A. Lincoln: A Biography

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Everyone wants to define the man who signed his name “A. Lincoln.” In his lifetime and ever since, friend and foe have taken it upon themselves to characterize Lincoln according to their own label or libel. In this magnificent book, Ronald C. White, Jr., offers a fresh and compelling definition of Lincoln as a man of integrity—what today's commentators would call “authenticity”—whose moral compass holds the key to understanding his life. Through meticulous research of the newly completed Lincoln Legal Papers, as ...

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Everyone wants to define the man who signed his name “A. Lincoln.” In his lifetime and ever since, friend and foe have taken it upon themselves to characterize Lincoln according to their own label or libel. In this magnificent book, Ronald C. White, Jr., offers a fresh and compelling definition of Lincoln as a man of integrity—what today's commentators would call “authenticity”—whose moral compass holds the key to understanding his life. Through meticulous research of the newly completed Lincoln Legal Papers, as well as of recently discovered letters and photographs, White provides a portrait of Lincoln's personal, political, and moral evolution. A transcendent, sweeping, passionately written Volume that expands our knowledge and understanding of its subject, A. Lincoln will engage a whole new generation of Americans.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

This 832-page Lincoln biography stakes a vast claim, and achieves it. Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War-era scholar James M. McPherson (a Lincoln biographer himself; cf. below) ushers it in with superlatives. "Ronald C. White's A. Lincoln," he writes, "is the best biography of Lincoln since David Donald's Lincoln. In many respects it is better than Donald's biography, because it has incorporated the scholarship of the past fourteen years and is written in a fluent style that will appeal to a large range of general readers as well as Lincoln aficionados." A must-have book for lovers of our most beloved president. Now in paperback.

From the Publisher
“Looking for a comprehensive birth-to-death bio? This is the answer.”USA Today

“Does the world really need another Lincoln bio? White’s exhaustive yet accessible work tips the scales to yes.”People

“This thoroughly researched book belongs on the A-list of major biographies of the tall Illinoisian; it’s a worthy companion for all who admire Lincoln’s prose and his ability to see into, and explain, America’s greatest crisis.”The Washington Post Book World

“This brilliant account of the man and his times will be the standard for biographers.”San Francisco Chronicle

“A page-turner . . . White has managed a complex narrative with the ease and zest of the novelist.”The Buffalo News

“While this is a serious, weighty book, it’s also enormously readable, illuminating Lincoln’s intellectual prowess and personal magnetism in a way we’ve rarely seen before.”Chicago Tribune (10 Top Books About Lincoln)

“Comprehensive . . . an admirable account of the life in full.”Los Angeles Times

“A vivid and readable narrative . . . [White] is that rarity: a scholar who can tell a good story.”The Miami Herald

“The torrent of Lincoln books past and present . . . means that the bar is necessarily set high. A. Lincoln . . . [is] among the most substantial new entrants.”The Economist

“Impressive.”U.S. News & World Report

“Comprehensive . . . Taking advantage of newly available resources . . . Mr. White delivers a strong narrative . . . [aimed] at the general reader.”The Wall Street Journal

“Lincoln is endlessly chronicled because he is, like the nation he saved, endlessly fascinating. Ronald C. White has written a splendid, sprawling biography of a man we can never know too much about.”—Jon Meacham, author of Thomas Jefferson and American Lion

“Ronald C. White, an acknowledged expert on the speeches of Abraham Lincoln, has now taken in hand a full-length biography. To this task he brings the careful reading, patient attention to context, and special sensitivity to complex questions about Lincoln's religion that characterized his earlier books. The result is a first-rate study that will probably be THE biography of the Lincoln Bicentennial Year.”—Mark A. Noll, Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History, University of Notre Dame

“Having given us two masterful studies of Lincoln's eloquence, Ronald C. White now delivers a riveting biography. This page-turner narrates all the major events of Lincoln's public career, including his military decision-making, but it does much more. No other book has so completely captured the elusive temperament of the man— his humility and confidence, heart and intellect, religious spirit and secular sensibility. If you thought you knew Lincoln already, you'll know him better after reading this patient, probing work. A portrait for the ages.”—Richard Wightman Fox, Professor of History, University of Southern California

“Ron White’s A. Lincoln is a superb biography of America’s greatest leader. It is fully fleshed, thoughtful, provocative, and scholarly. Lincoln is never out of fashion. After a generation during which three comprehensive one-volume Lincoln biographies appeared—Benjamin P. Thomas’s Abraham Lincoln: A Biography in 1952; Stephen B. Oates’s With Malice Toward None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln in 1977; and David Donald’s Lincoln in 1995—A. Lincoln: A Biography, with its rich detail, will be the standard text for years to come. The author includes the religious connections to his subject like no other biographer. This is a remarkable Lincoln biography by an outstanding writer.”—Frank J. Williams, Founding Chair of The Lincoln Forum and Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court

”Lincoln’s bicentennial will bring a flood of books about the sixteenth president. Anyone seeking an expansive, thoroughly engaging biography should turn to Ronald C. White’s gracefully written narrative. It does full justice to the complexity and drama of the era and allows readers to understand how Lincoln ultimately triumphed in guiding the nation through its greatest trial.”—Gary W. Gallagher, John L. Nau III Professor of History, University of Virginia

“Ronald C. White’s A. Lincoln is the best biography of Lincoln since David Donald’s Lincoln. In many respects it is better than Donald’s biography, because it has incorporated the scholarship of the past fourteen years and is written in a fluent style that will appeal to a large range of general readers as well as Lincoln aficionados. The special strengths that lift this work above other biographies include a brilliant analysis of Lincoln’s principal speeches and writings, which were an important weapon in his political leadership and statesmanship, and on which Ronald C. White is the foremost expert, having written two major books on Lincoln’s speeches and writings.  Another strength is White’s analysis of Lincoln's evolving religious convictions, which shaped the core of his effective leadership, his moral integrity. White’s discussion of Lincoln’s changing attitudes and policies with respect to slavery and race is also a key aspect of this biography. Amid all the books on Lincoln that will be published during the coming year, this one will stand out as one of the best.”—James M. McPherson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Battle Cry of Freedom

