A President’s Reading List

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln was a reader all his life. His love of literature shaped his views as well as his political policies.

Born into a poor family in a log cabin in Kentucky, Abraham Lincoln had very little formal schooling. What he did have, however, was drive and determination. This drive and determination led young Abe to educate himself. He read anything he could get his hands on. The books Abe chose would ultimately give him a unique world view that would lead him to become one of America’s greatest presidents.

What Lincoln Read

As a boy, Abe Lincoln loved to read collections of fables and parables. It is believed that he actually memorized Aesop’s Fables. Abe also studied the Bible intensely. Later in life, he enjoyed political satire, especially David R. Locke’s “Petroleum V. Nasby” and Robert H. Newell’s “Orpheus C. Kerr.” Abe was never really a fan of fiction, although he admitted to a failed attempt at reading the works of Walter Scott.

Abe really loved poetry and the spoken word. Among his favorite writers were Scottish poet Robert Burns and Edgar Allan Poe. Abe knew Poe’s The Raven by heart. His absolute favorite literature was Shakespeare. (Interestingly, the greatest Shakespearean actor of Lincoln’s day was Edwin Booth, the brother of the sixteenth president’s would-be assassin.) He could quote large portions of plays such as Macbeth, which intrigued Lincoln due to its theme of the corruptive effects of power on society’s leaders. Prone to melancholy moods, Lincoln often read meditative selections, including William Knox’s Mortality. (Lincoln suffered bouts of depression and chronicled them in literary works of his own.)

How Reading Made Lincoln a Great Leader

Lincoln’s prolific reading undeniably helped make him a great leader. Reading helped President Lincoln make crucial decisions during the Civil War. For example, when Lincoln had to negotiate with Union generals,who were often clueless, he would go to the Library of Congress and check out books on military strategy. Through educating himself on military strategy, President Lincoln was able to help the Union generals ultimately win the Civil War.

In addition, Lincoln’s knowledge of Shakespeare and theatre gave him insight into the human psyche. This insight made Lincoln a formidable and successful politician. Also, Lincoln’s homespun intellect made him a capable leader who could also connect with his constituents. Most importantly, President Lincoln’s knowledge of the world around him and empathy towards the needs of others allowed him to lead the nation through its darkest hour. Thus, the literary world and the political world are closely intertwined.


  1. Various authors. “Illinois Lawyer,” excepted from Abraham Lincoln: An Illustrated History of His Life and Times, p. 47. Time Inc. Home Entertainment, 2009.