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Becoming Lincoln

William W. Freehling

BUY Cloth · 384 pp. · 6.125 × 9.25 · ISBN 9780813941561 · $29.95 · Sep 2018
BUY Ebook · 384 pp. · ISBN 9780813941578 · $29.95 · Sep 2018

Lincoln Prize - FINALIST, Gettysburg College & Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History (2019); Annual Achievement Award, The Lincoln Group of New York (2019); CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title, American Library Association (2019)

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.


In this quietly passionate and deeply learned book, the great William Freehling offers us a compelling portrait of the most dominant yet perennially elusive of Americans: Abraham Lincoln. As the leading historian of the road to disunion, Freehling has, in a way, spent decades building toward this subject, and the result is a delight to read.

Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House

The eloquent and touching story William Freehling tells here reveals an ambitious, struggling Abraham Lincoln, emerging in all his human complexity. It is a surprising story of a man we thought we knew.

Edward L. Ayers, Lincoln Prize-winning author of The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America

This important book proves that something new can indeed be said about Lincoln's antebellum career. Freehling deftly shows how the future Emancipator fused his early economic and political nationalism with a moral detestation of slavery to become the Republican leader of 1860. The narrative skillfully portrays how Lincoln learned from political mistakes and misfortunes to recover from repeated defeats and attain the greatest prize of all.

James M. McPherson, Princeton University, is the author most recently of The War That Made a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters

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.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

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.... A very readable and well-argued volume, Becoming Lincoln will become a standard in Lincoln biographies.


[A]n especially shrewd account of Lincoln’s political formation.... To read along in such a chronicle is like watching an expert carver give shape to something otherwise formless or burdened by a profusion of material. Excess is cut away, leaving a clean narrative that is bracing in its directness. The facts of Lincoln’s pre-Cviil War years—his rise from a Kentucky log cabin to the presidency, his years as an Illinois politician and lawyer, and his experiences as a husband and father—come newly alive, not least thanks to Mr. Freehling’s accessible, sometimes tart, style.

Wall Street Journal

After a lifetime devoted to the study of proslavery radicalism, William Freehling... has produced a characteristically audacious study of Abraham Lincoln. In his telling, Lincoln’s life is a series of ups and downs, promising starts, crushing failures, and impressive recoveries.... No revisionist ever cast such an unflinching eye on the horrors of slavery. In half a dozen important books and thousands of pages of deeply researched scholarship, Freehling has traced the rise of an arrogant slaveholding aristocracy whose destruction was necessary for the preservation of American democracy.

New York Review of Books

Becoming Lincoln reveals a principled politician who tried to reconcile short-term partisan needs with consequential long-term national goals...Freehling adroitly charts his own course through a minefield of contradictory evidence... [I]nsiders will see how his multidimensional Lincoln harmonizes disparate interpretations.

Daniel W. Crofts · Civil War Book Review

This captivating book focuses on Lincoln’s journey to the presidency... The author of The Road to Disunion, Freehling considers Lincoln’s thoughts of and his relationship with his father and his failures. This relationship, Professor Freehling argues, is the driving force behind Lincoln’s constant effort to excel in his work.

Civil War Book Review

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