“A beautifully written, deeply personal story of Lincoln’s life and service to his country. Ronald C. White’s moving account is particularly strong in its analyses of Lincoln’s rhetoric and the process by which the president reached decisions.”—Daniel Walker Howe, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848

“Each generation requires–and seems to inspire–its own masterly one-volume Lincoln biography, and scholar Ronald C. White has crowned the bicentennial year with an instant classic for the twenty-first century. Wise, scholarly, evenhanded, and elegant, the book at once informs and inspires, with a rewarding new emphasis on the complex meaning and timeless importance of Lincoln’s great words. Brimming with new anecdotes and informed interpretations, White’s superb study brings vivid new life to an American immortal.”—Harold Holzer, author of Lincoln: President-Elect, and co-chairman, Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission

David W. Blight
How daunting it must be for any biographer to take on Lincoln's life in this crowded literary marketplace! But this thoroughly researched book belongs on the A-list of major biographies of the tall Illinoisan; it's a worthy companion for all who admire Lincoln's prose and his ability to see into, and explain, America's greatest crisis.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Starred Review.

In this excellent biography, veteran historian White emphasizes that Lincoln was our most likable major president, lacking Washington's aloofness and the deviousness of FDR and Jefferson. Many young men from the frontier overcame the handicaps of poverty and minimal education, but, White says, Lincoln did better than most, becoming floor leader in the Illinois legislature by age 30 and a prosperous lawyer. Contrary to the common view that Lincoln was a dark-horse for the 1860 presidential nomination after a single, undistinguished term in the House of Representatives, White stresses that Lincoln was an experienced politician, popular throughout Illinois, and known to national leaders. Few Republicans thought they had chosen badly. The author makes good use of Lincoln's voluminous private papers and those of his contemporaries to paint a vivid picture of Lincoln's thoughts as he matured and then guided the nation through the four worst years of its existence. White knows his subject cold and writes lucid prose, so readers choosing this as their Lincoln bicentennial reading will not go wrong. Illus., maps, photos.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Library Journal

White (history, visiting, Univ. of California, Los Angeles; Lincoln's Greatest Speech) offers a massive biography for the upcoming bicentennial of Lincoln's birth. He follows the familiar trajectory of the 16th President's life; what's unique is his insight into the moral and intellectual framework of Lincoln's thinking. White asserts that Lincoln was deeply suspicious of anyone who embraced absolutes; in true lawyer fashion, he could present all sides of an issue with equal force. Yet when it came to theological and political convictions Lincoln possessed guiding principles: he believed in an omnipotent and active Supreme Being and the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Through a careful analysis of Lincoln's speeches, public and private letters, and personal notes, White skillfully evokes Lincoln's working out of these principles. He reveals a Lincoln whose evolving attitudes toward race, slavery, and war aims culminated in his magisterial second inaugural address on March 4, 1864, which proclaimed that slavery was at the heart of the fraternal holocaust and that the time had come for all Americans to bring forth a new nation "with malice toward none; with charity for all." An exceptional work that belongs in every public and academic library.
—Jim Doyle

Kirkus Reviews
Huntington Library fellow White (The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words, 2005, etc.) offers a lively, comprehensive life of the 16th president. Known variously throughout his career as "Honest Abe," "Old Abe," "the Rail-Splitter," "the original gorilla," "the dictator," "the Great Emancipator" and "Father Abraham," Lincoln referred to himself in famously self-deprecating terms and signed his name simply as "A. Lincoln." That's all that was simple, though, about this unusually "shut-mouthed" man, who from youth burned for public distinction. White's highly readable, picturesque presentation follows Lincoln's life from the pioneer birth and boyhood to the presidential assassination, with especially good passages on Lincoln's ancestry, his Springfield law practice and his emergence from the political wilderness in 1858. White doesn't shy away from Lincoln's shortcomings-his ferocious ambition, his opportunism, his woeful performance as a husband-but this mostly admiring treatment highlights his virtues, not least his ability to draw on the talents of diverse personalities, use the best of their advice and deftly manipulate them to advantage, whether as a militia captain, a state legislator, a party organizer a candidate or a president. White's triumph, though, is his focus on the forging of Lincoln's moral character-how the private man used contemplation, reading, experience, the press of events and the teachings of his political heroes to clarify his own political identity. Splendidly, and unsurprisingly given his past scholarship, White pays particular attention to language, referencing the innumerable scraps of paper Lincoln wrote to himself, public and privateletters and formal addresses. He graphically depicts Lincoln thinking, first tentatively, and then logically working through the thicket of a problem to a lawyerly understanding and, finally, with his singular combination of "homely and high language," to an exquisite expression of meaning and purpose. Likely to be frequently cited during the bicentennial celebration of Lincoln's birth.
The Barnes & Noble Review
A. Lincoln was the way our greatest president most often signed his name, providing the title of Ronald C. White Jr.'s biography. Maybe that modest job of rebranding will make White's interpretation look more idiosyncratic to history buffs, and if so, Random House will say hosannah. Anything to stand out from the truckloads of Lincolnania rumbling toward bookstores in the bicentennial year of his birth.

You may have heard Chris Matthews effusing about how that milestone has been given fresh pizzazz by the election of another lanky enigma from Illinois. Not least because B. Obama owes A. Lincoln in more than one sense, I'm wishing him the best. So far as his 19th-century role model goes, however, it's tempting to ignore the punctuation mark and think of White's A. Lincoln as A Lincoln instead.

