A masterful work by Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Herbert Donald, Lincoln is a stunning portrait of Abraham Lincoln's life and presidency. Donald brilliantly depicts Lincoln's gradual ascent from humble beginnings in rural Kentucky to the ever-expanding political circles in Illinois, and finally to the presidency of a country divided by civil war. Donald goes beyond biography, illuminating the gradual development of Lincoln's character, chronicling his tremendous capacity for evolution and growth, thus illustrating what made it possible for a man so inexperienced and so unprepared for the presidency to become a great moral leader. In the most troubled of times, here was a man who led the country out of slavery and preserved a shattered Union--in short, one of the greatest presidents this country has ever seen.
At least as far back as Shelby Foote’s 3-volume masterpiece, The Civil War; A Narrative, in any in-depth history of the Civil War, Lincoln comes across as a decisive leader and politically shrewd; in fact, most historians call him a political genius. His compassion and concern for reuniting the country and healing its wounds is appropriately legendary; few leaders in such circumstances have shown such insight and humanity. He has his rightful place in history as the author of the emancipation Proclamation, the first step in eliminating slavery from the nation. With all these accomplishments and more, Lincoln is head and shoulders about the rest of the pack of Presidents. His tragic death, assassinated on good Friday of 1865, is just the last scene, that of martyr and savior, in a lifetime leading up to a nearly mythological place in history.
But what we see in those histories are the results of his decisions, not the process. What Donald attempts to do in his biography, through quotations from Lincoln’s numerous writings and the letters and memoirs of contemporaries, both friends and enemies, is to show that process, to show the man behind the legend and the statue in the memorial.
He does accomplish this, but at times of leaning so far in the direction of showing Lincoln’s doubts, his missteps, his inexperience and awkwardness, that you begin to wonder how in the world the man ever got the reputation he did for being such a political genius? This is especially true of Donald’s reconstruction of the year 1864, which was the darkest year of the war. It does jar, after reading chapters of minutely detailed meetings, confrontations, and behind-the scenes maneuvering where Lincoln is shown at his worst in this book, that suddenly in the very next chapter Donald proclaims once again Lincoln’s political genius.
While that’s a flaw in the book, it should not take away from the wealth of information that Donald provides to back up every statement he makes about Lincoln’s life. Certainly, to any student of the Civil War, no matter how casual, Lincoln’s role in it leaps out, dramatic and crucial; those facts are well known. Donald provides us, however, with details of Lincoln’s early life and especially his years as an Illinois lawyer and politician, years which shaped him with his regard for the law and the Constitution, and provide us with critical information about Lincoln’s attitudes which he brought to bear on his decisions about the Union, reconstruction, and emancipation of the slaves. It really is impossible to understand the White House years in any depth without knowing, in the kind of detail that Donald provides, about the Illinois years.
Donald’s style is somewhat dry and pedantic, at its worst when recounting the early years. However, the subject is of enough interest to keep the reader going. When he reaches the White House years, the drama of the Civil War takes over, and even the scholar gets caught up in the press of events and the excitement and tension of the war. Slow going at first, the book’s pace picks up.
The book ends with Lincoln’s death. The last paragraph makes up for all faults—it left me in tears.
It covers the spectrum of his whole life. Donald creates a wonderful portrait of how Lincoln's early life, life as a circuit lawyer, life as a politician, live as a husband and father, and the tragedies he experienced all prepared him to be our 16th President.
The author did a great job of showing his humanness and imperfections. Early on as President, Lincoln struggled to be decisive and sadly it was only after his re-election that he really grasped the role. But in the end he struck to the values and principles of life he learned early on.
I was surprised at how emotional I felt during the vivid detail of the assassination and death.
Part of the text was a bit repetitive especially the few final chapters, but it was well worth the read.
I hope to put together several speeches based on the leadership principles and core values learned from the life of Abraham Lincoln.
David Herbert Donald writes in the narrative voice so that this biography reads like a novel. He does so in much the same way that David McCullough or Stephen Amborse wrote their historical works. While the text is 599 pages it is not hard to finish at all.
Some of the interesting information that I took from the biography was Lincoln's relationship with his father. That perhaps if he had been able to step back and look at his fathers life, then he would not have been quite so hard on him. It is very interesting to note that his relationship with his eldest son Robert was strained and somewhat of a mirror of the relationship with his own father. It is also interesting to note that Lincoln was a very astute politician and not near the dark horse candidate as he is often portrayed. He was also one of nations leading raliroad attornies.
