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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.

714 pages, Paperback

First published October 6, 1995

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About the author

David Herbert Donald

41 books113 followers
Majoring in history and sociology, Donald earned his bachelor degree from Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi. He earned his PhD in 1946 under the eminent, leading Lincoln scholar, James G. Randall at the University of Illinois. Randall as a mentor had a big influence on Donald's life and career, and encouraged his protégé to write his dissertation on Lincoln's law partner, William Herndon. The dissertation eventually became his first book, Lincoln's Herndon, published in 1948. After graduating, he taught at Columbia University, Johns Hopkins and, from 1973, Harvard University. He also taught at Smith College, the University of North Wales, Princeton University, University College London and served as Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford University. At Johns Hopkins, Columbia, and Harvard he trained dozens of graduate students including Jean H. Baker, William J. Cooper, Jr., Michael Holt, Irwin Unger, and Ari Hoogenboom.

He received the Pulitzer Prize twice (1961 and 1988), several honorary degrees, and served as president of the Southern Historical Association. Donald also served on the editorial board for the Papers of Abraham Lincoln.

David H. Donald was the Charles Warren Professor of American History (emeritus from 1991) at Harvard University. He wrote over thirty books, including well received biographies of Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Wolfe and Charles Sumner. He specialized in the Civil War and Reconstruction periods, and in the history of the South.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 669 reviews
Profile Image for Lizzy.
305 reviews167 followers
December 4, 2016
David Herbert Donald’s one-volume biography Lincoln gifts the reader with an excellent narrative of the life of Abraham Lincoln. As a non-American, I had superficial knowledge beforehand of how truly extraordinary Lincoln was in such extraordinary times. But after reading this 700-plus-pages book, I can say if it were not for him at that time and place, it’s doubtful that the United Sates would exists as it is today.

For the most part I did not find it a page-turner. The writing is unobtrusive, and the prose is simple and informative – and I often had to force myself to pick it back up, particularly the early chapters which largely concerned local Illinois politics. However, the narrative becomes more interesting once Lincoln enters the Presidential race, or even going back to the Senate campaign and the Douglas-Lincoln debates.

I enjoyed reading about Lincoln and how remarkably complex but absolutely human he was. Donald reveals all his humanity, frailty and awkwardness. He does not spare him. Nevertheless, he comes out as a political genius. He was certainly shrewd in his dealings with his cabinet. Lincoln was above all an astute politician. But he certainly learned with experience:
"Whatever self-assurance Lincoln had gained from the cabinet crisis of December 1862 was sorely tested during the first six months of 1863, for he found that the shrewdness, tact and forbearance that had served him so well in face-to-face disagreements were not easily applied to large groups in conflict. In short, Lincoln still had much to learn about how to be President."

Nevertheless, he was able to achieve his agenda through patience, compromise, and understanding the issues thoroughly. However, he was at the same time impulsive and hesitating, mainly in dealing with people.

Before Lincoln was able to take office, Southern States begin succeeding from the Union one by one and then they formed the Confederate States of America.
“All eyes turned to Springfield, where an inexperienced leader with a limited personal acquaintance among members of his own party grouped his way, on the basis of inadequate information, to formulate a policy for his own administration.”

Lincoln, declaring succession unconstitutional, proclaimed all the laws would be enforced in every state of the Union.
““The right of a State to secede is not an open or debatable question,” he told Nicolay... “It is the duty of a President to execute the laws and maintain the existing Government. He cannot entertain any proposition for dissolution of dismemberment.” Consequently, as he wrote Weed, “No state can, in any way lawfully, get out of the Union, without the consent of the others...” Lincoln’s commitment to maintaining the Union was absolute.”

Despite the fact that the war is not Donald’s subject here, it lasted Lincoln's whole White House years and I learned much about it reading this biography (I'm currently reading and enjoying Shelby Foote's The Civil War Volume II: Fredericksburg to Meridan). One thing was certain, Lincoln would face a great deal of difficulty and trouble and that would come from his own generals. They seemed timid and averse to fighting. Can you imagine something worst in a war? Nevertheless, this would continue until U.S. Grant started his string of victories in the Western front. Indeed, despite criticisms President Lincoln would become General Grant's biggest supporter since he was one of the few that wanted to fight. General George McClellan comes through as the one that most lacked the will to fight and it took Lincoln a while to deal with him. Indeed, the whole time I read about Lincoln’s dealing with McClellan tormented me and I found myself lacking patience.

The Emancipation Proclamation is the one act Lincoln was famous for although he could never imagined himself doing it. However, it was limited to the rebel states, and not the general end of slavery as I believed. Regardless, he hated slavery more than anything:
“If slavery was justified on the ground that masters were white while slaves were black", Lincoln warned, “By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own.” If it was defended on the ground that masters were intellectually the superiors of blacks, the same logic applied: “By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own.”

He believed Presidents had no legal power to free slaves, that being the legal prerogative of solely the States. However, with the Civil War in full swing, he found that as Commander-in-Chief in a time of war, he had the power that he would not have otherwise. So Lincoln freed the slaves in the Confederacy. Later, the Thirteenth Amendment, endorsed by Lincoln, would end legalized slavery in the entire Union.

He was certainly determined in his vision that he should make everything to make sure the Union remained whole. And without Lincoln's determination and leadership, it would have likely been divided. For sure the war was long and difficult, nonetheless Lincoln and many others did not understand how long and difficult it would be. So we can understand there was significant pressure and a huge temptation to end the war prematurely. In hindsight, it's easy to assume that Lincoln did the right thing by continuing the war until the United States was reunited. At the time, however, he faced many critics that complained much. But Lincoln never capitulated. And we can't imagine how difficult it must have been for him to spend so many lives and endless resources to continue the war.

To conclude, the book ends abruptly with Lincoln’s assassination, I would have liked to read about its aftermath, I would have appreciated a last chapter to answer: What were the different reactions to the news of his death? How did his death influence the reconstruction plans he had for the country? Nevertheless, an excellent read and highly recommended.
Profile Image for William2.
728 reviews2,821 followers
November 29, 2021
So vividly written. I learned about this biography from the bibliography of John Keegan’s fine history The American Civil War. It’s quite a find. The story of Lincoln’s frontier upbringing in Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois reads at moments like a fable out of Aesop, perhaps principally because of its rustic setting. Abraham Lincoln had virtually no education. He learned to read relatively late, which you would think would be a handicap. Not at all. He was completely self-taught. He read voraciously. All so he could eventually establish himself over decades as the finest lawyer in the State of Illinois. He learned how to mezmerize juries and political crowds oratorically, even though his voice could at times be high and scratchy. The story of his 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas is fascinating.