That's because, as White himself concedes, defining "the" Lincoln has stayed above any would-be interpreter's pay grade since the day he was assassinated. Call it our bum luck William Shakespeare not only lived in the wrong country but died a few centuries too early to take a crack at the job.

To understand why, consider the distance between the two representations of White's subject most familiar to Americans. First comes the Abe on the humble penny, an unpretentious co-citizen we've seen fit to commemorate on the commonest of U.S. coins. It might not still be in circulation if the image weren't so democratically iconic.

The other, though, is the Lincoln enthroned in shadows in the most moving of our capital's memorials. Magnificent, somehow terrible -- and in his isolation, unmistakably unique -- he's also unfathomable. No other statue in Washington, D.C., makes visitors so conscious of looking up at it, one reason the place's usual hush often has underpinnings of disquiet.

What makes him such an uncanny figure in our history is that for once his compatriots can't make life easy on themselves by saying that the truth must lie between the two extremes. In fact, it encompasses them both. The cracker-barrel Lincoln did exist, not always to his contemporaries' delight. One brutal cartoon during his presidency -- and there were many of those -- had him saying, "That reminds me of a funny story," as he contemplated the Civil War's rising death toll. But his Mark Twain side masked a calm skill in manipulating other people's goals and motives to his own ends that would have impressed Machiavelli.

Nor is that all, since the innermost Lincoln would have been at home -- and felt at home, whether we care to dwell on it or not -- in the world of Poe and Melville. It's not just that his prose's somber cadences make him their literary equal. At his most mysterious -- or most "fundamental and astounding," if you like -- our Honest Abe was also Honest Ahab, pursuing his one overwhelming goal at all costs: "Until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword," to quote the Second Inaugural again. If Poe had been elected president in his place -- and don't blink, since they were born all of three weeks apart -- the author of "The Raven" couldn't have come up with a malediction more frightening.

In Lincoln's case, like Ahab's, the cost included his own martyrdom. Unlike the Pequod's maniacal master, though, he died knowing that he'd won, most likely with secular sainthood included in the bargain. And call us Moby-Dick, since we were the soiled whale he'd saved instead of killing it: something also in his power, as he knew. Those were the stakes.

As you may not be shocked to hear, the hero of A. Lincoln has no streaks of alarming Poe-like morbidity or Melvillian obsessiveness to speak of. Nor does Machiavellian guile rate more than a hasty nod or two. Though it's absorbing and clearly the product of devoted (meaning, I'm afraid, both assiduous and blinkered) research, White's version stays inside the David McCullough school of patriotic biography. Said school's unstated rule is that on no account must America's giants ever disturb us.

Our past's great men do get granted a few quiddities, since they wouldn't hold our interest if they were all bonnet and no bee. They're even praised for their pleasantly moth-eaten -- that is, inconsequential to modern readers -- intellectual complexity. By the final curtain, though, they always stand revealed as selfless agents in a great project: the creation or, by Lincoln's time, the preservation of a nation.

Not only is the project's grandeur, as we used to say, self-evident. Out of bounds is any suggestion that our forefathers were more than intermittently goaded (and never primarily, of course) by the same impulses as their counterparts in wicked Europe all through history. You know: an itch for fame, a hunger for power, a craving to validate their outsized sense of their own capacities on the biggest possible stage. As Lyndon Johnson learned to his sorrow, believing that great good can come from schemers is anathema to our DNA.

No wonder two of the most revealing comments on Lincoln by admirers who knew him well appear nowhere in White's text. Both make dandy correctives to secular sainthood, desentimentalizing Lincoln without debunking him. Here's William Herndon, his Springfield law partner and posthumous biographer: "His ambition was a little engine that knew no rest." And here's his White House secretary, John Hay: "No great man is ever modest. It was his intellectual arrogance and unconscious assumption of superiority that men like Chase and Sumner could never forgive."

Chase was Salmon P. Chase, the Treasury secretary Lincoln later packed off to the Supreme Court. Sumner was haughty Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, the Senate's leading abolitionist. What they had in common with the president who outmaneuvered them both was that all three were career politicians. The difference was that Lincoln was a peerless one: "cold and deliberate, reflective and brilliant," in Gore Vidal's -- favorable, understand -- characterization.

Granted, at one level that assessment suggests how much Vidal, no less than the mawkish eulogists he's rebuking, began his search for Lincoln's best qualities by looking in the mirror. But with the enormously touching exception of "Father Abraham's" leniency to the Union deserters whose death sentences he so often commuted, it would be hard to cite a single important presidential decision Lincoln made based on sentiment.

The truth is, if he'd been wrong instead of supremely right about all the important things -- in other words, if he'd had Jefferson Davis's job, not an impossible scenario; we're just lucky the Lincolns chose to migrate north from Kentucky soon after Abe's birth, while the Davises opted for Dixie -- we'd remember him as diabolical. No other White House occupant equals him in caginess, tenacity, keen intuition of the forces in play or acute sense of what the traffic will bear.

The best evidence is the Emancipation Proclamation, justly remembered as a mighty step forward in making good on our ideals. Yet in everything from its timing to its hedged application only to the Confederate states, not to mention the devious military-necessity pretext that let Lincoln claim he was acting in his role as commander in chief, it was also a masterstroke of bald-faced opportunism. That's not a quality we're used to praising in our oddly Ahab-bearded demigod.

Predictably, White does genuflect once or twice to Lincoln's "political genius." So long as the term's meaning stays cloudy, it's safely part of the legend. But White doesn't show much interest in elucidating A.'s M.O., which it isn't altogether clear he even understands. We're told more than once that the secret of the pre-presidential Lincoln's effectiveness as a public speaker was his supposedly thoughtful readiness "to engage in the hard task of examining an opponent's arguments fully and fairly...his ability to attribute the best motives to those who were his opponents."

