What Did Lincoln Read?

Abraham Lincoln was an avid reader. What he read has been the subject of research, scholarship, and debate. The following list of what Lincoln read is a compilation of entries from past Lincoln Presidential Foundation newsletters, provided together by popular demand for general interest. The list includes not only books and articles borrowed, purchased, or referenced, but speeches and dispatches Abraham Lincoln read according to the published chronology Lincoln Day by Day.

For a thorough and detailed analysis of books Lincoln read, we recommend Robert Bray’s “What Abraham Lincoln Read—An Evaluative and Annotated List,” published in the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.2629860.0028.204

January

In January 1863, Abraham Lincoln borrowed The Atlantic Monthly, Jan-June 1861 from the Library of Congress. It is unclear whether he had read them in whole or part previously or whether he read them cover-to-cover upon borrowing them that month. If he did, he would have been treated to an incredible range of prose and poetry. For example, the January 1861 issue contained the first-ever publication of Paul Revere's Ride by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The April 1861 issue is a treasure trove for lovers of literary realism. In addition to a first-person account of the situation in Charleston, South Carolina including the lead up to the Battle of Fort Sumter and a piece by Charles Francis Adams, Jr. the grandson of President John Quincy Adams, on the cotton industry and slavery, the April issue contained the first-ever (albeit anonymous) printing of the groundbreaking short-story, Life in the Iron Mills, by Rebecca Harding Davis.

The piece on Fort Sumter contains the following bit of dialogue, which reportedly transpired between the journalist, John William DeForest, and one of his interviewees:

“Why do you venture on this doubtful future?” I asked of one gentleman … “Your great grievance is the election of Lincoln?”

“Yes” …

“Is Lincoln considered here to be a bad or dangerous man?”

“Not personally. I understand that he is a man of excellent private character, and I have nothing to say against him as a ruler, inasmuch as he has never been tried. Mr. Lincoln is simply a sign to us that we are in danger, and must provide for our own safety.”

“You secede, then, solely because you think his election proves that the mass of the Northern people is adverse to you and your interests?”

“Yes.”

“So Mr. Wigfall of Texas hit the nail on the head, when he said substantially that the South cannot be at peace with the North until the latter concedes that slavery is right?”

“Well,—I admit it; that is precisely it.”

February

In February 1862, Abraham Lincoln borrowed Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Representative Men from the Library of Congress. The book, which is a collection of essays based on seven lectures delivered by Emerson, opens with a discussion on the role of “great men” in society. Each subsequent chapter highlights one of six individuals, Plato, Emanuel Swedenborg, Michel de Montaigne, William Shakespeare, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. About one week later, perhaps inspired by Emerson’s essays, the household borrowed volumes of Goethe's Werke. Incidentally, a sculpture of Goethe was placed in Chicago’s Lincoln Park in 1913.

March

President Lincoln borrowed a copy of David Hume’s The History of England, volumes 3 and 4, from the Library of Congress in March of 1863. These volumes cover the “History of the House of Tudor” in two parts.

April

President Lincoln borrowed Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, translated by John Dryden and revised by Arthur Hugh (A. H.) Clough, from the Library of Congress in April 1862. Commonly known as Plutarch’s Lives or Parallel Lives, and published in multiple volumes, the series originally contained 48 biographies. The biographies are all of famous men, presented in pairs (one Greek, one Roman) to explore character and parallel destinies. Clough was born in England and studied there, but spent a significant portion of his early childhood in Charleston, South Carolina in the U.S. He briefly returned to the States in the early 1850s, during which time he prepared his edited version of Plutarch’s Lives for publishers in Boston. In addition to his work in literature and educational theory, Clough was a devoted assistant to Florence Nightingale, with whom he was related by marriage. He was also brother to English suffragist and educationalist Anne Clough.

May

On Friday, May 9, 1862, in the area of Fort Monroe, Virginia, President Lincoln read aloud from Shakespeare’s King John to Colonel LeGrand B. Cannon, who wrote about the experience in his memoir.