The point of view seeks to mimic Lincoln’s own. We only read about what he knew at the time. It’s a bold strategy. What overwhelms the reader is the recounting of the dysfunction in the army in the early years of the Civil War—pre-Vicksburg, which was the turning point. The author communicates the absurdity of General McClellan’s chronic stalling—he refused to engage the enemy—this was in part because McClellan was largely an engineer and a planner with little experience of battle. The effect this had on Lincoln was demoralizing. He couldn’t get his generals to engage the rebels. They would routinely ignore his orders. McClelland in a letter to his wife called the president a ”gorilla.”

I am six foot four, Lincoln’s height, which is not so unusual in the 21st century. But Lincoln was 6-4 in the mid-19th century. At that time such height was regarded as positively freakish. Perhaps the most satisfying element of the story is the way the author put on record many who sneered at Lincoln, those who thought him as a dumb hayseed because of his unprecedented appearance. I love the high dudgeon of the press which raked Lincoln’s administration over the coals in the first two terrible years of war failure. And then came final Vicksburg and everything turned around. Now Lincoln was the wisest of all men.

But the war was long and deadly; 620,000 men would be killed by it. Lincoln’s re-election looked dubious. But then the Democrats shot themselves in their political foot by advancing a Peace platform which their candidate, George McClellan—yes, the inept former Union general—said he could not support. It was roundly pilloried as “the Chicago surrender” platform. This helped Lincoln immensely who, as always, stood for the restoration of the Union. Almost immediately thereafter General Sherman telegraphed to report: “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won.” Then Admiral Farragut captured Mobile, the last Gulf port in Confederate hands. Throughout one marvels at Lincoln’s adroit handling of countless political and military crises. What an astonishing figure he was!
Profile Image for Michael Finocchiaro.
Author 2 books5,414 followers
November 4, 2019
This was a brilliant biography of one of the greatest Presidents in US history. It dispels quite a few myths about Lincoln while diving into his psychological makeup and his complex decision-making process. A deeply involved person, Lincoln assumed total control of the US in 1860 just after the start of the Civil War and faced an enormous amount of challenges. He was far from perfect, but his skills at self-analysis and self-confidence saved both himself and the country. Unfortunately, he was murdered by a Confederate terrorist before he could fully promulgate his ideas on Reconstruction and the black population in the United States still had a massively long and violent road to full Emancipation.
A fantastic read, especially now that the US administration has been a chaotic joke for nearly two years. It was refreshing to read about what a true self-made leader looked like.
Profile Image for Matt.
899 reviews28k followers
April 27, 2016
The myths of history serve the cause of political expediency. The founding fathers were canonized in order to legitimize the young United States. A war over taxes suddenly became a war of freedom. (Patrick Henry evidently determined that "Give me lower taxes without a resulting decline in services, or give me death!" did not work as well as "Give me liberty, or give me death.") Out of this mythmaking we were given George Washington, the father of our Country, a man who still comes to us across the centuries as more symbol than human. In this, he is mostly himself to blame, as he cultivated an above-ness that allowed him to fulfill all his political ambitions without seeming, you know, ambitious. He was also helped by his followers. There is the great story of Washington cursing Charles Lee at Monmouth, though none of the men who heard the Great Washington swear would ever relay his imprecations.

Above even Washington in the hierarchy of American folk tradition is Honest Abe Lincoln. Lincoln, and his myth, served a much different purpose than Washington. The Washington myth helped birth a nation; the Lincoln myth helped a country forgive itself for hundreds of years of race-based slavery. Lincoln literally embodied his own idea that "every drop of blood drawn by the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword." His martyrdom at Ford's Theater forever changed "the People's contest" into something far nobler: an actual war for freedom.

David Herbert Donald's one-volum history of Lincoln's life is said to be the best one-volume biography ever written on the subject. This being the first one-volume biography of Lincoln I've read, I have no evidence to contradict.

This is one of those books where it's impossible to critique the writing, other than to say it is unobtrusive. There are no flourishes, no rhetorical heights, no looping narratives. The prose is simple and informative. The narrative is strictly chronological: birth to death. If you want to know what happened one second after Stanton gave Lincoln his famous epitaph, you will have to look elsewhere.

The history is top notch. Donald is an eminent historian and a top-notch researcher. The book is well-sourced and fully noted.

Donald's Lincoln is fully human and incredibly complex. He is shown in all his humanity, awkwardness, and frailty. Lincoln is given credit, where credit is due, and criticized, where the criticism is due. He is at times shrewd (his dealings with the cabinet). He is at times impulsive (goodbye, habeus corpus). He is at times slow (Donald recounts how Lincoln's administration backed into war). And he is at times infuriatingly vaccilating (I love McClellan. I hate McClellan. I love McClellan). Perhaps no other statesman has ever more embodied the contradictions and conflicts of his time than Lincoln.

The larger portion of the book deals with Lincoln's White House years. Information on his childhood is scant. While Donald covers Lincoln's famous early setbacks (failed store owner, lackluster term in the US House, and two failed Senate bids), he isn't able to spend too much time on them. Indeed, this is going to be the problem in any one-volume telling of a life as big as Lincoln's.

What I found interesting is what Donald decided to cover thoroughly, and where he only scratched the surface. Lincoln's social and familial life is under-emphasized. Lincoln's early romantic failures (he was engaged twice and broke off his engagement to Mary Todd) are only just mentioned. Mary disappears for huge portions of the book, and only emerges as an evil precursor to the heroine of Confesssions of a Shopaholic. The other characters orbiting Lincoln are never given any life or context. On the other hand, Donald spends a good amount of space talking about Lincoln's law practice. As a lawyer, I found the anectdotes about Lincoln's appearances before the Illinois Supreme Court quite fascinating; for non-lawyers, it's probably a drag, and you'll probably be wishing for a good Mary-screaming-at-the-maid story.

Of course, a great deal of time is spent pondering Lincoln's ever-evolving view of slavery, from his earliest writings on the subject to his last words regarding Reconstruction shortly before his death. Donald does a great job contextualizing this evolution. It's not enough to say that Lincoln was the Moses of his people, or to the contrary, that his colonization schemes made him just another of the 19th century ignorati. Rather, Donald shows him as a man in full, possessed of powerful intellect and compassionate humanity.

Lincoln faced a lot of criticism because he was pragmatic. He carefully moderated his views to get things done. It's easy to get on a high horse and say, with righteousness, Lincoln should have been against slavery from the beginning, fighting tooth and nail. Of course, Lincoln would've gotten nothing done. It's easy to have firm beliefs; it's much harder to translate those beliefs into effective political action. It will always take a William Lloyd Garrison to bring moral issues to the fore; and it will always take a Lincoln to cleverly manipulate the levers of power that get things accomplished in a balky, Senate-dominated "democracy" such as ours.