All this is news to me. What White doesn't seem to grasp is that the rhetorical tactic Lincoln is employing in every example we're given is that of Julius Caesar's Mark Anthony: "For Brutus is an honorable man," and so on. Not only was he steeped in Shakespeare, but it plainly wasn't mere leisure reading.

The larger point that's gone MIA in A. Lincoln is the degree to which the sublime achievements for which we venerate Lincoln were made possible only by the canniness and even ruthlessness of Honest Ahab's political gifts. Instead, White goes the old-fashioned hymnal route by hailing Lincoln's "moral integrity" as "the strong trunk from which all the branches of his life grew," so help me. Such corn is still less inane than his claim that "Lincoln is the president who laughs with us," a fortunately undeveloped line of thinking that had me planning to greet John Wilkes Booth with open arms and a sob of frenzied gratitude.

The problem with singling out moral integrity as Lincoln's strong suit is that, in itself, it was hardly an outstanding quality at the time. Countless upright Unionists and abolitionists shared his principles, and plenty of them did so not only with considerable eloquence but more zeal than he ever allowed himself to display. None of them had anything as subtle as his sense of the ripe moment or ability to reframe an issue for maximum leverage -- culminating, of course, in the Gettysburg Address's majestically sneaky substitution of the Declaration of Independence for the Constitution as American holy writ. Abolitionists who faulted Lincoln for insufficient radicalism never realized they were noisy men comparing themselves to a horse whisperer.

White, though, has other priorities. They're signaled up front by his allusion to Lincoln's "spiritual odyssey," which 500-odd pages later has become a full-blown "religious pilgrimage." That's the propagandist rather than the scholar in him speaking, since Lincoln's religious skepticism before he entered politics is so well documented that even Phyllis Schafly couldn't ignore it.

Even the mounting references to "God" and "the Almighty" in his wartime speeches -- as well as one private note found after his death, which White naturally prizes as the smoking-incense proof of A.'s fealty -- don't place him in the bosom of conventional Christianity. Right up to the end, his unfailingly gloomy "Almighty," whose most useful role as a foil is that He's always taking matters out of Lincoln's hands, sounds a lot like what 18th-century deists called Providence and Greeks and Romans called the Fates.

Anyhow, two things should always be kept in mind when evaluating Lincoln's sayings and writings. One is his audience; the other, his purpose. We'll never be able to guess his intentions for either when it came to the manuscript of Infidelity, a youthful refutation of Christian dogma his far-sighted employer at the time promptly burned. (White hurries past the episode.) But by 1858 if not much earlier, Lincoln more than understood a not quite self-evident truth: "Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently, he who moulds sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions."

White quotes that analysis without pausing to reflect that anyone capable of such a perception is unlikely to set too high a value on unadorned candor. Not even while jotting down notes to himself in a White House sitting room, at least if you ask me. Pen to paper is the decisive ingredient here.

At a workaday level, White does a lot of things well. One major virtue is a well-organized narrative that keeps us appraised of the big-picture stuff -- the Dred Scott case, the Republican party's emergence -- without losing track of Lincoln's progress. Future key players in his career are introduced in just enough depth to ensure we'll remember them down the road.

White also has an eye for vivifying detail, something David Herbert Donald's otherwise superior 1995 Lincoln -- still the benchmark for modern biographies of A. -- too often lacked. Since we always picture Lincoln frock-coated, his 1848 appearance "in a long linen duster" at a Whig rally in Worcester, Massachusetts, jolts us into recalling that then Illinois still qualified as the frontier.

A decade later, when Lincoln debates Stephen Douglas, White is at his best. He animates the Great Waxworks Moment we know from so many textbooks by concentrating on the specifics of their encounters: the variations in local attitudes toward slavery at each stop, the debaters' relative state of exhaustion. As he says, "In the 1850s, in rural and small towns across Illinois, politics was often the only show in town." He brings that out by giving us what amounts to a good job of ex post facto sportswriting.

A. Lincoln has other nice touches, including the cross-cutting between Lincoln's and Jefferson Davis's train journeys to their respective inaugurals. It's not on a par with the grander contrast between them that opens Shelby Foote's monumental The Civil War, but it's effective. Even more so is White's use of Frederick Douglass as a sort of instant commentator on each stage of A.'s frustratingly slow -- to Douglass, anyhow -- public evolution from Unionist to Great Emancipator. In hindsight, Lincoln's caution looks expertly modulated. But Douglass's frequently dismayed opinion of his pokiness can't be gainsaid.

All the same, White's limitations get more obvious once A. is in the White House. His account of how the Emancipation Proclamation came to be pulls out all the stops: the midnight oil, the hesitations, the brooding. But he never brings up Lincoln's pressing tactical motive -- the need to forestall France and Britain, both anti-slavery but craving southern cotton, from recognizing the Confederacy.

In general, foreign affairs stay just that to White. Even Mexico, then occupied by Napoleon III's glum troops, is largely off his radar. Still, his provincial bias is unlikely to bother American readers much; they mostly share it, after all. Far more annoying is the way his determination to give us a Father Knows Best Lincoln includes attributing likable human frailties to him that he didn't in fact possess.

One bizarre example is White's treatment of a minor episode in Lincoln's presidency: his decision to sack his first secretary of war, the problematic Simon Cameron. In fretful tones, White wonders whether A. took too long to remove him. Then he sagaciously informs us that "Lincoln's loyalty was a strong character trait that sometimes overrode his judgment."

In this case -- and White cites no others -- that's nonsense. Lincoln had no personal or even professional ties to Cameron, who'd been included in the Cabinet out of expediency. (Pennsylvania needed a plum.) Once he'd turned out to be more trouble than he was worth, his boss delayed removing him only until he hit on a solution that would placate Cameron's partisans -- to wit, naming him ambassador to Russia. So far as I can tell, the humanizing element White introduces here is a concoction.

