Lincoln by David Herbert Donald Analysis

Lincoln (Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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.

Lincoln (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 31)

David Herbert Donald, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of biographies of Thomas Wolfe and Charles Sumner, has crowned his distinguished career with this deeply learned and elegant biography of Abraham Lincoln. It will have considerable appeal for general readers and scholars alike. While doing justice to the complexity of Lincoln’s life and politics, Donald never allows his narrative to flag. He declares that Lincoln is America’s greatest president, but he allows that greatness to emerge not through extended analysis but through the narrative itself. Scholars will be gratified by the extensive notes at the back of the book, which not only detail Donald’s sources but also pay tribute to the wealth of Lincoln scholarship on which he has relied.

What makes Donald’s narrative gripping is his decision to remain within Lincoln’s point of view, so that events unfold, as nearly as possible, through Lincoln’s consciousness. Donald is fortunate to have a subject who wrote simply and beautifully and whose words were often recorded. The best passages of the biography are a skillful blending of judicious quotation and paraphrase of what Lincoln said and wrote.

In Donald’s view, Lincoln was a dogged and wily man, with a sense of humor and shrewdness not equaled by any of his contemporaries. Lincoln had less than a year of formal schooling, but he was blessed with a kind stepmother (his mother died when he was quite young) and a tolerant if not always sensitive father, who allowed him the time to read. Lincoln disliked physical labor. He did split rails, but he was hardly the heroic rail-splitter of his campaign propaganda. Indeed, he was a bit lazy when it came to physical work. Instead, he enjoyed the life of argument and was drawn to poetry, drama, and the law, carefully memorizing speeches and arguments until they became his own. The grace of his later writing grows out of a sensibility that saturated itself with William Shakespeare and the King James Bible. The cadences of Lincoln’s prose are compelling because they grew out of his absolute identification with words.

The word most often used by the young Lincoln was “humble.” He presented himself as an apprentice attorney and later as a budding politician who would do the people’s bidding. He was (he never tired of telling voters) their humble servant. He picked a political party, the Whigs, that believed in a passive president and a party led by the popular will. He opposed the Mexican War because President James Polk had used the executive branch of government to expand the country’s boundaries. Lincoln even campaigned for a slaveholding Whig president, Zachary Taylor, because Taylor said that he would abide by whatever the people told him to do.

Yet Donald rightly points out that Lincoln was not really a humble man. As president, he often acted unilaterally—perhaps even unconstitutionally—in time of war. On many occasions, he acted alone, not even consulting his cabinet. Although he would never admit it publicly, in private and among his closest supporters Lincoln behaved as though he believed himself inferior to no man. He had an ego as great as any of his rivals, but unlike them, he felt no call to reveal it.

On the face of it, Lincoln’s prospects for national office did not appear promising. He had served a few terms as a state legislator and congressman. He had failed twice to be elected an Illinois senator. He had a thriving law practice, but he was by no means wealthy and had to ride the rough roads of Illinois on the circuit arguing his law cases. He was consistently underestimated. He did not look the part of a great man. He apparently did not have a properly 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. He also tied his fate to the Whigs, a slowly declining political party.

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. Lincoln traveled so much of Illinois that he seemed to know almost every voter personally, and he spoke to people with an intimacy and lack of pretension that had enormous appeal. His timing was extraordinary. Even though he lost the 1858 election to Stephen Douglas, he demolished Douglas’ principle of popularity sovereignty, which held that states were entirely free to govern their own affairs—a doctrine that made...

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