There is a lot to learn from Lincoln, and Donald's ability to synthesize and streamline Lincoln's life make those lessons plain. I'm very much a fan of Lincoln's way of decision-making: to first come to a conclusion, then let others challenge it.

This book provides a great jumping off point for any future reading about Lincoln. It is not the end-all of the subject, because no single book can possibly engage all the many fascinating aspects of Lincoln's life (as the countless micro-histories about Lincoln - his cabinet, his depression, his alleged homosexuality - attest).

I did think that it was weird how Donald kept taking potshots at Winfield Scott, perhaps the greatest general in US history. For some reason, Donald just hates Scott. The only nice thing he says is that Scott's "Anaconda plan had some merit." Some merit. If by some you mean it was the plan eventually used to win the Civil War after the bumbling incompetence of McDowell, McClellan, Burnside, McClellan again, and Hooker (not to mention Pope's ill-fated Army of Virginia), then yes, I suppose it had some little bit of merit to it.

Donald's Lincoln struck me in two ways. First, Lincoln was a man elevated by his friends. From his earliest days in New Salem, he was supported and backed by influential men. These men, though they quarreled with each other, were uniformly loyal to Lincoln. Which means that either Lincoln was truly an exceptional man, or the greatest puppeteer in history. I guess probably a little bit of both. He had admirable qualities, as well as that ability to make anyone who met him feel like they were the most important person in the world.

The second thing that struck me pertains to the current landscape of the United States. Throughout Donald's Lincoln there are dozens and dozens of eminent men criticizing, rebuking, and insulting Lincoln. It's amazing how many men and women thought Lincoln was a disaster. Every step in his presidency, there was another person writing to say that he'd just nailed the coffin closed on America. And I'm not just talking about Democratic muckrackers or closet-traitors like Clement Vallandigham; I'm talking about men like Charles Sumner and Horace Greeley. Fortunately for us, but unfortunately for them, they put their thoughts into writing. The benefit of hindsight allows us to see that these brilliant men were wrong, wrong, wrong, and at times, dead wrong.

They weren't stupid. Rather, they shared that American trait of wanting it all, and wanting it all at once. Our insistence on instant gratification actually predated the iPod and On Demand television. It was actually thriving during the mid-19th century. For these impatient men, every battle that was lost meant total and utter ruin. For these impatient men, it was better to sue for peace than stay the course.

Of course, Lincoln didn't listen to these men. And that's an important lesson. We don't live in a direct democracy. We don't have referendums on every single issue. We elect people to represent us. As Lincoln himself noted, he was made president, which gives him some discretion to act in the way he saw fit. Lincoln was singular in his vision: that the Union remain one. Everything he did, including his grievous blunders and unconstitutional usurpations (see Ex Parte Milligan, where Lincoln's old friend David Davis gives a posthumous slapdown to military tribunals), he did in pursuit of this vision. While his critics complained day-to-day, Lincoln took the long view.

He was the center, and the center held.
Profile Image for Mikey B..
961 reviews348 followers
May 31, 2013
As I am not a Civil War buff it was with some trepidation that I read this almost 600 page biography on Lincoln. However I was delightfully surprised and found it very readable. Mr. Donald gives a good portrait of the era and Lincoln’s background. The focus is on Lincoln – there are very little details on Civil War battles or persons who had no personal influence on Lincoln (such as Robert E. Lee). Perhaps there is too much on internecine rivalries, such as that between Lincoln and Chase. Also the book ends abruptly after Lincoln’s assassination, with no rounding up of his later impact on the Reconstruction period.

We get a full-fledged depiction of a man who was little prepared to be a President during this turbulent epoch. Seldom has there been an individual taking on the mantle of the Presidency who had so little experience in federal affairs. Mr. Donald removes the halo around Lincoln – he was very indecisive and meandered before forming a position. Initially for Lincoln; the war was for re-unification, not for the emancipation of the slaves. Even after 1863 he was undecided as to what emancipation meant. For instance did it mean universal suffrage for African American males in the South?

We are presented with Lincoln’s agony of being unable to satisfy the Radical abolitionists and the more moderate Unionists in the North, while fighting a war, where for the first three years everything was going wrong for the Northern Armies. One also realizes that Lincoln, during his Presidency, was open to change and never had a pre-set opinion. In some ways he reminds me of Roosevelt, for he was a very garrulous person and was constantly meeting a wide assortment of people and absorbing their concerns.

More than half of the book is devoted to the Civil War years. It gives a vivid picture of a man who struggled and learned and then successfully re-unified the country and ended the abomination of slavery.
Profile Image for Paul Haspel.
529 reviews54 followers
February 11, 2022
Lincoln looms over American life like no other historical figure. The 16th President of the United States of America led the Union cause to victory in the Civil War, and worked to bring about the emancipation of four million enslaved African Americans. In the process, he took on, within American culture, a mythic status that the real Abraham Lincoln, a man of deep humility, would no doubt find profoundly embarrassing. Fortunately, there are historians and biographers who work to try to bring to modern readers Lincoln the real person, not Lincoln the mythic hero. David Herbert Donald of Harvard University does so quite successfully in his 1995 biography Lincoln, and the field of Lincoln studies is the better for it.

Professor Donald had previously served as editor of a 1956 book titled Lincoln Reconsidered – a collection of essays that sought to strip away various layers of Lincoln mythology. It makes perfect sense, therefore, that Donald would want to write an entire biography – a good-sized one, at 599 pages – seeking to set forth Lincoln’s life as Lincoln experienced it. It is an intellectually rigorous and compelling way to construct a Lincoln biography.

With regard to Lincoln’s early life in Illinois, Donald conveys well the way in which Lincoln’s early legal career foreshadowed the strengths that would make him a successful President; he prepared for every case in exhaustive detail, looking all the way back to English common law for relevant precedents, and told his law partner William Herndon that the reason he did so was that “I dare not trust this case on presumptions that this court knows all things. I argued the case on the presumption that the court did not know anything” (p. 100). The hundreds of cases that he argued before Illinois’s top courts, Donald argues, made a first-rate testing ground for a future President who would need to negotiate many delicate legal and political situations in order to hold the Union together.

As the crisis of the Union progressed during the 1850’s, Lincoln’s thinking evolved, as Donald is careful to show. When the U.S. Supreme Court issued its infamous Dred Scott vs. Sandford decision in 1857, for example, Lincoln “was reluctant to challenge the Court’s ruling. He had enormous respect for the law and for the judicial process” (p. 200). But the Taney Court’s declaration that African Americans had no rights before the law, no rights that whites were bound to respect, no standing under the Declaration of Independence or the United States Constitution, so outraged Lincoln “that Lincoln’s faith in an impartial, rational judiciary was shaken; never again did he give deference to the rulings of the Supreme Court” (p. 201).