Making the passage even more noteworthy is its contrast with A. Lincoln's reticent handling of two men who, unlike Cameron, were genuinely close to Lincoln -- but who, for different reasons, don't fit White's pious agenda. During William Herndon's two decades as Lincoln's law partner, they talked about everything under the sun. That's why Herndon's Lincoln is an unparalleled source of opinionated observations that are based all the same on an intimate acquaintance with the pre–White House Lincoln's actual words and behavior in unguarded circumstances.

The drawback for White is that Herndon often gives us a Lincoln too gamy to be reproduced in marble -- a Lincoln, for instance, who apparently confided to Herndon that he'd caught a case of the clap in his bachelor days. All this plainly won't do, and since White can't dissect the relationship without getting into dangerous shoals, he downgrades and marginalizes Herndon instead.

The other Lincoln intimate whose important but indeterminate role in his life goes ostentatiously unexamined is Joshua Speed, with whom A. not only shared quarters before his marriage but -- famously, to gay scholars on the trail of Lincoln's sexuality -- a bed. Whatever the nature of their emotional bond, which stands out even on the very short list of Lincoln's close friendships, Speed meant enough to Lincoln that, unlike Herndon, he was offered several government appointments once A. was in office. This would actually give White some backup for the claim he doesn't substantiate otherwise about Lincoln's loyalty sometimes overriding his judgment.

Want to guess why he doesn't use it? It would have been one thing for him to sift the murky but very enjoyable evidence that Speed was the love of A.'s life and decide it's inconclusive, which it is. What's indefensible is White's refusal to so much as tip off his readers that any ambiguity exists when even coy Carl Sandburg, back in euphemistic 1926, noted "a streak of lavender" in the relationship. Once again, our priggish biographer isn't acting as a scholar but a propagandist.

As a citizen, White has as much right as any of us to a Lincoln he can call his own, I suppose. Some of you may like Gay Abe; me, I'm fond of Honest Ahab. But A. Lincoln is one more proof that the biography that can accommodate every last one of them -- "with malice toward none, with charity for all," you could say -- will probably never be written, which may be A.'s real monument. Personally, my only objection to the Lincoln Memorial is that it's much too small. --Tom Carson

A two-time National Magazine Award winner during his stint as Esquire's "Screen" columnist, Tom Carson is currently a columnist at GQ and a regular book reviewer for Los Angeles Magazine, where his work has won the CRMA award for criticism. He is the author of Gilligan's Wake (2003), a novel.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812975703
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/4/2010
  • Pages: 816
  • Sales rank: 210,963
  • Product dimensions: 6.52 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.75 (d)

Meet the Author

RONALD C. WHITE, JR. is the author of Lincoln’s Greatest Speech and The Eloquent President. He earned his Ph.D. at Princeton and has lectured on Lincoln at hundreds of universities and organizations including Gettysburg and the White House. He is presently a fellow at the Huntington Library and a visiting professor of history at UCLA. He lives in La Cañada, California.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

A. Lincoln and the Promise of America

He signed his name "a. lincoln." a visitor to abraham lincoln's Springfield, Illinois, home at Eighth and Jackson would find "A. Lincoln" in silvered Roman characters affixed to an octagonal black plate on the front door. All through his life, people sought to complete the A-to define Lincoln, to label or libel him. Immediately after his death and continuing to the present, Americans have tried to explain the nation's most revered president. A. Lincoln continues to fascinate us because he eludes simple definitions and final judgments.

Tall, raw boned, and with an unruly shock of black hair, his appearance could not have been more different from that of George Washington and the other founding fathers. Walt Whitman, who saw the president regularly in Washington, D.C., wrote that Lincoln's face was "so awful ugly it becomes beautiful." But when Lincoln spoke, audiences forgot his appearance as they listened to his inspiring words.

He is one of the few Americans whose life and words bridge time. Illinois senator Everett Dirksen said fifty years ago, "The first task of every politician is to get right with Lincoln." At critical moments in our nation's history, his eloquent words become contemporary.

As a young man, he won the nickname "Honest Abe" when his store in New Salem, Illinois, "winked out." Rather than cut and run from his debts in the middle of the night, as was common on the frontier, he stayed and paid back what he called his "National Debt." His political opponents invented a long list of denunciations, ranging from "the Black Republican" to "the original gorilla" to "the dictator." His supporters crafted monikers of admiration: "Old Abe," affectionately attached to him while he was still a relatively young man, and the "Rail Splitter," to remind voters in the 1860 presidential campaign of his roots in what was then the Western frontier. During the Civil War, admiration became endearment when the soldiers he led as commander in chief called him "Father Abraham." After his controversial decision to sign the Emancipation Proclamation on New Year's Day 1863, grateful Americans, black and white, honored him with the title "the Great Emancipator."

Each name became a signpost pointing to the ways Lincoln grew and changed through critical episodes in his life. Each was an attempt to define him, whether by characterization or caricature.

Yet how did Lincoln define himself? He never kept a diary. He wrote three brief autobiographical statements, one pointedly in the third person. As the Lincolns prepared to leave for Washington in the winter of 1861, Mary Lincoln, to protect her privacy, burned her correspondence with her husband in the alley behind their Springfield home. In an age when one did not tell all, Lincoln seldom shared his innermost feelings in public. Lincoln's law partner, William Herndon, summed it up "He was the most shut-mouthed man that ever existed." Yet when Lincoln spoke, he offered some of the most inspiring words ever uttered on the meaning of America.

Each generation of Americans rightfully demands a new engagement with the past. Fresh questions are raised out of contemporary experiences. Does he deserve the title "the Great Emancipator"? Was Lincoln a racist? Did he invent, as some have charged, the authoritarian, imperial presidency? How did Lincoln reshape the modern role of commander in chief? How are we to understand Mary Lincoln and their marriage? What were Lincoln's religious beliefs? How did he connect religion to politics? As we peel back each layer of Lincoln's life, these questions foster only more questions.

