Book Reviews

David Herbert Donald - LincolnDavid Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), 714pp.

           Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) was without a doubt the most improbable person ever to become the sixteenth president of the United States. Born in a one-room, dirt floor log cabin (it measured 16 by 18 feet), Lincoln's mother died when he was ten. By age fifteen he had finished all the formal schooling he would ever have, and that amounted to less than one year. At twenty-one he left his father's home permanently, and for the next ten years drifted from one occupation to another: "carpenter, riverboat man, store clerk, soldier, merchant, postmaster, blacksmith, surveyor, lawyer, politician. Experience eliminated all but the last two of these possibilities, and by the time he was thirty the direction of his career was firmly established" (p. 38). He was by most accounts a physically unattractive person, socially awkward, and given to bouts of profound depression. Still, he was a person of extreme ambition who had an enormous capacity for work, a supreme sense of self-confidence, and a certain homespun charm. Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner David Donald's meticulous and comprehensive biography takes readers from these unlikely beginnings to how Lincoln became the prototype of the frontier's "self-made man" and the greatest president in our history.

           Within a month after his election as President in 1860, every state in the lower South had taken steps to secede and "the country was falling apart" (pp. 257, 267). Five weeks after his inauguration the Confederates bombed Fort Sumter and the Civil War began. But for a president whose name is forever associated with the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment to end slavery, Lincoln's views on abolition were moderate and nuanced. He construed the war as about preserving the union and not about eradicating slavery. He considered slavery a "monstrous injustice," but his ideas about how to end it evolved only slowly. He thought that the Constitution allowed the continued existence of slavery where it already flourished, so he opposed immediate eradication. But he also opposed its further extension into new territories. Long into his presidency he favored a plan to colonize slaves somewhere outside the United States (an idea he eventually abandoned). He did not favor inter-racial marriage, negro suffrage, or enlisting blacks into military service for the Union. Eventually, he prescribed a gradual and voluntary type of compensated emancipation. Even as the war drew to a close, Lincoln "did not insist upon the end of slavery as a precondition for peace" (p. 559). Of course, this middle of the road position made him the object of wrath for both Conservatives who thought he was too severe and Radicals who saw him as too lenient.

            Lincoln's stepmother observed that "Abe had no particular religion" (p. 33). In his 1846 bid for Congress he had to deny that he was an "open scoffer of Christianity" (p. 49). His wife Mary once described him as "not a technical Christian," in the sense that he did not subscribe to Orthodox doctrines or church affiliations (p. 514). Still, Lincoln had an unshakable sense of Divine Providence. His reputation for honesty was widely praised and richly deserved. He was an accessible president who held open houses for two to three hours a day, when the most common person could meet the president and ask for help. His "generosity of spirit" (p. 560), immortalized in his second inaugural speech ("With malice toward none; with charity for all"), was precisely what a badly fractured country needed after its most devastating war. Donald's biography ends with his account of Lincoln's assassination by John Wilkes Booth.