Home >> Features >> Cover story
Student Bruce Finne speaks with Burlingame during a Civil War Reconstruction class at the University of Illinois Springfield.
By Rich Saal | SJ-R
View Michael Burlingame gallery (4)

View all 4 photos

An honest living
Michael Burlingame has made a career of studying Abraham Lincoln
By Tara McClellan McAndrew

You can't talk about Michael Burlingame without talking about Abraham Lincoln. And you could argue that you can't talk authoritatively about Lincoln without talking about Michael Burlingame.

Last year his two-volume biography of Lincoln, "Abraham Lincoln: A Life" (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008) won the $50,000 Lincoln Prize from Gettysburg College and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History for being "a landmark of American historical scholarship." In 2008, Time.com called him "a towering figure in Lincoln scholarship." He's written, edited or co-edited 14 books about Lincoln and has plans for several more. 

Burlingame moved to Springfield in 2009 from Connecticut to become the Chancellor Naomi B. Lynn Distinguished Chair in Lincoln Studies at the University of Illinois Springfield. He lives across from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in a small, simply furnished apartment adorned with a painting and photograph of Lincoln.

Outside of some summers spent in St. Louis and Springfield, this is the first time Burlingame has lived in the Midwest. He grew up and worked on the East Coast. Some people learn of his prep school and Ivy League background, coupled with his Lincoln fame, and expect an unapproachable man. Instead, several people who know or work with Burlingame - including his good friend Dick Hart, a local attorney and amateur historian - call him "down-to-earth."

"Did he tell you about his madras jacket?" Hart asks, chuckling. The cotton, plaid jackets were de rigueur for fashionable youngsters in the 1950s, when Burlingame was at boarding school. 

"His family wasn't East Coast prep school people. Michael was sent off to Andover (Phillips Academy boarding school in Andover, Massachusetts) because he was so bright. He gets to Andover and he walks in to a room and there are all these kids in madras jackets. Michael didn't even know what madras was," Hart laughs. "That's where he learned about fashion, and he quickly got a madras jacket."As he was a latecomer to fashion, Burlingame would be fashionably late to publishing, by academic standards. His first Lincoln book wasn't published until he was in his 40s. 

"One of my regrets is that I didn't get the message earlier," he says. 

Of opera and Abe
Two of his passions - opera and Lincoln - blossomed while he was in college, studying under the late renowned Lincoln scholar David Herbert Donald. Donald became a "surrogate father" to Burlingame, who lost his father in high school.

After Donald left Princeton for Johns Hopkins University, Burlingame followed him and earned his doctorate there. "If he had been a Medievalist, I would probably be studying the Middle Ages today," Burlingame says. 

Between getting a doctorate, starting a career as a history professor and starting a family, Burlingame didn't think about writing a book. (Unlike much of academia, Connecticut College, where he began working in 1968, didn't hold its professors to a "publish or perish" standard.)

In 1984, his Big Idea hit.

"All of a sudden, I felt this strong impulse, and to this day I can't recall the impetus, but it's as though there was an inner voice saying, 'You've got to write a book on Lincoln,'" he says enthusiastically. (A colleague accurately describes him as an "animated speaker.")"So I said to the inner voice, 'Well, on what?' And the inner voice says, 'Well, read the "Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln" (a compilation of Lincoln writings and speeches) and you'll find out.'"

Burlingame read the works' eight volumes and two appendices and "nine topics leapt off the page at me that seemed to be crying out for analysis: (Lincoln's) marriage, his relationship with his father, his relationship with his children, his anger, his mid-life crisis, his ambition and things like that," he says.

Meaty, emotional topics. The stuff a therapist would ask a patient about - and that was the point. Burlingame wanted to peer inside Lincoln's head and heart to find out how each played a role in his life and as a result, our history.

"I'm predisposed to think that an awful lot of what shapes historical change is not so much economic conflicts or demographic changes, although those are important," Burlingame says. "Oftentimes irrational psychological forces are at work: pride, envy, jealousy, that sort of thing."

His first book, "The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln" (University of Illinois Press, 1994), inaugurated his "psychological approach" to Lincoln. More followed, but that wasn't the original plan.

"What I really wanted to do (next) was write 'The Inner World of the Great Composers,' 'The Inner World of Beethoven,' 'The Inner World of Schubert.' Really," he says. "I was seriously going to do that because it really interests me. 

"You see all these books?" Burlingame asks, gesturing toward 1,000 or so books packed onto living room shelves. "That's all about classical music, scores and operas in particular. I'm one of the few people I know who has a full subscription to the Chicago Lyric Opera and two subscriptions to the Metropolitan Opera!" he says, laughing. 

