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Becoming Lincoln

William W. Freehling

BUY Cloth · 384 pp. · 6.13 × 9.25 · ISBN 9780813941561 · $29.95 · Sep 2018
BUY Ebook · 384 pp. · ISBN 9780813941578 · $29.95 · Sep 2018

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.


About the Author: 

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.

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