Celebrating Our 16th on the 16th

By Deborah Jensen 

We remain fascinated with Abraham Lincoln, our 16th president, and as this year marks the 150th anniversary of his assassination, as well as the end of the Civil War, the number and diversity of titles focusing on Honest Abe are up.

Jill Lepore calls Mourning Lincoln (coming on 2/24) by Martha Hodes “a close and deeply disturbing study of how it seemed, to Americans who disagreed with one another, that ‘Lincoln’s assassination stopped the world.’” Hodes examines diaries, letters, and other personal writings penned during the spring and summer of 1865 to capture the range of reactions to the president’s death. Writing in Newsday, Tom Beer says Hodes “analyzes the unprecedented national outpouring of grief.”

Lepore finds Richard Wightman Fox’s Lincoln’s Body “an astonishingly interesting interpretation of the uses to which Lincoln has been put in the century and a half since (the assassination)… Fox is wonderfully shrewd and often dazzling.” Much has been made of The Rail-Splitter’s physicality—his lankiness, height, walk; he died on a bed too small for his body—and Beer notes this book “examines how we view the president’s ungainly physical presence in life and in death.”

In President Lincoln Assassinated! (also pubbing on 2/24), Harold Holzer evokes the dramatic immediacy of Lincoln’s assassination, telling the story using more than 80 original documents—eyewitness reports, medical records, trial transcripts, newspaper articles, eulogies, letters—by more than 75 participants and observers. He includes a diary entry by John Wilkes Booth, and Boston Corbett, the soldier who shot him. There are two emotional speeches by Frederick Douglass—one of them never before published.

Richard Brookhiser, in Founders’ Son, positions The Great Emancipator as “a leader who applied the doctrines of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in accordance with the founders’ intentions in order to chart his way through a new national crisis,” in the words of Drew Gilpin Faust. Faust goes on to remark that “by the end of the Civil War, Lincoln not only differed from the founders; he also differed from his earlier self.” The experience that remodeled the nation also remade the man.