Abraham Lincoln pile of books and letters

Every Book We Know That Abraham Lincoln Read

In our series on famous defense attorneys, we shared with readers a letter about Abraham Lincoln's famous "almanac case".

If you aren't familiar, the "almanac case," argued in 1858, was one of Lincoln's last criminal trials as an attorney before his rise to the presidency.

The accused, William "Duff" Armstrong, was the son of a friend of Lincoln's from his days as a circuit-riding country lawyer. Armstrong was on trial for allegedly murdering a man with a "slungshot" (not to be confused with a slingshot) one drunken evening.

One of the key witnesses to the murder claimed that he could see the slaying, and the man responsible, because of the strength and position of the moon that night.

To discredit this damning testimony, Lincoln asked for an almanac. One was fetched from the limited library of the country courthouse, and he opened it to the night of the murder. The lunar position in the almanac contradicted the witness's testimony and Armstrong was acquitted.

Soon after, a rumor spread that Lincoln had pulled off a grand con on the judge, jury, and prosector. A rumor started that the almanac cited, which the case's prosecutor had neglected to examine, was either altered or out of date, and that the correct almanac would have supported the witness's testimony.

Was there truth to this? It's doubtful, but the rumor persists.

The almanac case is one of the most famous stories to involve Lincoln and books. Because his formal education was limited, Lincoln's passion for the written word is often overlooked. That's why I love a resource I discovered a few weeks ago, which I wanted to share here.

Robert Bray, over at the University of Michigan, has assembled an annotated bibliography of every book that Abraham Lincoln is alleged or confirmed to have read. It's extensive. It's a window into Lincoln's mind, and a fun source of reading material for those interested in 1860's America and the American Civil War.

It's also an amazing resource for scholars. Bray grades each entry on the list from A+ to D based on how strong the evidence is that Lincoln actually read it.

You can read the full list here, but here are a few entries I found interesting:

  1. Geometry: Who knew that Abraham Lincoln read Euclid? I guess it's no surprise that presidents learn math too, but this one surprised me.
  2. The Song Of The Shirt: This is surprisingly contemporary and borderline-radical for its day. The volume of poetry on the list surprised me.
  3. Joe Miller's Jests: I'm farely confident Lincoln retold some of the quips from this pithy volume. Among the most Lincoln is #88, "Cato, the censor, being asked how it came to pass that he had no statue erected for him, who had so well deserved of the commonwealth? I had rather, said he, have this question asked, than why I had one." I've heard a similar quip from a Manhattan Project physicist (which one escapes me) about their lack of a Nobel prize.
  4. The Pole Cat: I wasn't surprised to see Poe on Lincoln's reading list. I was surprised to see a parody of Poe on the list.
  5. The War Powers Of The President: This book must have had a practical audience of about ten readers. I'd like to read this at some point and compare it to how Lincoln exercised power as a war-time president.
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