Actually, Lincoln did keep a journal, but he never wrote in a single record book. What I call Lincoln's "diary" consists of hundreds of notes he composed for himself over his adult life. He recorded his ideas on scraps of paper, filing them in his top hat or his bottom desk drawer. He wrote them for his eyes only. These reflections bring into view a private Lincoln. They reveal a man of intellectual curiosity who was testing a wide range of ideas, puzzling out problems, constructing philosophical syllogisms, and sometimes disclosing his personal feelings. In these notes we find his evolving thoughts on slavery, his envy at the soaring career of Stephen Douglas, and the intellectual foundations of his Second Inaugural Address.

Lincoln's moral integrity is the strong trunk from which all the branches of his life grew. His integrity has many roots-in the soil, in Shakespeare, and in the Bible. Ambition was present almost from the beginning, and he had to learn to prune this branch that it not grow out of proportion in his life. Often, when contemporary Americans try to trace an inspired idea or a shimmering truth about our national identity, again and again we find Lincoln's initials carved on some tree-AL-for he was there before us.

Lincoln was always comfortable with ambiguity. In a private musing, he prefaced an affirmation, "I am almost ready to say this is probably true." The lawyer in Lincoln delighted in approaching a question or problem from as many sides as possible, helping him appreciate the views of others, even when those opinions opposed his own.

In an alternative life, Lincoln might have enjoyed a career as an actor in the Shakespearean plays he loved. As a lawyer, he became a lead actor on the stages of the courthouses of the Eighth Judicial Circuit of central Illinois. As president, he was a skillful director of a diverse cast of characters, civilian and military, many of whom often tried to upstage him. Although his military experience was limited to a few months in the Black Hawk War of 1832, Lincoln would become the nation's first true commander in chief, defining and shaping that position into what it is today.

Lincoln is the president who laughs with us. His winsome personality reveals itself in his self-deprecating humor. As a young lawyer and congressman, his satire could sting and hurt political foes, but later in life he demonstrated a more gentle sense of humor that traded on his keen sense of irony and paradox. During the Civil War, some politicians wondered how Lincoln could still laugh, but he appreciated that humor and tragedy, as portrayed in Shakespeare's plays, are always close companions.

Recently, the question has been asked with renewed intensity: What did Lincoln really believe about slavery? Born in Kentucky, raised in Indiana, and becoming a politician in Illinois, Lincoln answered this question differently in his developing engagement with slavery throughout his life. One of the reasons he hated slavery was because it denied the American right to rise to African-Americans. In debates with Stephen Douglas and conversations with African-American leader Frederick Douglass, Lincoln understood that in doing battle with slavery, he was wrestling with the soul of America.

Lincoln has often been portrayed as not religious, in part because he never joined a church. How to reconcile this, then, with the deep religious insights of his second inaugural address, given only weeks before his death? Where are the missing pieces in his spiritual odyssey? One clue is a private musing on the question of the activity of God in the Civil War found after his death by his young secretary, John Hay, in a bottom drawer of his desk. A second is a religious mentor in Washington who played a largely overlooked role in the story of Lincoln's evolving religious beliefs.

Lincoln would have relished each new advance in the information revolution. Before the modern press conference, he became skilled at shaping public opinion by courting powerful newspaper editors. During the Civil War he learned how to reach a large audience through the writing of "public letters." He understood the potential of the chattering new magnetic telegraph, which allowed him to instantly communicate with generals in the field and become a hands-on commander in chief. In the last year and a half of his life, he surprised members of his cabinet by accepting a clearly secondary role in the dedication at Gettysburg, only to deliver a mere 272 words that stirred a nation.

Even though we have no audio record of Lincoln's words, he still speaks to us through his expressive letters and his eloquent speeches. Lincoln may not have read the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle's Treatise on Rhetoric, but he embodied his definition that ethos, or "integrity," is the key to persuasion. Even when Lincoln disappears in his speeches-as he does in the Gettysburg Address, never using the word "I"-they reveal the moral center of the man.

Lincoln was conservative in temperament. As a young man he believed that the role of his generation was simply to "transmit" the values of the nation's founders. Over time he came to believe that each generation must redefine America in relation to the problems of its time. By the end of 1862, Lincoln would declare, "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate for the stormy present." In the last two and a half years of his life, Lincoln began to think in the future tense: "We must think anew, and act anew." However one decides to define Lincoln, whatever questions one brings to his story, his life and ideas are a prism to America's past as well as to her future.

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Table of Contents

List of Maps ix

Cast of Characters xi

Chapter 1 A. Lincoln and the Promise of America 3

Chapter 2 Undistinguished Families 1809–16 7

Chapter 3 Persistent in Learning 1816–30 23

Chapter 4 Rendering Myself Worthy of Their Esteem 1831–34 43

Chapter 5 The Whole People of Sangamon 1834–37 61

Chapter 6 Without Contemplating Consequences 1837–42 79

Chapter 7 A Matter of Profound Wonder 1831–42 99

Chapter 8 The Truth Is, I Would Like to Go Very Much 1843–46 119

Chapter 9 My Best Impression of the Truth 1847–49 139

Chapter 10 As a Peacemaker the Lawyer Has a Superior Opportunity 1849–52 167

Chapter 11 Let No One Be Deceived 1852–56 187

Chapter 12 A House Divided 1856–58 223

Chapter 13 The Eternal Struggle Between These Two Principles 1858 257

Chapter 14 The Taste Is in My Mouth a Little 1858–60 291

Chapter 15 Justice and Fairness to All May 1860–November–1860 331

Chapter 16 An Humble Instrument in the Hands of the Almighty November 1860–February 1861 349

