair share of misfortune. According to McGovern, he nevertheless earned success through his ceaseless hard work, powerful intellect and incomparable abilities as a speechwriter. Lincoln began his political career as a member of the Whig Party. After serving in the Illinois state legislature, he won election to the U.S. Congress in 1846, but lost support by challenging President James Polk on the origins of the Mexican War and lasted only one term. The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, sponsored by Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas, reinvigorated Lincoln's political ambitions. While he believed the Constitution did not allow for abolition in the South, he staunchly opposed the westward expansion of slavery. With the Whig Party split, he joined the new Republican Party in 1856 and ran against Douglas for a Senate seat in 1858. Although he lost this race, Lincoln gained national prominence as a result of his famous debates with Douglas. Two years later, he won the 1860 presidential election, a victory that angered the South and brought about secession and war. What was he like as a wartime president? In three core chapters, McGovern astutely assesses Lincoln's emergence as a commander in chief committed to 'total war.' The author does not shy away from criticizing his subject, particularly for suspending habeas corpus and censoring the press. Still McGovern's overall depiction is one of a complex, tolerant and extraordinary man who simultaneously preserved the Union and transformed the nation. Compact and commanding."—Kirkus Reviews

"Former U.S. senator McGovern—who is also a Ph.D. historian—knows something about presidential leadership and the potential and actual abuses of power that come especially during wartime. In this compact but convincing portrait, he assesses Lincoln's greatness in terms of his ability to use his humble origins, empathy, keen sense of justice, uncommon skill in seeing the essence of an issue, faith in American democracy, gifts of language, and personal self-confidence—all to become a masterly lawyer, a party leader, commander in chief, and a heroic figure with both the vision and the practicality to realize his purposes . . . Given his own politics, McGovern not surprisingly examines Lincoln's use of war powers in suspending habeas corpus, suppressing dissent, and freeing the slaves, finally conceding that the great crisis of secession and the prospect of ending slavery justified Lincoln's overstepping constitutional bounds-for the moment. This biography warrants reading to catch the sense of Lincoln's greatness, both for his own day and ours."—Randall M. Miller, Library Journal

"In this modest, fluent bio, part of the American Presidents Series, former Democratic senator and presidential nominee McGovern finds an inspiring lesson in what a man can do with his life. McGovern's Lincoln is a smart, ambitious striver who overcame humble origins, repeated setbacks and spells of depression. He is an idealist who, though burdened with the racial prejudices of his day, embraced the principle of equal opportunity. Most resonantly for the author, he is a brilliant politician who, combining pragmatism with high purpose, steered a crooked course through ugly political realities to end the intractable curse of slavery."—Publishers Weekly

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Read an Excerpt


The Greatness of Lincoln

Two hundred years ago Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin in the Kentucky wilderness. From crude, disadvantaged beginnings he somehow recognized significant capabilities...

About the author

George S. McGovern; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and Sean Wilentz, General Editors

George S. McGovern represented South Dakota in the United States Senate from 1963 to 1981 and was the Democratic nominee for president in 1972. He was a decorated bomber pilot in World War II, after which he earned his Ph.D. in American history and government at Northwestern University. He was also a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

George S. McGovern

Dominique Nabokov