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In 2008, the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College received 172 submissions for its $50,000 prize for the best book on Lincoln or the Civil War. Even without such a lucrative award, the perennial deluge of Lincoln books would show little sign of abating, as America's 16th president and the war to preserve her union continue to intrigue admirers and critics alike. The novelty of Lincoln's rise from frontier obscurity to world-historic figure, coupled with the challenge and significance of a fratricidal war amongst a self-governing people, presents a drama that continues to fascinate successive generations of Americans. If Thomas Paine was right when he wrote, "The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind," Lincoln's fitful ascent to power and deft exercise of presidential authority offer instruction about the possibilities and pitfalls of self-rule.
In this bicentennial year of Abraham Lincoln's birth, it has been frequently noted that more has been written about his life than any other American and pretty much any mortal figure. Is there anything left to be known about the man Frederick Douglass once said "was a mystery to no man who saw him and heard him"? Michael C. Burlingame, the Chancellor Naomi B. Lynn Distinguished Chair in Lincoln Studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield, answers, "Plenty." With notes and indexes, his Abraham Lincoln: A Life runs to 2,000 pages--and this, the author tells us, is the "pared down" version. After editing several volumes of the writings of Lincoln's personal secretaries and associates (John G. Nicolay, John Hay, William O. Stoddard, and Noah Brooks), and connecting Lincoln's personal travails with his later successes as a politician in The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln (1994), Burlingame took on the challenge of producing a scholarly, multi-volume biography. In his sights were Carl Sandburg's best-selling Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years (2 vols., 1926) and Abraham Lincoln: The War Years (4 vols., 1939), the latter of which earned Sandburg his first Pulitzer Prize.
Lincoln and his world come to life in Burlingame's biography with all the virtue and vice, reason and emotion, that wrestled for supremacy in the burgeoning American republic. What sets Burlingame's magnum opus apart is its extensive reliance upon "reminiscence material": namely, …