Chapter 17 We Must Not Be Enemies February 1861–April 1861 381

Chapter 18 A People's Contest April 1861–July 1861 411

Chapter 19 The Bottom Is Out of the Tub July 1861–January 1862 437

Chapter 20 We Are Coming, Father Abraham: January 1862–July 1862 467

Chapter 21 We Must Think Anew July 1862–December 1862 495

Chapter 22 What Will the Country Say? January 1863–May 1863 531

Chapter 23 You Say You Will Not Fight to Free Negroes May 1863–September 1863 563

Chapter 24 A New Birth of Freedom September 1863–March 1864 591

Chapter 25 The Will of God Prevails March 1864–November 1864 617

Chapter 26 With Malice Toward None, with Charity for All December 1864–April 1865 647

Acknowledgments 677

Notes 681

Selected Bibliography 745

Illustration Credits 765

Index 769

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Reading Group Guide

1. What characteristics of the young Lincoln stood out to his boyhood friends in Indiana?

2. Beginning with Lincoln’s announcement of his candidacy for state office in 1832, what qualities marked his four terms in the Illinois State Legislature?

3. In Lincoln’s single term in Congress why and how did he criticize President James Polk’s policies in the Mexican-American War?

4. How would you characterize Lincoln’s self-understanding as a lawyer in the years 1849-1854?

5. Why did Lincoln reemerge into politics in 1854 and what is new about his political message and style?

6. It has been suggested that Lincoln won the debates with Stephen Douglas in 1858. What are the bases of this claim?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 63 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 65 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 25, 2009

    Not the best one-volume, or the best of '09.

    The first reader needs to read other than "lost cause" books. Apparently he did not even note what James McPherson's review refers to as Lincoln's changing views on race. Lincoln HAD a plan for peaceful emancipation (immediate curtailing of slavery's extension with gradual and compensated emancipation) but the South spurned it. The war may have started over secession but secession itself came because, as even the Confederate VP later said, the Confederacy was built upon the foundation of slavery (which Southern leaders even favored expanding by war with our Latin or Carribean neighbors (as with the war with Mexico). SO, if the south had abided by Lincoln's election, and agreed to his platform, slavery WOULD have died peacefully and 620,000 Americans would not have died horribly.<BR/> As for White's book, I think it is not as balanced as Donald's and not as interesting as Alan Guelzo's (the best one-volume). Exactly what McPherson thought was the book's strength, analysis of Lincoln's writings, makes it sacrifice attention to the civil war itself and to subjects such as Lincoln's assassination (which gets wrapped up in about a page and a half). In a book this size, I find that remarkable. White wrote a lot of the same in "Eloquent President".<BR/>Besides the works I've mentioned, an excellent brief life is George McGovern's "Abraham Lincoln" in the TimesBooks "American Presidents" series -- the best of '09.

    5 out of 13 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 28, 2009

    Refreshing focus on Lincoln and facts directly related to him, unbiased with no spin, unhidden opinions backed by facts, educational and easy to read, best Lincoln biography I have ever read.

    Refreshing focus on Lincoln and facts directly related to him, unbiased with no spin, unhidden opinions backed by facts, educational and easy to read, best Lincoln biography I have ever read.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 30, 2009

    A. Lincoln by Ronald C. White

    This is a very excellent book. After having read it I felt that I knew President Lincoln and had a better understanding of the entire family. I really enjoy a book that makes things come out of the book and off of the page and to me this does the trick. excellent. I also recommend reading Mrs.Lincoln. You will understand Mary Todd Lincoln better.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 9, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    The first new COMPLETE Lincoln bio in a while

    Most other books about Lincoln these days involve an aspect of his character, or a particular segment of his life. This one is the first I have read since David Herbert Donald's biography which covers Lincoln's life completely.

    The writing is good, but there really is little in here that I haven't read before. White treats his subject as a human being, rather than as an icon, which is how biographies should be written. I found it a rather quick read, and well-researched. I'd recommend this as a book for someone who hasn't spent a lot of time researching Abraham Lincoln and just wants one book in his library about the 16th president. I don't think the reader will be disappointed.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 25, 2009

    I Also Recommend:


    Who would want to read this book?<BR/>It's bunch of politically correct bs. Come on. If you want to read something that is actually TRUE, read 'The Real Lincoln' By Thomas DiLorenzo. Otherwise, just steer clear of books that portray Lincoln as "good", "honest", and "the greatest president". Because he was should not be described by any of those. <BR/>In all reality, Lincoln hated African Americans. He started the Civil war to flex his "presidential muscles". And don't let anyone tell you that the Civil war was a war to 'end slavery'. Because it wasn't. Every other country that ended slavery did it peacefully. And Lincoln said many times that if he could get by without freeing the slaves, he would. Because they were the inferior race. <BR/>I could go on and on. But I'll leave you with that.

    3 out of 38 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 16, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    an intimate portrait of our nations greatest

    a. lincoln is a well crafted biography on our 16th president. filled with lincoln family history,mezmorizing pictures and mind bottling prints of honest abes own writings. this biography brings its readers just a little bit closer to who abe lincoln was as a man.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 9, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Excellent Bio of Lincoln

    With all the books written on Lincoln it is refreshing to find a book that is enjoyable to read and provides the info one would like to learn about the 16th president.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 23, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    A decent portrayal of A. Lincoln using his own words. I found it

    A decent portrayal of A. Lincoln using his own words. I found it fascinating that politics has not changed much since Lincoln's presidency. 
    This book did not who Lincoln as being perfect or loved by everyone. When things went badly during the war, the public abandoned him.
    He was not the nicest person to be around with. He was singled minded and focused on one task at a time. The book shows he was too t
    trusting of people and did not listen to his instincts. The book is well rounded showing not only Lincoln's views but the public's view through 
    newspapers articles and editorials. 