Donald emphasizes how the legal and political acumen that Lincoln developed as a young Illinois lawyer served him well as the nation sank into civil war, as when Lincoln worked to keep within the Union the crucial “border states” of Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri, slaveholding states where Unionism was nonetheless strong. With regard to Kentucky, “Lincoln could not let his native state, which controlled the vital south bank of the Ohio River, fall under Confederate control”; yet when Kentucky tried to declare itself a neutral state, he wisely “avoided hostilities during the uneasy neutrality, recognizing that Unionism was growing faster in Kentucky than secessionist sentiment” (pp. 299-300). Lincoln’s restraint, on this occasion, may have helped keep the Confederacy from growing by three states, and may have done much to save the Union before the first shots of the Civil War were even fired.

A highlight of Donald’s Lincoln, for me, was the part dealing with the circumstances against which President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation toward the end of 1862, officially making the Civil War an anti-slavery struggle as well as a war to preserve the American Union. As Donald recounts it, “During the past six months necessity and – as Lincoln thought – Providence had pushed his administration, though in uncertain spurts and starts, in a more radical direction….These moves had cost him much of his support from Moderates yet did little to win the support of Radical Republicans” (p. 398). It was against this background that President Lincoln, in his 1862 State of the Union message to Congress, declared that “In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free – honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve” (p. 398-99). In Donald’s reading, Lincoln the practical politician helps to make possible the vision for a better nation cherished by Lincoln the moralist of compassionate and humane ideals.

When it comes to the American Civil War and the vast horror of its battlefields, Donald does not seek to provide an omniscient, “eye-of-God”-style look at the war. Rather, he helps us see the Civil War as President Lincoln saw it, waiting anxiously at the War Department offices for telegraph dispatches from the battlefronts, rejoicing or lamenting as the battlefield fortunes of the Union armies waxed or waned. In the spring of 1864, for instance, Lincoln followed with interest and concern the early phases of General Ulysses S. Grant’s Virginia Overland Campaign against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

At the battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House, as the Army of the Potomac incurred more than 32,000 casualties over a two-week period, a sleepless Lincoln wondered out loud, “Why do we suffer reverses after reverses! Could we have avoided this terrible, bloody war….Is it ever to end!” (p. 500). Yet he stuck with Grant, appreciating Grant’s tenacious determination not to disengage from the Confederates, but to continue pressing the rebel armies with all the strength of the Union forces; admiring Grant’s “perfect coolness and persistency of purpose”, Lincoln stated that “It is the dogged pertinacity of Grant that wins” (p. 501).

As with his Thomas Wolfe biography Look Homeward (1987), Donald does not close with any great summation of his own opinion regarding Lincoln’s life, work, impact, and influence. Rather, in the book’s conclusion Donald takes us through Lincoln’s second inauguration, his initial statements regarding the shape that he thought postwar American society should take, the planning and carrying-out of the assassination of President Lincoln, and the immediate and mournful aftermath of Lincoln’s death; and the book ends on that note. Perhaps Donald feels that the biographer’s task is to set down the known facts of the subject’s life, and then to let the reader make up his or her own mind regarding what those known facts all add up to.

Whatever the case, Donald’s Lincoln is a powerful and cerebral biography that demands and rewards repeat readings. I first read Lincoln while my wife and I were living in Illinois – when my daily commute took me from our home in Champaign to academic jobs in Normal and Decatur, across much of the Eighth Judicial District that Lincoln traveled as a young Illinois lawyer. Lincoln is so much a part of the Illinois landscape that it is never a surprise to find another statue of or memorial for him – across the street from Urbana High School, in front of the main building for Millikin University, and of course all over Springfield.

It was good to be reading this excellent Lincoln biography in Lincoln’s home state. But wherever you’re living, David Donald’s Lincoln will place you right beside Lincoln as the great Illinoisan moves through his extraordinary life.
Profile Image for Lisa (Harmonybites).
1,834 reviews324 followers
January 23, 2013
Ever since historians have been polled to rank United States Presidents, Abraham Lincoln has consistently landed in the top three; many consider him our greatest president. Which is not to say Lincoln doesn't have strong detractors. Many of my politically inclined friends have attacked him left and right: For his appalling record on civil liberties and violation of constitutional principles--and some claim that Lincoln should not be seen as a champion of equal rights and racial justice--I've even known some to claim the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery at all. (I'd say this book--and every other reputable work of scholarship I've read--makes it idiotic to believe the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery. The South seceded precisely because of the election of Lincoln who had made clear his opposition to the further expansion of slavery.)

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.
Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,559 reviews8,648 followers
March 2, 2018
I've owned this book for years, and finally read it. It was grand, just unfortnuate for Donald I read this after Caro, so 4-stars and not 5. I'll review more in a few.
Profile Image for Sonny.
415 reviews26 followers
July 10, 2020
“For the first time in American history citizens began to feel that the occupant of the White House was their representative. They referred to him as Father Abraham, and they showered him with homely gifts: a firkin of butter, a crate of Bartlett pears, New England salmon.”
― David Herbert Donald, Lincoln

David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln has been called the best single-volume biography ever written on Abraham Lincoln. Some have said it is his masterpiece. No doubt, it is a monumental achievement in scholarship. It provides the reader with a detailed and gripping portrait of America’s 16th president. There has been no major biography quite like it, as it is primarily written from Lincoln's perspective. Donald, a distinguished historian, Harvard history professor, and Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, spent much of a lifetime studying and teaching the Civil War era. He published more than thirty books in his lifetime.

Making use of many newly discovered documents, Donald skillfully traces Lincoln's early life and legal career, describing his rise from his impoverished beginnings on the Kentucky frontier to his days as an Illinois legislator and lawyer. Roughly half of the biography is devoted to the period leading up to his 1861 inauguration, carefully exploring the experiences that shaped Lincoln’s character before his presidency. While the biography successfully chronicles Lincoln’s development as a leader, it meant less space for the war; however, it provides more context for the reader. Donald’s description of three events during this period stand out—Lincoln’s successful run for a seat in the Illinois state legislature in 1834, Lincoln's debating performance in the 1858 Senate race against Stephen Douglas, and the Republican nominating convention of 1860.

“Lincoln seems to have had the unusual notion that a public servant’s first duty is to help people,”
― David Herbert Donald, Lincoln

Donald’s description of Lincoln as a war president is interesting, as it is again written from Lincoln's viewpoint. Lincoln’s efforts are at first inept, but his administration of the armies and other national affairs gradually becomes more skillful. Donald’s description of the interplay between the members of Lincoln’s cabinet is interesting, but this is territory that is handled with skill in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. Some will certainly be disappointed by the lack of coverage of the Civil War battles. The Battle of Gettysburg, a turning point of the war, only receives two pages of coverage, and most of that has to do with Lincoln’s reaction.

“Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was 272 words and he delivered it under three minutes. He labored on it for days. The "featured speaker," Edward Everett, rambled on for two hours. Most people don't even remember his name, never mind what he said.”
― David Herbert Donald, Lincoln

While Donald’s Lincoln is a considerable achievement, it is not without some flaws. While Donald proves skillful at describing events from Lincoln's perspective, his writing is not as stylish as that of Ron Chernow or David McCullough. The story is heavy on facts and insight but lacks the nuances of a great writer.

Numerous reviewers have rightly criticized Donald for emphasizing Lincoln’s “essential passivity” rather than describing him as a resolute, forceful president. He seems to argue that Lincoln was largely the beneficiary of circumstance. The Lincoln that Donald gives us is an inexperienced, ill-prepared man who became great as president, almost in spite of his nature. In part, Donald derives this from Lincoln’s lifelong belief that human, and especially his own, destiny was controlled by a higher power. This is a difficult judgment to accept and is especially questionable when one considers slavery and race. It is not reasonable to think that truly passive men will go to the White House - much less become the greatest of Americans. The result of Donald’s approach is a biography that is more than understated—it seems to intentionally hide Lincoln’s greatness. As one reviewer writes, “Some of the glory that was and remains Lincoln is missing.”

The scholarship is certainly first-rate and this remarkable biography is unquestionably a significant contribution to Lincoln scholarship. Nevertheless, it offers a provocative reinterpretation of Abraham Lincoln's career and character that some will find a little hard to swallow.
Profile Image for Charles Finch.
Author 26 books2,251 followers
October 27, 2017
Well...it's a historian's biography. Nobody could write a more scrupulous single-volume account of the passage of a 19th-century human being's day. So I learned a lot about Lincoln - but never quite felt I knew Lincoln. It doesn't approach him through anything but his story. I'm not looking for wild leaps, but the best biographers (Caro, obviously) make cautions forays into the mind and character of their subjects that illuminate them. This book, beyond reiterating Lincoln's fondness for his children and tall tales, doesn't really give him...contour, I guess.

So if you want to know the facts, it's ideal; if you want more, keep searching, probably.
Profile Image for Doreen Petersen.
708 reviews106 followers
September 28, 2016
Excellent, outstanding book!! The man, the Presidency, the legend. His life was cut far too short by a cowardly act. Would that the US have learned it's lesson from this tragedy but alas we have not. What does this say about us as a nation? My heart grieves for all those senselessly lost.
Profile Image for Bill.
189 reviews38 followers
January 20, 2022
Whether through careful study, or passive osmosis, any good citizen of the U.S. is familiar with the general outline of Abraham Lincoln’s life. From an early age, we learn of the log cabin, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the Gettysburg Address, Ford’s Theater. Knowing the story of the self-made man who freed the slaves and saved the Union is part of what it means to be an American.

Few, if any, readers who are inclined to pick up a hefty biography of Lincoln, then, are coming to the subject fresh. We know how the story begins, we know how it progresses and we know how it turns out. And David Herbert Donald knows that we know all of this. So he details, dissects and discusses familiar events, describing how things happened and why, instead of merely chronicling them. He assumes a familiarity on the reader’s part with the beats of Lincoln’s life story, which frees him from the need to be encyclopedic or to build up false drama and suspense about what is to come. This proves to be a benefit in many ways, but a drawback in others, as a little drama and suspense isn’t such a bad thing even when you know what happens next.

Donald’s goal, as he explains in his preface, is to keep a tight focus on Lincoln himself - what he knew, and saw, and experienced, and how it shaped his character and his decisions. So the book is never too focused on “the times” that you lose sight of “the life.” Whatever doesn’t directly involve Lincoln happens offstage and is not described in detail, if at all, whether it’s the state of politics in the country and the policies of previous presidents as Lincoln rises to prominence, or the action on far-off Civil War battlefields once he becomes president himself.

This technique is useful in that you know what Lincoln knew at the time that he knew it. His actions and decisions can then be considered in the context of the times and not with the benefit of historical hindsight.

Donald manages to meld this technique with his acknowledgment that we already know the contours of the story he’s telling. Even though Lincoln doesn’t know what’s going to happen next, we do. So Donald sometimes refers to things yet to come, if one event can be shown to foreshadow, affect or contrast with a notable event in the future - one example being how some positions Lincoln took during the Mexican-American War conflicted with actions he later took during the Civil War. Instead of waiting until the chapters on his presidency to refer back to something described hundreds of pages earlier, Donald makes his point right away, knowing that we’ll understand his references to future events that will be more fully described later in the book.

Throughout, Donald mostly avoids offering judgment or analysis of Lincoln’s actions, letting others do the praising or criticizing. In fact, there’s a lot of criticism, so the book is far from hagiographical - those who think they know Lincoln’s story might not appreciate just how much political opposition he faced, and how close he came at times to ending up as a failed one-term president. Donald thoroughly traces the evolution of Lincoln’s thinking on slavery, on prosecuting the war and on bringing the country back together after the war. His initial ideas weren’t always fully-formed, and his actions weren’t always correct, but Donald shows how he was ultimately able to meet the moment.

The chapters on Lincoln’s early life are sprinkled with plenty of anecdotes and quotes from those who knew him. And the writing is often very good - I jotted down one brief example, where Donald describes Lincoln’s conflicted feelings upon his father’s death: “Unable to simulate a grief that he did not feel or an affection that he did not bear, Lincoln did not attend his father's funeral. He was not heartless, but Thomas Lincoln represented a world that his son had long ago left behind him."

As Lincoln progresses in his political career and becomes president, though, the book becomes a more straightforward recounting of events and how Lincoln propelled or reacted to them. Since “we know what’s coming next,” major events are not described particularly dramatically - the conception, drafting and issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation, for example, is not treated as a particularly momentous occasion, but as just another thing that happened. Similarly, the Gettysburg Address is covered with a largely technical, unemotional analysis of the writing process, followed by a brief description of the occasion during which it was delivered, with only brief quotes from the address itself, since it’s assumed we know what he said without Donald having to tell us.

And, in keeping with the tight focus only on events that occurred directly in Lincoln’s orbit, the climax of Lincoln’s entire presidency - the successful end of the war after four long years - gets one terse sentence: “That night he learned that Lee had surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, and he immediately told Mary.”

Perhaps a longer description of Lee’s surrender was unnecessary, since Lincoln wasn’t there to witness it himself. But neither was Lincoln there to witness John Wilkes Booth hatching his assassination plot, yet Donald manages to describe that in great and compelling detail, tensely and dramatically, in a departure from nearly every other aspect of his otherwise studious, scholarly story. It only serves to prove that a little drama and suspense is indeed not such a bad thing even when you know what happens next.

