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Johns Hopkins UniversityArts and Sciences Magazine

He Wrote the Book on Lincoln

Michael Burlingame

Michael Burlingame PhD ’71

Ask a bunch of kindergarteners about Abraham Lincoln, and they can probably tell you about his log cabin childhood, his hardworking nature, his rise to the presidency and his emancipation of slaves. Lincoln is one of the most widely researched Americans in history, the subject of thousands of books, from biographies and histories to cookbooks and comics.

Because of this level of scrutiny it is hard to believe there is any aspect of Lincoln's life that hasn't been uncovered. And yet that's what Michael Burlingame PhD '71 has done in his new book Abraham Lincoln: A Life (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008).

Authenticating 200 anonymous newspaper op-eds as Lincoln's, discovering two little-known speeches about Lincoln that were given by Frederick Douglass, and revealing the unethical conduct of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, Burlingame's 2,000-page, two-volume, cradle-to-grave biography provides a rich, compelling portrait of the 16th president.

Burlingame, the author and editor of a dozen Lincoln books, has been researching Lincoln for 25 years. His latest book came out of all of the new information he has uncovered over the years by spending hours painstakingly going through old newspapers and sifting through personal letters of U.S. congressmen, military generals, and other public figures.

"I get great satisfaction from finding some new statement about Lincoln or by Lincoln," says Burlingame, the Sadowski Professor of History Emeritus at Connecticut College. "Really it's like sifting for gold. You have to sift a lot of gravel to find the gold nugget, but you can."

Reviewers and readers agree that Burlingame's book is extraordinary. Publisher's Weekly named Abraham Lincoln: A Life as one of its best books of the year. Reviewer James L. Swanson wrote, "This book supplants Sandburg and supersedes all other biographies. Future Lincoln books cannot be written without it, and from no other book can a general reader learn so much about Abraham Lincoln. It is the essential title for the bicentennial." Despite the book's heft and its $125 price tag, it's already in its second printing.

Burlingame was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in the shadow of the White House, Ford's Theatre, and the Lincoln Memorial. When he arrived at Princeton University in 1960, he learned that his prior study of European history at Phillips Academy Andover meant he could enroll in the Civil War course taught by noted Lincoln historian David Herbert Donald. Burlingame became fascinated by Civil War history and became Donald's research assistant.

When Donald, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, came to Hopkins in 1962, Burlingame followed and worked under Donald's tutelage as a graduate student. "Professor Donald was very, very generous and couldn't have been more kind and supportive and nurturing," says Burlingame, 67. "If he had been a medievalist I probably would have gone into studying the Middle Ages."

Burlingame spent his entire academic career teaching American history at Connecticut College. He retired in 2001 when he realized that he needed to devote all of his time to completing Abraham Lincoln: A Life in time for the president's 200th birthday year.

Being a Lincoln biographer during the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth is a bit like playing in an Irish band around St. Patrick's Day. Burlingame has spent much of the first quarter of 2009 traveling around the country, speaking at universities, historical societies, and bookstores. When he's not writing, the Mystic, Conn., resident is a "music fanatic" who likes to hear live classical music and operas and often travels to Boston or Chicago or New York for concerts and performances.

The historian is currently at work on a one-volume abridgement of his biography and has several other Lincoln-related projects to complete. Lincoln has been a trusted companion to Burlingame, and he's not about to let him go.

"Lincoln is such an inspiration," Burlingame says. "Lincoln's mother dies when he is nine, and his father is a very unsympathetic soul. His sweetheart dies, and he has a terrible marriage. He has a painful midlife crisis, suffers serious career setbacks, and has a tendency to depression. And yet he is able to overcome all that and not just become a world historic figure, but to become a very psychologically mature and balanced whole person, and I think we can all profit from his example."