"An historian is trained to be very rigorous, (and) intellectual, and you're constantly using the logical portion of your brain to do your research and to reconcile conflicting evidence and to write what you hope is a coherent narrative and all that, while opera is just emotional and it appeals right to the heart," he explains. 

Intense focus
Seeing operas at the Met in New York also gives him an opportunity to see family on the East Coast, including Lois MacDonald, his "fiancee of 23 years." Theirs was a "whirlwind courtship," Burlingame says. 

They met when he was the music, theater and arts critic for the local newspaper. She was curator for playwright Eugene O'Neill's Monte Cristo Cottage, and Burlingame had to interview her.

"After about six weeks, she accepted my proposal of marriage, including a ring. I lined up a church, I lined up the organist, I lined up the preacher and everything was all set and she said, 'Wellllll, let's just wait a minute and see.' And so, for the past 23 years we've been waiting for the infatuation stage to pass to get a more realistic view of our long-term prospects," he laughs. 

As he did in courtship, Burlingame pursues his interests with single-minded passion - hence his more than 25 years of criss-crossing the country researching Lincoln. 

"Michael has been everywhere and looked at everything, even what we call tertiary sources," says UIS professor of history emeritus and Lincoln scholar Cullom Davis. "He not only looks at the written letters of famous people, he looks at the written letters of scholars who have written about Lincoln and even their research notes, if they exist, for traces of things to look at further."

It was partly self-defense, Burlingame says. 

"When I undertook to write a psychobiographical study (of Lincoln), I realized that that was not calculated to win much esteem in the historical profession, because psychohistory was considered at the time, and it is at this day to some extent, as a somewhat problematic enterprise, not scientific." 

Such works often are criticized for not having enough research. "I decided that, to bulletproof the manuscript, I had to do research on unpublished sources," Burlingame explains.

He scoured archives for letters and diaries written by Lincolns' colleagues and friends, and their colleagues and friends, as well as articles written by reporters located outside of Washington. Renowned historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has said of him: "No one in recent history has uncovered more fresh sources than Michael Burlingame."

Family ties
His interest in Lincoln was nearly predestined by family history. When his great-grandfather's cousin, Boston congressman Anson Burlingame, lost re-election in 1860, Lincoln appointed him ambassador to Austria and Hungary. 

"He was en route to Vienna, one of my favorite cities...," explains Burlingame, who shares Lincoln's affinity for storytelling. "And when he's in Paris, he receives word that the Austrians will not accept him, that he's persona non grata because as a member of the House (of Representatives) in 1859, he called for the House to extend diplomatic recognition to Italy," whose northern provinces recently had broken away from Austria. So Lincoln sent Anson Burlingame to China instead, where he served as its minister (or ambassador) for several years.

"Uncle Anson" almost blew it with Lincoln prior to that.

"There is an aspect of Anson Burlingame that we don't like to talk about in the family," Burlingame says. In short, Anson and other Eastern Republicans infuriated Lincoln and Illinois Republicans because they recommended the Illinois party not run a candidate against incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Stephen Douglas in 1858. (Illinoisans ran Lincoln against him.) 

Burlingame delights in adding that staff at the Papers of Abraham Lincoln at the ALPLM recently discovered a letter Lincoln wrote in which he disparagingly called Anson "Sister Burlingame."

Since he's found new material about Lincoln, the books about composers will - again - have to wait. Burlingame just finished a "little book, believe it or not, 165 pages ... it feels like a pamphlet!" titled "Lincoln and the Civil War." It will be published in August. He's currently working on a book about New York journalist Henry Vallard's writings about Lincoln, tentatively titled, "Lincoln as President-in-Waiting."

One day, he hopes to write a memoir about his experiences studying Lincoln.

"I have a lot of good stories," he says. There's the one about how he tracked down the off-color jokes Lincoln was fond of telling. As usual, Burlingame tells it - and one of the jokes - with relish.



About Michael Burlingame


  • Hometown: Washington, D.C. 
  • Age: 69 
  • Occupation: Lincoln historian, author and professor
  • Education: Phillips Academy, Andover, Mass. 1956-60; Princeton University, bachelor's in history, 1964; Johns Hopkins University, doctorate in history, 1971
  • Family: Two daughters, a fiancee, two siblings 
  • Interesting fact: In college, Burlingame played an extra three to four times at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. He once carried a spear in "Aida." "I co-starred with Birgit Nilsson (a Swedish soprano)," he jokes. 



Story published Friday, March 4, 2011 ( Volume 6, Number 2 )

Stay connected

Twitter Facebook
Copyright ©  GateHouse Media, Inc. Some Rights Reserved.
Privacy Policy | Terms of Use
Original content available for non-commercial use
under a Creative Commons license,
except where noted.