In the end, since Lincoln’s story is told through Lincoln’s eyes, the book immediately concludes when Lincoln departs the scene. He dies, Stanton says he belongs to the ages, and the story is over. Donald resists any discussion about his legacy, or any might-have-beens. We know, after all, how things turned out.

With so much having been written about Lincoln, it may be impossible to produce the perfect biography that includes everything and pleases everyone. This one is pretty close to the mark, though it's missing the broader context and more dramatic storytelling that you might be able to find elsewhere. If nothing else, if you read the book thinking you already know everything about Lincoln, since, after all, you're a good citizen who knows your history, you'll come away realizing that even after reading this impressive work, there's still so much more to learn.
Profile Image for Steve.
323 reviews1,067 followers
March 30, 2014

Published in 1995, David Herbert Donald’s “Lincoln” is often considered the quintessential Lincoln biography. Donald, the grandson of a Union cavalry officer, was a long-time history professor at Harvard. He also wrote nearly three-dozen books and is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner (for his biographies of Charles Sumner and Thomas Wolfe). Best remembered as a leading authority on Abraham Lincoln, Donald died in 2009.

Donald’s “Lincoln” is widely regarded as the best single-volume biography ever written on Abraham Lincoln. With several other renowned biographies of Lincoln still to read I am unable to validate that premise. But fresh off two recently published Lincoln biographies and five-dozen biographies of earlier presidents, I can confirm that this biography – while not quite as “unrivaled” as promised by some – is nevertheless extremely meritorious.

Obvious from its earliest pages is that Donald’s biography is scholarly, serious and straightforward. Although it fully presents Lincoln’s dramatic life story, from poverty to the Presidency, this book does not idolize or worship Lincoln as might be the temptation. In fact, many have criticized Donald for emphasizing Lincoln’s “essential passivity” rather than positioning him as a determined, forceful president aggressively pushing the country to embrace his enlightened moral standards. Donald also seems to place less focus than other biographers on Lincoln’s dramatic growth and maturation as president, though this component of his character is not completely hidden.

One of the many excellent aspects of this book is Donald’s description of the personalities of, and interplay between, the members of Lincoln’s cabinet. The acumen that accompanies these discussions is particularly interesting and insightful. Also useful is the author’s explanation for Lincoln’s desire (and success) in seeking a seat in the Illinois state legislature in 1834. Equally compelling is discussion of the Republican nominating convention of 1860 and Lincoln’s early hunt for the presidency.

Less successful is Donald’s style of writing. Based largely on superlatives from delighted previous readers, I expected a smoothly-flowing, consistently engaging narrative in the style of McCullough or Chernow. However, “Lincoln” does not provide that type of experience. The style and pace of the biography are a bit too uneven and the biography resembles the work of a great historian rather than of a great author. This story is heavy on facts and insight but is relatively light on the nuances that would serve to place the reader “in the room” with Lincoln.

Donald’s biography generally proceeds chronologically, as would be expected. But within many of its chapters the story switches without warning between chronological and topical progression. Because the author assumes the reader will manage these transitions without assistance, extra attention is required to avoid any confusion as to the sequencing of the events described.

Lincoln and his wife are also less vividly humanized than I would have liked. Whether this is in an attempt to avoid sensationalizing them (or their relationship) on the basis of imperfect historical information I do not know. But compared to the far more expressive treatment the Lincolns received in Michael Burlingame’s recent two-volume study of Lincoln, Donald’s description of the Lincolns often seems relatively bland – and certainly less dramatic.

Overall, David Herbert Donald’s “Lincoln” is an excellent biography though it did not quite live up to my high expectations. Instead of a consistently engaging but scholarly study of Lincoln, I encountered a biography designed primarily to inform rather than entertain. Someone expecting a scholarly but entertaining and carefree waltz through Lincoln’s life will be disappointed. But someone seeking serious (but not stodgy) Lincoln scholarship in a single volume will find David Herbert Donald’s “Lincoln” a solid, perhaps great, choice.

Overall rating: 4¼ stars
Profile Image for AC.
138 reviews4 followers
June 24, 2010
What a difference! Last week I read Jon Meacham's ponderous and extremely boring "American Lion". I picked up this book because I had a feeling it was going to be great. I needed to read an example of a great biography. "Lincoln" did not disappoint.

While Donald used as many quotes as Meacham used in "American Lion", the difference was in execution. Donald used the quotes to advance the history while Meacham just tried to fit as much information as possible into in each paragraph.

While the first 25 pages seemed to drag a bit, the narrative picked up once Lincoln made it to New Salem.

I really appreciated how Donald was able to express the political implications of every decision Lincoln made not only in his presidency but also during his time in Springfield.

So much political intrigue. Lincoln while given the moniker "Honest Abe" was a master politician. It was eye-opening to see how he was able to stroke egos and yet get his way, time and time again.

I learned that Lincoln was definitely not a humble man. He wasn't arrogant but he was sure of his abilities even though he did suffer from bouts of depression and melancholy. Despite that, he soldiered on. He always believed that God had a higher purpose for him that he could not control. It was this fatalism, I think, that gave him comfort when he made decisions that would reverberate through the ages.

I always thought I knew everything about the Civil War period and Lincoln, but I learned so much from this book. I have not read "Team of Rivals" yet, but this book has definitely piqued my interest.

Very inspiring
Profile Image for David Crow.
Author 1 book874 followers
August 11, 2020
As a devoted fan of Abraham Lincoln, I love books that give insights into his character and ability to make great decisions under extraordinary pressure. Donald does that in a concise, informative, and entertaining way. If you only read one book about Lincoln, this would be a good one. I highly recommend it.
Profile Image for Christopher.
733 reviews39 followers
October 6, 2015
On the cover of my paperback edition to this book, Geoffrey C. Ward, one of the writers behind the great documentary "Ken Burns' The Civil War," is quoted as saying that his book is "richly researched." That is a a bit of an understatement. Mr. Donald, who seems to specialize in mid-19th century American history, has brought nearly every available bit of information on Lincoln to bear in order to illuminate one of the most complicated historical figures. One of the greatest strengths of this biography, as explained in the introduction, is "a biography written from Lincoln's point of view." Thus, events that may have occurred earlier in the timeline don't get mentioned until Lincoln actually knew about it. This is great as it keeps the focus solely on Lincoln and giving the reader the chance to see Lincoln's remarkable growth as a person throughout his entire life. But it is also its greatest weakness as it isolates Lincoln from the times he lived in rather than a person of those times. This is especially frustrating during his pre-presidential years as key events in American history that would lead to the Civil War and Lincoln's presidency are given little, if no, acknowledgement. Not only that, but when Lincoln dies, the story ends. No epilogue on the funeral train or Lincoln's legacy. A little more credence to historical events and more analysis of Lincoln's historical significance would have been nice . In the end, this is a great study of the man and what made him tick and led to his major decisions as president. This a great place to start for anyone interested in Lincoln.
Profile Image for Dan.
1,057 reviews52 followers
June 14, 2020

It is a great piece of folly to attempt to make anything out of my early life. It can all be condensed into a single sentence, and that sentence you will find in Gray’s Elegy,

The short and simple annals of the poor.

