Historians question accuracy of Bill O’Reilly’s book on Abraham Lincoln

The Takeaway

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Some historians are raising concerns about a new book by Fox News star Bill O’Reilly, looking at the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

A reviewer for the National Park Service’s bookstore at Ford’s Theatre has recommended that the store pull the book due to “lack of documentation” and “factual errors.” Another review from the Civil War Society said the book contains numerous errors and one passage that is completely untrue.

“In 325 pages, there are four, minor misstatements, all of which have been corrected. There are also two typeset errors, one involving a date. That’s a pretty good record,” O’Reilly said on his show recently. He declined to discuss the matter further.

Kenneth C. Davis, author of the “Don’t Know Much About History” series of books, is currently working on a book called “Don’t Know Much About The Presidents.” He said that minor factual errors, especially typos, or misstating the acreage of a farm, as O’Reilly’s book does, shouldn’t be a big deal.

But he’s not letting O’Reilly’s book off the hook, either.

“Given the fact that more has been written about Abraham Lincoln than any other American, I would say, documenting this stuff is not that difficult any more, especially with the Internet,” Davis said.

In particular, Davis had three big complaints. First, O’Reilly’s book said that the Ford Theatre burned down. In reality, it burned inside but the building actually still stands and is open to the public.

Second, on the first page of the book, O’Reilly writes that Andrew Johnson gave his inaugural address while drunk, in front of 50,000 people. In reality, he was drunk, but the address was only given to the U.S. Senate, a much smaller group of people.

“It raises my antenna,” Davis said.

The third, larger complaint, Davis said, is over O’Reilly raising the “myth” of Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s Secretary of War, being behind the assassination. Davis said many historians through the years have throughly debunked that claim.

“This book does not offer notes and documentation, and that’s OK in popular history, but when you take on something that controversial, you have to do more than hang a few pieces of laundry on the line,” Davis said.

Davis said that it’s possibly for general history books, rather than scholarly works, to be historically accurate and well-documented, and pointed to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s own book about Abraham Lincoln, published in 2005, as a good example of that. 


“The Takeaway” is a national morning news program, delivering the news and analysis you need to catch up, start your day, and prepare for what’s ahead. The show is a co-production of WNYC and PRI, in editorial collaboration with the BBC, The New York Times Radio, and WGBH.

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