This Biography Stands as Tall as Lincoln Himself Confidence, Morality, and Grace Shaped the 16th American President

Article excerpt

THIS is a masterwork. It stands alone among 135 years of Lincoln biographies. Its author, David Herbert Donald, has spent much of a lifetime studying and teaching the Civil War era and its central figure. Along the way, among other honors, he won two Pulitzer Prizes for biography. Now he has created his masterpiece.

The popular magazine "Civil War Times" has devoted its December issue to the war president. It indulged in a difficult game by asking its own contributors to select and rank the 10 best books among the 7,000 or so written. Donald's biography came in second - after Lincoln's own writings.

There has been no major biography quite like this: It is chiefly written from Lincoln's perspective. Information and ideas available to him, rather than to later historians, form its principal source - together with Lincoln's own words, and those of his contemporaries. For example, Lincoln may have devoted great energies to what modern historians see as the transformation of the United States into a developing, market-oriented society. But Donald largely provides a picture of a politician making deals about banks or railroads.

Similarly, the Battle of Gettysburg may have been a turning point of the war, but "Lincoln" devotes only two pages to it, mostly to the commander-in-chief's emotional reactions. After all, he did not witness the battle.

Donald is quite aware of the portrait he has drawn. "It is perhaps a bit more grainy than most, with more attention to his {Lincoln's} unquenchable ambition, to his brain-numbing labor in his law practice, to his tempestuous married life, and to his repeated defeats. It suggests how often chance, or accident played a determining role in shaping his life," he says in the book. In short, among recent bestsellers, Donald's work is a counterpoint to Garry Wills's "Lincoln at Gettysburg," which presented a man who transformed America with a brief speech.

Donald's "Lincoln" is fully believable. Is it also right? That will be debated for many years to come. As with so much that towers and shines in life, strengths can also be weaknesses. By focusing so fully on Lincoln, what he knew and when, the larger historical context at times disappears into obscurity. By highlighting the pragmatic politician Donald makes Lincoln appear more parochial than he was, and the 16th president's ideas and strong moral convictions fade. This becomes specially questionable when the book considers slavery and race. I have just completed work on the "Columbia Dictionary of Lincoln Quotations" and am struck that some of the best of Lincoln's words found no place in a 600-page book. …


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