That’s my life, and that’s all you or anyone else can make of it.

Abraham Lincoln

This bestselling biography was penned in 1993 by two time Pulitzer Prize winning historian David Herbert Donald.

Through well placed quotes and significant coverage of Lincoln’s origin story, the character of Lincoln emerges. I would say the writing in this book is almost on par with Sandburg’s multi-volume biography of Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln was born at Sinking Spring Farm Kentucky in 1809. Soon after his birth his family moved to Knob Hill just down the road. It was a small community of a few dozen pioneering folk. At the age of seven Lincoln’s family moved again to Little Pigeon Creek Indiana — his father , a farmer, was economically frustrated both with the loss of his contested land claims and the competition of the slave owned farms in Kentucky. Life for young Abe was both exciting but clearly arduous on the new frontier. Sadly only a year after moving to Little Pigeon Creek his mother and several neighbors died from the milk sickness. Eventually his father re-married and young Abraham was quick to accept the new arrangement and doted on his step-mother . She in return also thought the world of him remembering his exceptional manners.

When he reached adulthood a few years later, Lincoln moved to New Salem Illinois on the Sangamon River. While there took many different jobs and entered into a few business ventures that didn’t and was well liked by many of the townspeople. He entered politics part-time and was elected to the State House at twenty five. For two decades Lincoln moved back and forth between a law career and politics and it should be noted that he was successful at both. But it was not until the Douglass-Lincoln debates in 1858 that he became known outside of Illinois. It was also Lincoln’s good fortune that the Republican National Convention was held in Chicago in 1860. His backers were able to show up in force and he eventually overcome a delegate lead by Seward to become the nominee. This was the same year he won the Presidential election when there were four horses from different parties in the race. Much is known about Lincoln’s presidency so I won’t summarize.

Some additional topics that I found fascinating.

Lincoln was a part time surveyor while he studied law. Lincoln was reportedly quite meticulous and well regarded in the field. Washington and Lincoln were the only presidents who were surveyors.

Vandalia served as the Illinois state capital from 1819 to 1839. One of those who campaigned for the move of the capital to Springfield was Abraham Lincoln. Vandalia was not centrally located. Lincoln went on to live in Springfield for more than two decades.

Edward Stanton, a Democrat that Lincoln later appointed Secretary of War, became a valuable confidant to Lincoln.

In November 1862, President Lincoln spent an agonizing month considering the punishment for the Sioux who were responsible for the worst atrocities in the Dakota War that began near Acton Minnesota and cost 350 settlers their lives. A military commission tried 1500 Sioux and condemned 305 to death. Lincoln asked that they hold off on any executions until he reviewed. Lincoln first conferred with clergy on what he should do. He then reviewed each individual condemned to death and settled on a large reduction to thirty eight men — those he felt had committed the worst bloodshed. He also demanded wholesale changes to several Indian commission seats since the current corrupt commissioners had held back m supplies from the Sioux. The men were executed in December in what was the largest mass execution in U.S. history. Lincoln was vilified by nearly everyone for either his leniency or the barbarity of hanging men who acted out of the desperation of starvation. Lincoln said in response to the Governor of Minnesota who complained of the lenient sentence, “I could not afford to hang men for votes.”

Lincoln also had much in his personal life to deal with along with the tremendous responsibilities of being President during a civil war. In early 1862 his son Willie died of typhoid. It was also around this time that Mary Todd started to experience debilitating fits of mania and depression. Following the Gettysburg address in 1863, Lincoln was diagnosed with smallpox. He is reported to have said, “Now I have something I can give everybody.”

But Lincoln did make some sizable errors. In 1864 at the time of the convention where Lincoln would be nominated for a second term he did not advocate a second term for his current VP, Hannibal Hamlin. Lincoln was concerned that Hamlin was too radical in his anti-slavery views. He joked that that “he did not fear the Confederates would assassinate him for they would get Hamlin instead”. Instead Lincoln got Andrew Johnson who was not vetted for the possibility that Lincoln might not survive a second term. This decision had major consequences for Reconstruction.

The other sizable error was dismissing General Winfield Scott’s early warnings that the war would not be an easy victory and that the Union must approach it from the big Army perspective and not fight battles piecemeal. The Union suffered many disastrous defeats in those first two years starting with the first Battle of Manassas. Winfield Scott was severely obese and in bad health in the final years of his life and could not have played a more active role even if he wanted to but there is no doubt that he was the brilliant tactician that the North lacked.

In the final pages, Lincoln invites General Grant and Julia Grant to the play at Ford’s Theater — the night of the assassination. The Grants accepted and then bowed out, Mary Todd was not well liked. It is impossible to know if Booth would have been successful in his assassination attempt. There had already been discussion about Lincoln’s security and it is hard to believe that they would send the two most popular men of the Union to a setting with no security.

5 stars. This book is a treasure trove of information and stories. The first half of the book covers Lincoln’s early life and is quite exemplary. There is little to dislike about Lincoln the man in this book to be sure. The second half of the book, covering Lincoln during his presidency, tends to downplay Lincoln’s commitment toward abolishing slavery. There is a tendency to make much of it seem politically expedient or seem like a small part of his every day worries. I don’t necessarily subscribe to those views but with only three hundred pages of the war years, it is understandable that some coverage gets short shrift.

Carl Sandburg’s six volumes on Lincoln called the Prairie Years and the War Years are the best written and most voluminous of the Lincoln biographies. But Sandburg’s work has also panned by many historians as less than objective — the hero worship was evident even to a lay reader like myself.

This book by Donald though is the best of the one volume biographies on Lincoln.

Profile Image for Gary Hoggatt.
98 reviews15 followers
April 17, 2012
David Herbert Donald's 1996 biography Lincoln has been called the best single volume Lincoln biography of the period. Though this is my first Lincoln bio, I'd be surprised to read a better. Donald does a fantastic job of making Lincoln come alive and allowing the reader to join the 16th president on the amazing journey that was his life.