One of the great areas of interst to me was the authors account throughout the whole book was in the area of Lincoln faith. As a boy and young man Lincoln never showed tany real interest in the church or ever even joined the church. This was one of the many things that caused a strain in the relationship between he and his father. However upon his election as the president and the beginnig of the wasr Lincoln often spoke to friends and wrote letters regarding his need to seek wisdom from a higher authority. Upon the death of his son Willie and the deep depression of his wife Mary Todd, he started seeking solace and comfort from the Father and reading the Bible on a daily basis, as well as conversing with a Presbyterian Pastor two to three times every week. He often started attending church services, but he still did no join the church. As the War between the States dragged on longer than he hoped, he often stated that our plans are not the same as the Almighty, who is soverign overall. The author has a tendency to confuse this with fatalism, instead of recognizing the sovernty of God. I quickly admit that I have a dog in this fight and a desire to see Lincoln as a believer. I am not neutral in this regard. I do belive and hope that Lincoln was and did become a believer. I alos have a tendency to belive he was one of if not our greatest Presidents.
One could, at least if one quoted very selectively and out of context, find plenty of ammunition in this biography for that negative assessment. Lincoln's record on civil liberties is appalling. Suspension of habeas corpus leading to the arrest and imprisonment of political dissenters, opening of private mails, military tribunals trying civilians, censorship, even complete suppression of unfriendly newspapers, institution of the draft--even use of troops to suppress Democratic votes and threaten uncooperative state legislatures. Even Donald admits that Lincoln was responsible for "greater infringements on individual liberties than in any other period in American history." As for criticism of his racial policies, it's true that Lincoln famously wrote in a letter that the purpose of the war was to save the Union and, "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that."
Despite that Donald doesn't omit any of that, his portrait of Lincoln still comes across as sympathetic and admiring. As Donald drew Lincoln, he was, above all, a pragmatist and canny politician who knowing the racist views of his fellow citizens tacked and maneuvered and steered a course towards emancipation as far and fast as the winds of public opinion would allow. Donald does well in giving you the context to understand why Lincoln would say the things he did and act the way he did. Indeed, that's the very purpose of the biography. In the Prologue Donald related that the one time he met President John F. Kennedy, the president told him that, "No one has a right to grade a President--not even poor James Buchanan--who has not sat in his chair, examined the mail and information that came across his desk, and learned why he made his decisions."
That's what Donald set out to do in this Lincoln biography and it hews close to Lincoln's point of view. It's a biography widely considered to be the best one-volume biography of Lincoln in print. It's exhaustive certainly, and sometimes exhausting. It's 600 pages in trade paperback in small font and, especially in those parts dealing with the minutia of Lincoln's law practice, I found myself less than riveted--but I had to admire Donald's research and scholarship throughout. About a third of the biography dealt with Lincoln's life before coming to national prominence in the Lincoln/Douglas debates, another third takes you through his campaign for president to the eve of the Emancipation Proclamation and the lowest point of the war, and the last third takes you through the rest of the war and Lincoln's assassination. No man up to that time of Lincoln's election had been "less prepared to be president" according to Donald--and maybe no man since. Lincoln had less than a year of formal schooling, no administrative experience upon taking office, and his political experience had been limited to 8 years as an Illinois State legislator and one very undistinguished term as a congressman. The personal and political challenge on his taking office were thus immense--but Donald believes he grew greatly in that office--and Donald certainly makes a strong case for that and makes you appreciate the crushing decisions Lincoln faced.
Donald also provides much context to the early life of Lincoln, which also seems to be forgotten. This is truly a magnificent piece of work that should be read, studied, and owned by all Lincoln scholars.
An extensive, highly readable book that covers Lincoln's professional life as an attorney and politician without sentiment. Lawyer Lincoln began his career humbly and slowly gained confidence and clients, until he became one of the leading trial lawyers in the mid-west. David Donald's Lincoln is a political leader who suffered many more failures than successes and achieved political sainthood only after his assassination and death.
This Lincoln biography allows a reader to go back in time and see how President Lincoln was judged by his peers, his constituents and the press: as a physically unattractive seemingly country bumpkin; disorganized executive; and an early poor judge of military talent who slowly learned how to manage this important resource. This is a book that reminds us that however we judge contemporary political leaders, we never know how they will fare in history. I read the book many years ago, and was compelled to re-read it and enjoy it even more the second time.