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Book Reviews

Lincoln’s Campaign Biographies

November 18, 2019

Thomas A. Horrocks. Lincoln’s Campaign Biographies, Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 2014, 168pp., $24.95.

This title is part of the “Concise Lincoln Library Series” put out by the Southern Illinois University Press. There are twelve other books in the series which, according to the publisher, “… fills a need for short studies of the life, times, and legacy of President Abraham Lincoln. Each book gives readers the opportunity to quickly achieve basic knowledge of a Lincoln-related topic, investigate previously overlooked subjects, and explore in greater depth topics that have not yet received book-length treatment.” Yes, that overview fits this book to a “T”: concise, succinct, to the point.

Dr. Horrocks is the Director of Special Collections and the John Hay Library at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. He recently was hired for this position, besting fifty other applicants in the process (we are impressed!). Prior to that, he was the Assistant Librarian for Special Collections at the Houghton Library at Harvard. At each institution, his responsibilities entailed or entail supervision and maintenance of extensive collections of Lincolniana. Many of us are “curators” of Lincoln collections as well, so it is nice to see an author who is throughly familiar with Lincoln material culture.

In his favor, Dr. Horrocks does not assign any greater importance to campaign biographies than they rightly merit. He does not select one, or several, and claim this is what got Lincoln elected. On the contrary, in his concluding comments, he questions how influential such books were, who read them, and whether any bloc of voters were swayed by them to support one candidate or another. Obviously, they were very popular in the 19th century. All one needs to do is peruse the listings on eBay. It seems that every copy of the biographies of Blaine & Logan or the Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant were saved and are now offered on-line. As candidates began to actively campaign in 1896 and thereafter, the number of published biographies dropped dramatically. In recent times, books written by former Presidents, commenting on their time in the White House, or on current policy questions, have risen in popularity to fill the void.

The book is well-written and all the facts presented are accurate. It first discusses in general the importance of print media in the political arena though the period of the Civil War, as well as technologies and demographics that played a role (the first chapter titled: “Texts, Contexts, and Contests: Politics and Print in the Age of Lincoln”). The next chapter talks about the role of biographies in image-making, summarizing the traditions and conventions of the campaign bio. The next two chapters talk about the election of 1860 where Lincoln was promoted as “The Rail Splitter” and the election of 1864 where he morphed into “Father Abraham”. A brief concluding chapter tries to put everything into perspective. There are many excerpts from the biographies themselves which most of us have not read. Lincoln’s sense of the importance of print media is stressed throughout. No president up until that time had so many photographs taken of him. The number of contemporary Lincoln biographies vastly exceed those issued for his opponents, not to mention prints where the disparity is staggering.

As the publisher’s overview indicates, this is a topic that has not been dealt with in any extensive detail in past works. Dr. Horrocks does an excellent job in introducing the topic to readers interested in the politics of the era. A series of articles on the topic, written by Dan Pearson, did appear in the pages of our journal several years ago. Those articles (“The Written Word”) gave the history of the publication of Lincoln biographies in 1860 and 1864. In addition, the titles appear in Monaghan’s reference work (mixed in with other titles, arranged chronologically). For a checklist, one needs to refer to “The Image Makers: A Bibliography of American Presidential Campaign Biographies” by William Miles. Such a checklist does not appear here, likely because it would be a redundancy and would not constitute new, previously unpublished material.

We did detect one omission which is that the study makes no mention of the series of Lincoln joke books issued during his Presidency. Although generally apocryphal and spurious, these are semi-biographical in nature and a brief discussion of them along with their importance in molding the Lincoln image would have been welcome. Also, several citations are made regarding the corruption of the Buchanan administration as an 1860 campaign issue. This issue, though real, paled in importance when compared to other issues of the campaign and the evidence suggests it had no significance. Ironically, Lincoln voters who hoped for an honest administration void of corrupt Pennsylvanians would have been appalled when Lincoln appointed Simon Cameron as Secretary of War. The more things change…

We congratulate Dr. Horrocks on this fine entry in the Lincoln bibliography and wish him great success in his new position.