Cover image for Becoming Lincoln
Becoming Lincoln
Physical Description:
x, 369 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
"A biographical account of Abraham Lincoln's rises and falls on his improbable path to becoming the president who ended slavery" --


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Book 973.7092 FRE 1 1

On Order



Shortlisted for the 2018 Lincoln Prize

Previous biographies of Abraham Lincoln--universally acknowledged as one of America's greatest presidents--have typically focused on his experiences in the White House. In Becoming Lincoln , renowned historian William Freehling instead emphasizes the prewar years, revealing how Lincoln came to be the extraordinary leader who would guide the nation through its most bitter chapter.

Freehling's engaging narrative focuses anew on Lincoln's journey. The epic highlights Lincoln's difficult family life, first with his father and later with his wife. We learn about the staggering number of setbacks and recoveries Lincoln experienced. We witness Lincoln's famous embodiment of the self-made man (although he sought and received critical help from others).

The book traces Lincoln from his tough childhood through incarnations as a bankrupt with few prospects, a superb lawyer, a canny two-party politician, a great orator, a failed state legislator, and a losing senatorial candidate, to a winning presidential contender and a besieged six weeks as a pre-war president.

As Lincoln's individual life unfolds, so does the American nineteenth century. Few great Americans have endured such pain but been rewarded with such success. Few lives have seen so much color and drama. Few mirror so uncannily the great themes of their own society. No one so well illustrates the emergence of our national economy and the causes of the Civil War.

The book concludes with a substantial epilogue in which Freehling turns to Lincoln's wartime presidency to assess how the preceding fifty-one years of experience shaped the Great Emancipator's final four years. Extensively illustrated, nuanced but swiftly paced, and full of examples that vividly bring Lincoln to life for the modern reader, this new biography shows how an ordinary young man from the Midwest prepared to become, against almost absurd odds, our most tested and successful president.

Author Notes

William W. Freehling is Singletary Professor of the Humanities Emeritus at the University of Kentucky and the author of the two-volume Road to Disunion and the Bancroft Award-winning Prelude to Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina, 1816-1830.

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

Awkward prose overwhelms whatever new insights Freehling (The Road to Disunion), humanities professor emeritus at the University of Kentucky, seeks to share in this Lincoln biography. He focuses on Lincoln's life before he assumed the presidency, reviewing his failures in detail rather than concentrating on his better-known successes. He starts with Lincoln's "dismal youth" and follows the vicissitudes of his political career, which included several electoral defeats and multiple unsuccessful terms as a state legislator. But this period of Lincoln's life is well-trodden ground, reexamined recently in books such as Sidney Blumenthal's multivolume The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln and David Herbert Donald's Lincoln. Rather than charting new paths, Freehling fills the text with diversions, giving his subjects awkward epithets ("the internal improvement apostle") or explaining why it is easier to wield an axe blade attached to a handle, and burying in a footnote a more substantive critique of Donald's portrayal of Lincoln as passive and fatalistic. The prose too often gets in its own way. ("The giant, no longer appearing to be all legs, now looked closer to all head, largely self-trained to tower.") This biography fails to justify its existence. (Sept.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Kirkus Review

A Bancroft Award-winning historian brings his considerable Civil War expertise to bear in searching for Abraham Lincoln's beginnings and the events that shaped him.Freehling (Emeritus, Humanities/Univ. of Kentucky; The Road to Disunion, Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant 1854-1861, 2007, etc.) shows how Lincoln's shame at his father's failures drove him to be better in everything he attempted. The author compares him to a Horatio Alger-type character, citing legends and comparisons that illustrated the self-made man who knew how to profit from setbacks. When he was a tall, lanky 7-year-old, his father put an axe in his hand to clear their land in Indiana. His father's disdain for education may have been the stimulus for his son's long years of reading aloud and alone over and over to commit to memory. What Tom gave his son was a gift for spinning hilarious tales, often crude but always memorable. Abraham's frontier charm was all his own. His intelligence, melancholy, and dedication attracted help throughout his life, especially during his excruciating reversals and historic triumphs. Serving in the Black Hawk War, he found his own old-boy network, the group of men who fed him, housed him, and, more importantly, helped him to learn surveying, the law, and politics. He would not forget their help when he was in Washington, D.C. His first short forays into elected office in the Illinois legislature and the U.S. Congress taught him the ins and outs of politics and the folly of extremism. As the author notes, Lincoln said very little about slavery. We know he abhorred it, but he also was wise enough to know that extremists on both sidesabolitionists and secessionistswere bound to cause war. His prime objective was to preserve the union. Built on Freehling's vast knowledge of the time period, this commendable biography shows the geographical division of opinions leading up to war and the life events that made the man who saved the union.A must for every Civil War library. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Choice Review

Abraham Lincoln accomplished much as president, and works on his political achievements are, of course, numerous. In Becoming Lincoln, Freehling (emer., humanities, Univ. of Kentucky) shows how Lincoln learned to become a skilled political operative by highlighting events in Lincoln's pre-presidential political career that show how Lincoln learned from both his successes and his failures. Freehling devotes much of the book to explaining how Lincoln, through various interpersonal relationships that developed on the frontier, came to understand the motivations of voters through their desire for personal opportunity. Lincoln's grasp of the concept of the self-made man, of which he himself was a great example, led him to understand not only the desires of potential voters, but also the desire for freedom among the nation's slaves. Lincoln was not an egalitarian by today's standards, but his adherence to personal freedom explains his decision-making as a young politician. Lincoln was often defeated when running for office, but his losses, as Freehling demonstrates, were less about personal shortcomings and more about unwillingness to deny the opportunity to others that had given him the chance to rise in status. A very readable and well-argued volume, Becoming Lincoln will become a standard in Lincoln biographies. Summing Up: Essential. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty; general readers. --Steven J. Ramold, Eastern Michigan University

Library Journal Review

Historian Freehling (The Road to Disunion) examines President Abraham Lincoln's process of becoming the person who, in the end, advocated for emancipation from slavery after years of moderation on the issue. Freehling portrays Lincoln as an ambitious young man who wished to escape his family's past; where Lincoln's father moved about and "failed," Lincoln sought to settle down and move up, which he did after he made Springfield, IL, his home, and law and politics his profession. The author's major contributions are his demonstration that Lincoln looked to juries and judges as the true democratic bulwark of a republic along with his close and cogent analyses of Lincoln's speeches, up to his First Inaugural Address, in which one witnesses Lincoln working out the constitutional possibilities in addressing slavery and the political risks in doing so. Lincoln went from looking for ways to end slavery with slaveholders' consent in order to preserve the Union to a final recognition that slavery must die so that the Union might live. VERDICT Freehling's readable and telling account shows that Lincoln "becoming Lincoln" was inexorable but not inevitable and, with that, reveals the contingencies and contradictions defining America, then and now.-Randall M. Miller, St. Joseph's Univ., Philadelphia © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.