*

According to Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, President Lincoln read dispatches from Generals Grant, Butler, and Sherman to his Cabinet on May 10th, 1864. Welles recorded in his diary that the reports were “all in good and encouraging tone.”  

June

Lincoln reportedly borrowed Harriet Beecher Stowe’s A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Presenting the Original Facts and Documents upon which the Story is Founded, from the Library of Congress in June 1862. The book was a compilation of primary sources on slavery, including those Stowe used for Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published the year prior, and was at least in part a response to the negative reviews of that book, some of which claimed she had fabricated or grossly exaggerated the horrors of slavery. Perhaps unsurprisingly, positive and negative reviews of Stowe’s follow-up publication were split along similar lines as the original book, with anti-slavery reviews offering more favorable comments and pro-slavery critics, no longer able to deny she had primary source evidence, accusing her of seeking out and selecting only the most horrific examples to support an anti-slavery agenda.

*

In June 1858, Abraham Lincoln read a speech to Republican leaders that he planned to deliver if nominated as their Senatorial candidate the next day. In a recollection years later, Ward Lamon claimed almost all advised Lincoln eliminate the paragraph about a “house divided” because it was too radical. The next day, Lincoln did received the nomination as expected and read his speech in full. The reportedly controversial lines of what has come to be known as the “House Divided” speech read,”

"A house divided against itself cannot stand.

I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.

I do not expect the Union to be dissolved -- I do not expect the house to fall -- but I do expect it will cease to be divided.

It will become all one thing or all the other.”

July

One month before the Dakota War of 1862, Lincoln reportedly borrowed a number of books from the Library of Congress including, The History of Minnesota: from the Earliest French Explorers to the Present Time, by Edward D. Neill. A couple of years later, after having served as an army chaplain to a regiment in Minnesota and at a hospital in Philadelphia, Neill served as an assistant secretary to the President. Neill reflected that Lincoln’s, “capacity for work was wonderful. While other men were taking recreation through the sultry months of summer, he remained in his office attending to the wants of the nation. He was never an idler or a lounger. Each hour he was busy.”

*

Abraham Lincoln read his first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation aloud to his cabinet on July 22nd, following on the previous day’s discussion about slavery. Views varied on whether, when, and how the proclamation should be issued, and what the consequences would be. Ultimately, Lincoln agreed with his Secretary of State’s recommendation to hold off on issuing the proclamation until the Union secured a military victory, which would strengthen its position. Two years later to the day, the cabinet viewed F. B. Carpenter's painting, still in progress, of Abraham Lincoln reading the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation to the cabinet. The final sentence of the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation read:

"And, as a fit and necessary military measure for effecting this object, I, as Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, do order and declare that on the first day of January in the year of Our Lord one thousand, eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any state or states, wherein the constitutional authority of the United States shall not then be practically recognized, submitted to, and maintained, shall then, thenceforward, and forever, be free."

August

According to John Hay, on August 23, 1863, after accompanying the President to the U.S. Naval Observatory to view the moon and the red giant star Arcturus, they retired to the Soldiers’ Home, where President Lincoln read aloud from, “the end of Henry V, and the beginning of Richard III, till my heavy eyelids caught his considerate notice, and he sent me to bed.”

*

Although not proof Mr. Lincoln read the books that month, in August 1862, Mrs. Lincoln purchased twenty-three titles including works of poetry, history, and natural history. One of the books was listed as “Sigourney Poems,” undoubtedly a reference to the work of accomplished poet, educator, author, and editor Lydia Huntley Sigourney of Connecticut. Another title was listed as “Kanes Expeditions,” certainly a reference to United States Navy medical officer and Arctic explorer Dr. Elisha Kent Kane’s expeditions. While the Lincolns paid for much of the purchase with their own funds, a portion was paid from the annual appropriation of $250 for books for the Executive Mansion, managed by Commissioner of Public Buildings Benjamin B. French.