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 3, 2012

    Good information

    Very eductional. Learned a great deal about his life as well as his personality. I have a new appreciation for him.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 7, 2010

    The American Hero

    Abraham Lincoln was born in Kentucky in 1809. As a child Lincoln moved many different times. Nancy Hanks, Lincoln's mother, died when he was still a boy. Thomas, Lincoln's father, later married a woman, Sarah Bush Johnston who helped raise Lincoln. In 1832 as soon as The Black Hawk War broke out he was the captain of his volunteer company. He ran two years later and won becoming a fixture of the Whip party in the General Assembly for the next eight years. In 1842 Lincoln married Mary Todd, having four boys but two later dyeing as a child. His political time was over but in 1850 the question of slavery rose again and that was when Lincoln hit it again but failing twice in 1854 and in 1858. Later Lincoln won the Republican nomination for presidency in 1860. South Carolina brought the establishment of the Confederate States of America, being independent nation apart from the United States. Attempting to reinforce Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, Confederate men shot at Lincoln's men and it was the start of the Civil War. Lincoln's most heroic moment as president was his Emancipation Proclamation in January 1, 1863. Because of this he provided a solid ground for the Thirteenth Amendment and the abolishment of slavery in the United States. Lincoln had enough support to be re-elected in 1864. Within less than a week the Confederates surrendered, while Lincoln was attending a Washington theater and getting shot in the head by John Wilkes Booth. Lincoln will forever be remembered as one of the greatest American heroes.
    Lincoln had many important events happen to himself from his mom dying to the Gettysburg Address. Gettysburg was the turning point in the Civil War. After Gettysburg he wrote the Gettysburg Address, one of the most famous speeches only reaching two minutes. During the Civil War the Union took control of the Mississippi River from Vicksburg. Fredericksburg was a crucial defeat that the Union took on December 13, 1862. His father re-marring a woman a year after his first wife died. Troubling for Lincoln to get used to his new mother but they soon to grow stronger together. I loved this book because it goes into great depth about what Lincoln did as a child, teenager, as a father and as a president. Reading about what decisions he made as a president. Reading about the Civil War and what he had to do to make today the way it is. My dislikes about this book was they really didn't go too much into who his real mother was and how well her relationship was with his father. The description of people wasn't to strong either becoming a little confused with who each character was and what they did. Why someone should read this book would be because it provided great information about who Lincoln was and what he true did to change the way the United States was and what we are now. Our world would be so different if Lincoln never did what he did. Who knows if slavery could've been going on? Why someone should not read this book would be because it's not the most exciting book. It's very slow because it goes into great detail about what's going on but not the characters that were involved in his life. Other books that are related are, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, The Portable Abraham Lincoln, Writings of Abraham Lincoln and Team of Rivals : The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. I would give this book an overall rating of 4.5 out of 5.

    1 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 28, 2014

    A. Lincoln

    Great read if you want the detailed and non glorified version. Lincoln was more intelligent than I even imagined and a man of amazing character. Awesome book for history buffs, but beware...it is long!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 6, 2013



    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 7, 2013

    Excelent book, that not only shows Linconl's life and thought, b

    Excelent book, that not only shows Linconl's life and thought, but also the public oppinion aguinst slavery that pushed towards the emancipation.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 8, 2013


    Soooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo ccccooooooooooooooooooooooollllllllllllllllllllllllll

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 12, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    White reveals the importance of Lincoln's religious faith

    What I like best about the book is the way Abraham Lincoln is described as a person of deep religious faith with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. Faith seems to have been an early influence in Lincoln's life, which later public service and dealing with a national crisis further developed. White describes the particular role of Phineas Gurley, pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., his sermons and pastoral care, in encouraging Lincoln's experience and expression of faith in God and the power of the Scriptures in guiding public discourse and policy.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 21, 2009

    Not a good bio - abvious holes - pick another book

    I really wanted to read a good bio about Abraham Lincoln. I know so little about one of America's most reverred presidents. However it seems that most biographies are either 700-1000 pages or 100 page bios for elementary school children. Why can't someone write a good 300-400 page bio? I don't need to know the text of every letter he ever wrote...

    This bio on Lincoln assumed you knew the major historical points of the civil war, which I do not. It mentioned historical events with a one sentence explanation, so I oftened had to refer to the internet for a more thorough understanding of the events during Lincoln's life. Some major moments of Pres. Lincoln's life were just lightly glossed over, while some of his notes were analyzed for several pages.

    Some key associates were described in great detail, while others were merely glossed over. How did Lincoln compare to his "rival-president" Jefferson Davis? What did some of his associates accomplish later in life? To understand President Lincoln, I think we also have to understand his friends, collegues and rivals.

    There is also no mention of Lincoln's mental illness. Not a single word. How did someone who in hind-sight (since it was rarely realized/discussed in 1800 America) is diagnosed with severe depression, maybe bi-polar disease succeed in becoming President and making such a large mark on history. The author seems to ignore this fact and writes of a 'melancholy'. As a fellow sufferer of mental illness I was hoping to find comfort and inspiration in someone who also suffered but still managed to do great things in his life.

    The book ends with Lincoln's assasination. Only one paragraph is writen about the funeral and nothing about the events after his death. I know the book is about Lincoln, so one might assume the best place to end the story is at the end of his life, but his story continued on past his death. How did the nation cope after his death? What happened to his family? How did his successors' continue or change his political agenda/ideas?

    So I would recommend choosing another book to read to learn about Abraham Lincoln. Half way through the book, I just wanted to be done with it. I continued reading, so I could finish "his" story, but I was left wanting. So, do I now pick up another 700 page bio to fill in the missing pieces? Ugh!

    0 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 15, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted April 28, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted June 15, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted February 20, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

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