Nov 06

Abraham Lincoln’s Favorite History Series

“I want to thank you and your brother for Abbott’s series of Histories. I have not education enough to appreciate the profound works of voluminous historians, and if I had, I have no time to read them. But your series of Histories gives me, in brief compass, just that knowledge of past men and events which I need. I have read them with the greatest interest. To them I am indebted for about all the historical knowledge I have.” —Abraham Lincoln.

Cyrus the Great, Darius the Great, Xerxes, Alexander the Great, Pyrrhus,
Romulus, Hannibal, Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Nero, Alfred the Great, William the Conqueror,
Richard I, Richard II, Richard III, Margaret of Anjou, Mary Queen of Scots, Charles I, Charles II,
Peter the Great, Genghis Khan, Henry IV, Louis XIV, Madame Roland, Joseph Bonaparte, Josephine,
Louis Philippe, Miles Standish, King Philip, Chevalier de La Salle, Kit Carson, and more . . . .

Makers of History Series: by Jacob and John S. C. Abbott

Lincoln reading with his son Tad.

As the quote from above shows, even Abraham Lincoln was a fan of the Abbott brothers’ Histories. Their famous series of historical biographies was so well known and widely read that they were staples of virtually every American library from the time they were published, in the mid-1800’s, until after the World Wars.

Both informative and terrifically entertaining, the Abbott brothers had an enormous talent for writing biographies, and selecting those stories and anecdotal episodes from histories that are of most interest to the general reader. What is just as important, however, was their skill and accuracy as histories. They relied on original sources and sought to provide fair and objective accounts of events; free from either political bias or over-sentimentality. Would that modern historians were so fair-minded.

Jacob Abbott (1803-1879) was possibly the most prolific American writer of juvenile literature of the nineteenth century. He was born in Maine, the second of seven children. He and each of his four brothers graduated from Bowdoin College, studied theology, and became teachers or ministers. Three of the five boys became authors, and with his brother John, Jacob authored the famous and widely read Makers of History series of biographies.

It was not until about 1848 that he and his brother embarked on the idea of doing a series of biography aimed at young people. His target audience was age “15 to 25”, and the Abbott brothers eventually produced a set of biographies that were critically acclaimed and widely read. Within a few years of their publication the Abbott biographies became standard reference works of juvenile history, and were available in libraries throughout America. They were originally published as an ‘Illustrated History’ series, but were republished many times during the next sixty years in various collections, entitled ‘Famous Characters of History’, ‘Famous Queens of History’, and others. They were most recently republished in the early 1900’s as the ‘Makers of History’ series.

Jacob Abbott, 1803-1879

The Abbotts had a terrific gift for narrative, and their books all read as if they were high suspense novels. Although the vocabulary level is relatively high—more appropriate for high school or college than elementary schools—the writing style is not difficult, and the stories move along at a fast pace. The Abbott biographies have a delightful combination of action and adventure, along with truly interesting personality portraits, intriguing subplots, and fascinating secondary characters which should be appealing to both young men and young women.

Most of the books in the Makers of History series deal with five different historical periods, namely: Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, England, France, and American colonial history, and there are nearly three dozen biographies in the complete collection. The reason the series doesn’t deal with many well-known heroes of the United States is because they were written in the 1840’s and 1850’s, well before the Civil War. Instead of writing about the lives of important American leaders of the 19th century, John and Jacob Abbott’s biographies actually influenced the men themselves.

One more notable thing about the Abbot Biographies is that many of them have female subjects or feature important female secondary characters. This emphasis on the point of view of women does much to enhance the dramatic value of these biographies since feminine insights, as great writers of all ages have long recognized, add much depth and personal interest to almost all stories. Even the biographies of such martial heroes as Pyrrhus and Peter the Great feature many subplots with women that add considerable drama.

In this post it is only possible to provide a list of the major subjects of the Abbott biographies rather than a synopsis of the books themselves. However, a brief summary of each of these books can be found here. In the following list I have indicated some of the most outstanding in the collection with asterisks and provided information on which Heritage Classical Library each book is featured in.

  • Cyrus the Great*, Darius the Great, Xerxes, Alexander the Great, and Pyrrhus* are featured in the Ancient Greece Curriculum.
  • Romulus, Hannibal*, Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Nero* are featured in the Ancient Rome Curriculum.
  • William the Conqueror, Richard I*, Richard II, Richard III, Margaret of Anjou*, Mary Queen of Scots, Charles I, and Charles II are featured in the British Middle Ages Curriculum.
  • Henry IV and Louis XIV are featured in the Christian Europe Library
  • Peter the Great, Madame Roland*, Josephine, Hortense, and Louis Philippe are featured in the Modern Europe Library.
  • Miles Standish, King Philip*, Kit Carson, and Chevalier de La Salle are featured in the Early America Library.

Many of these books are so exceptional they deserve their own blog post, but it will take time to review them individually. However, you can expected to see reviews of Abbott biographies featured on this blog on a regular basis in the future.

If this wonderful series of biographies is not impressive enough the Makers of History series listed above was only one of dozens of series produced by the Abbott brothers. They wrote many more works that we have yet to include on our website. Their breadth of knowledge and skill as writers is no less that stunning, even after one hundred and fifty years.

About the author

T. A. Roth

Content Editor at Heritage History, Homeschooling Mom of Five, Armchair historian

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