September

Prior to reading the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation to his Cabinet in September 1862, President Lincoln shared a bit of humor, reading “High-Handed Outrage at Utica” by Artemus Ward (the pen name for Charles Farrar Browne). According to the Diary of Salmon P. Chase, President Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury, “All the members of the Cabinet were in attendance. There was some general talk; and the President mentioned that Artemus Ward had sent him his book. Proposed to read a chapter which he thought very funny. Read it, and seemed to enjoy it very much — the Heads also (except [Secretary of War] Stanton) of course.” Chase noted that Lincoln then took on a graver tone, and introduced his plans regarding the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. https://www.bartleby.com/library/prose/5547.html

*

On two separate occasions, separated by many years, in September, Abraham Lincoln received a copy of the Bible. The first, the Oxford Bible, was given to him in 1841 by Mrs. Lucy Speed. The second was presented to him in September 1864. According to the Washington Daily Morning Chronicle published September 8th of that year, “Yesterday afternoon a Bible was presented, on behalf of the loyal colored residents of Baltimore, by Revs. A. W. Wayman, S. W. Chase, and W. H. Brown, and Mr. William H. Francis, to President Lincoln. The members of the committee were introduced by Mr. S. Mathews, of Maryland, and individually welcomed by the President.”

October

In October 1861, Abraham Lincoln reportedly read, The Rejected Stone: or Insurrection vs. Resurrection in America, by Moncure D. Conway. Conway was an abolitionist minister though he was descended from slave-holding First Families of Virginia and Maryland, including one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence from Maryland. Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner gave Lincoln the book. [Link to book from google books]

Also this month in 1861, Lincoln read a dispatch announcing the death of his close friend, Colonel Edward D. Baker, namesake for the Lincolns’ son Edward “Eddy” Baker Lincoln, who had died over a decade earlier at the age of three.

*

According to John Hay, one of President Lincoln’s secretaries, on the night of October 11, 1864, he accompanied Lincoln to the War Department to wait for election returns. Hay reported that while waiting, Abraham Lincoln read several chapters of The Nasby Papers, a book of humorous writing by journalist and political commentator David R. Locke under the pen name, “Petroleum V. Nasby.” The fictional Nasby was a Copperhead or “Peace” Democrat.

November

In November 1863, Abraham Lincoln read the Gettysburg Address. He also read this letter https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/gettysburg-address/ext/trans-gracious.html written the very next day, November 20, 1863, from Edward Everett, the featured speaker at Gettysburg, who was both an accomplished statesmen and orator. While the reaction to Lincoln’s address was tepid at the time, Everett wrote, “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

Also this month in 1862, Abraham Lincoln read a collection of editorials by Henry Ward Beecher critiquing the president’s administration.

December

In December 1861, President Lincoln borrowed two items from the Library of Congress, "U.S. Constitution 1783" and "U.S. Constitution 1856." He borrowed them on two separate occasions that month, returning them on December 6th and checking them out again on December 30th. Lincoln regularly referred to the Constitution in key speeches earlier that year. For example, in his Inaugural Address in March 1861, he referenced the Constitution 34 times, underscoring the oath he had just taken to preserve, protect, and defend it. On the fourth of July that same year, he referenced the Constitution 27 times and noted, “Our popular Government has often been called an experiment. Two points in it our people have already settled--the successful establishing and the successful administering of it. One still remains--its successful maintenance against a formidable internal attempt to overthrow it.”

By contrast, in his first annual message to Congress in December 1861, the month he checked out the items twice, he made zero references to the U.S. Constitution. Instead, he made repeated references to Union and the war, reminding Congress that, “It continues to develop that the insurrection is largely, if not exclusively, a war upon the first principle of popular government--the rights of the people.” In addition to articulating challenges and threats caused by the ongoing rebellion, the message is notable for Lincoln’s extensive treatment of foreign relations and policy. Indeed, the message is the starting point for the Foreign Relations of the United States series, the historical record of all major U.S. foreign policy decisions and activity. He was setting a course for the future.