Joyce Lagow's Reviews > Lincoln
by David Herbert Donald
by David Herbert Donald
It� s really only been in the relatively recent past� maybe 20 years, maybe less� that there has been a coalescing of opinion around Abraham Lincoln as the greatest President the United States has ever had. It probably came with a recognition that Lincoln as the president of a democracy engaged in a civil war managed to both prosecute a war and preside over a bitterly factionalized country with astounding success. It is a fact that until 1864, no country had successfully held an election in the midst of a civil war; the American accomplishment was both unique and downright awe-inspiring.[return][return]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.[return][return]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.[return][return]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. [return][return]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.[return][return]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.[return][return]The book ends with Lincoln� s death. The last paragraph makes up for all faults� it left me in tears.[return][return]Highly recommended.
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