In David Herbert Donald’s view, Lincoln was a dogged and wily man, with a sense of humor and shrewdness not equaled by any of his contemporaries. He had less than a year of formal schooling, but a kind stepmother (his mother died when he was quite young) and a tolerant, if not always sensitive, father allowed him the time to read. Drawn to poetry, drama, and the law, Lincoln carefully memorized speeches until they became his own. The cadences of Lincoln’s prose are so compelling because they grow out of his saturation in the works of William Shakespeare and the King James Bible.
Lincoln’s prospects for national office seemed dim. He had served a few terms as a state legislator and congressman and failed twice to be elected an Illinois senator. He did not look the part of a great man—not having a proper fitting suit until he was elected president. Many people thought him ugly and ungainly. He had a high-pitched speaking voice that settled into a comfortable lower register only after he had warmed up.
How, then, did Lincoln triumph? He was indefatigable—always available to campaign for his party. Like any politician, he had enemies, but surely no American politician since Lincoln has been better at placating foes and making friends. He spoke to the public with a lack of pretention that had enormous appeal.
Lincoln saw himself more as an instrument of fate than as an actor. He was responding to history as much as he was making it, and he could only hope that he was seeing clearly. How tragic and ironic, then, that Lincoln should be murdered by an actor, a man suffused with the belief that the Shakespearean roles he played had made him into a hero for his section, the South. Donald brilliantly renders the assassination scene, which closes his biography, with a spare sketch of John Wilkes Booth’s life, a self-regarding hero.
Sources for Further Study
The Atlantic. CCLXXVI, November, 1995, p. 134.
Boston Globe. October 8, 1995, p. B35.
The Christian Science Monitor. December 6, 1995, p. A15.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 22, 1995, p. 3.
The Nation. CCLXI, November 20, 1995, p. 622.
The New York Times Book Review. C, October 22, 1995, p. 11.
The New Yorker. LXXI, October 30, 1995, p. 104.
The Wall Street Journal. October 17, 1995, p. A18.
The Washington Post Book World. October 1, 1995, p. 3.