Subscribe to Blog

Abraham Lincoln and Ida M. Tarbell

Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, was born on February 12, 1809. In honor of his birthday, the Library Services team would like to share with readers of this blog one of the many treasures in our collection: Ida M. Tarbell’s The Life of Abraham Lincoln, Drawn from Original Sources and Containing Many Speeches, Letters, and Telegrams Hitherto Unpublished (1924). This comprehensive history of Lincoln’s life includes his birth in Kentucky, service in the Black Hawk War, time riding the legal circuit in Illinois, and his time in politics.

Ida M. Tarbell is best known as one of the “muckraking” journalists of the Progressive Era, writing exposés that targeted social ills and corporate malfeasance that jeopardized public welfare, and calling for government reforms. But before she established herself as a groundbreaking investigator for McClure’s Magazine, Tarbell received acclaim for her detailed and insightful biographies. These also appeared in serialized form in McClure’s; in fact, as Judith A. Rice notes in her essay “Ida Tarbell: A Progressive Look at Lincoln,” Tarbell’s articles on Lincoln, which appeared between 1895 and 1899, were crucial in increasing the young magazine’s circulation. These articles were later compiled into book form, along with additional documents in an Appendix that exceeds 200 pages.

As Rice notes, a unique approach Tarbell took was to track down and interview people who had known Lincoln in Kentucky and Illinois, prior to his becoming president. At the same time, being a generation removed from her subject, and employing more rigorous approaches to fact finding and checking, she was able to take a more critical view of Lincoln’s life relative to previous biographers. Readers may also be surprised to know that, unlike earlier treatments of Lincoln, Tarbell was his first biographer to cast his upbringing in western frontier areas in a positive light, as fundamental to shaping his character. In this regard she echoed the views of the “frontier thesis” promulgated by her contemporary, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner.  

The Museum & Library’s copy contains extra illustrations with add-ins bound into the original volumes that include autographed letters signed (ALS), typed letters signed (TLS), and engraved plates of places and personages who were part of Lincoln’s life and presidential administration. For example, in volume 1, there is a letter dated Springfield Illinois Nov. 1, 1860, which is an autographed letter to H. B. Kittredge Esq who had requested his autograph; the facsimile of the Land Warrant issued to Abraham Lincoln, grandfather of President Lincoln; and an autograph letter signed by John C. Calhoun, Department of War, dated October 13, 1820. 

One of the Museum and Library’s partner institutions, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum & Library, hosts a project that provides a database to known papers in cultural institutions related to Abraham Lincoln and his presidency. 

Tarbell’s volumes are available to researchers by appointment.


If you’d like to borrow and read a book on Abraham Lincoln’s life, we recommend:

Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Simon & Schuster Lincoln Library. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.

Guelzo, Allen C. Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President. Grand Rapids, Michigan: W.B. Eerdmans, 1999.

McGovern, George S. Abraham Lincoln. 1st ed. The American Presidents Series. New York: Times Books/Henry Holt, 2009.

McPherson, James M. Abraham Lincoln. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

McPherson, James M. Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln As Commander in Chief. New York Times Best Sellers. New York: Penguin Press, 2008.


For articles that address Tarbell’s biography of Lincoln, you can read:

Rice, Judith A.  “Ida M. Tarbell: A Progressive Look at Lincoln.” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Winter, 1998, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Winter, 1998), pp. 57-72.

Wick, Robert G. “He was a Friend of us Poor Men”: Ida M. Tarbell and Abraham Lincoln's View of Democracy. Indiana Magazine of History, Vol. 114, No. 4 (December 2018), pp. 255-282.         


There are also many Pritzker Military Presents episodes on Abraham Lincoln, including:

Doris Kearns Goodwin: Team of Rivals

James McPherson: Tried By War

James Swanson: Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer

Add new comment