Donald's framing device is that the reader is presented with the information Lincoln knew at the time. This reduces the frequent historical tendency to second guess the subject, and allows you to more easily see things from Lincoln's point of view when he was weighing his decisions. A significant example of this is that the reader is not taken to any Civil War battlefields as bullets fly, but instead joins Lincoln in pacing the War Department telegraph office waiting for news, writing to McClellan urging him to make a move, or visiting Grant as he makes his plans for the final push. It's a simple but powerful biographical technique, and Donald does it very well.

The book is split roughly evenly between Lincoln's pre-presidential life and his presidential service. Donald's coverage of Lincoln's early life is very interesting, effectively conveying Lincoln's poor origins and his varied early careers. His legal career is particularly well-covered, with interesting examples from his law practice demonstrated by specific cases he argued. His private life is also chronicled well, with his early romantic interests and courtship of Mary Todd all receiving their due attention. Lincoln's early political career is fascinating, as he moves from the disintegrating Whig party in helping form the new Republican party.

Once the presidential years begin, the focus naturally shifts to Lincoln's execution of his public duties. As expected based on his premise, Donald doesn't focus on the battlefields or the goings on of the South, instead doing an excellent job of showing the juggling act Lincoln had to perform with the various Northern factions - Radical Republicans, Conservative Republicans, War Democrats, Peace Democrats; abolitionists, western states, border slave-holding states; incompetent generals, more incompetent generals, and finally Grant. Donald's presentation of Lincoln's masterful navigating of these difficult waters truly gives the reader a great appreciation for the challenges Lincoln overcame in holding the Union together. Donald does still touch upon Lincoln's personal life during these years, including difficulties regarding Mary, and the devastating loss of their son Willie.

As I finished the book, I realized that, even knowing all along how it sadly must end, Donald had brought me so close to Lincoln that it touched me personally, as if I myself had lost a friend or mentor. I can only thank Donald for making that possible for someone almost a century and a half gone.

I absolutely recommend Donald's Lincoln to anyone with an interest in American history. It is simply a masterfully told story of one of the most important people in American history at the most important Post-Revolution crossroads in American history.

I was so impressed with this book that I plan to read Donald's Charles Sumner and the Coming of the American Civil War, which won the Pulitzer Prize and covers the radical abolitionist senator that was a leading voice during the Civil War, and who makes many appearances in Lincoln. I also plan to read other well-regarded single volume biographies of Lincoln, including Abraham Lincoln: A Biography by Benjamin P. Thomas (1952), With Malice Towards None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen B. Oates (1977), and A. Lincoln: A Biography by Ronald C. White, Jr. (2009), each of which was heralded as the best Lincoln biography of their time. While I can't expect them to top Donald, I am eager to learn more about Lincoln, including how he's been viewed over the years.
Profile Image for Steven Peterson.
Author 21 books267 followers
November 27, 2009
This is a rock solid biography of Abraham Lincoln. The biography is richened by the availability since 1947 of the Abraham Lincoln papers, not hitherto available since they were sealed in 1890. As much as possible the author uses primary sources and liberally uses Lincoln's own words. At the outset, Donald makes a few observations about Lincoln. For instance, he notes that (page 14) ". . .this biography highlights a basic trait of character evident throughout Lincoln's life: the essential passivity of his nature." Lincoln himself once said that (page 15) "I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me." That is, Lincoln responded to changes in circumstances. Donald also notes that (Page 15) "From Lincoln's fatalism derived some of his most lovable traits: his compassion, his tolerance, his willingness to overlook mistakes."

The book begins, traditionally enough, with a look at his family's history, his birth, his movement from Kentucky to eventually settle in Illinois. Key experiences were the death of his mother, his early exposure to books and consequent development of an appetite to read. In 1831, he began life on his own. Over the next decade, he tried many occupations--from carpenter to riverboat man to clerk to postmaster to lawyer and to politician. His life in New Salem was pleasant enough, but it was when he moved to Springfield that his trajectory began really to rise. His law practice and political involvement grounded him in the larger community.

His political career was certainly modest enough for someone who became president (hence, some reviewers noting the paucity of experience, making him one of the least credentialed presidents in American history). His marriage to Mary Todd helped with the often melancholic nature of his life. His political career took off with the Lincoln-Douglas debates in his unsuccessful effort to derail Stephen Douglas' re-election campaign to the United States Senate. Lincoln made a speaking tour and began to gain notice. When the 1860 Republican convention deadlocked, he became nominated as president as the fallback candidate. Once elected, as the book speaks to well, he selected a uniquely headstrong and eminent cabinet, including in it a number of failed presidential hopefuls from the 1860 convention.

The volume also speaks in detail about the human side of his presiding over the Civil War. If you want details about campaigns and battles, this is not the book for you. However, his portrayal of Lincoln on a very human level is nicely done. One can experience Lincoln's back and forthing on slavery and emancipation; one can feel his anguish as he sees that his generals early in the war "don't get it," and so on.

The book concludes with the assassination and the telling phrase by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton as Lincoln breathed his last (page 599): "Now he belongs to the ages."

This is an excellent volume, jam packed with details, and depicting nicely Abraham Lincoln, the human being. Well worth adding to one's Abraham Lincoln collection.
Profile Image for Thomas.
57 reviews5 followers
March 26, 2013
This is an excellent treatment of the life of Abraham Lincoln, and I highly recommend it for history buffs. (It isn't my favorite, however. See my note to "A. Lincoln" by Ronald C. White for that honor.) Professor Donald brings you into the Illinois frontier of the 1830s and 1840s, into the small-town squares for the legendary debates between Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas, into the White House as the Civil War rages all around, and even into the presidential box at Ford's Theater.

Its shortcoming (the same is unfortunately true of "A. Lincoln"): inadequate attention to the full sweep of Lincoln's legacy. In scarcely four years in office, Lincoln not only waged war, he also championed and enacted a legislative agenda that included homesteading, transcontinental railroads, canals, land-grant universities, and the first steps toward creating national parks--all while the government was under siege! He truly was an extraordinary man in extraordinary times. Without him at that time and place, it's doubtful we would have the United States of America today.
Profile Image for Jamie Collins.
1,418 reviews261 followers
April 15, 2015
This is probably a better book than my three stars would indicate, but my degree of interest in Lincoln wasn’t quite equal to the level of detail here. For the most part I did not find it a page-turner, and I often had to force myself to pick it back up, particularly the early chapters which largely concerned local Illinois politics.

I’m glad I stuck with it, and as you’d expect, the narrative became more interesting once Lincoln enters the presidential race. I’m not very knowledgeable about the American Civil War, and while I learned a lot here, the book’s tight focus on Lincoln assumes a better grasp of the contemporary political landscape.

I see that many reviewers question the author’s decision to end the book abruptly with Lincoln’s death. It’s quite jarring - there isn’t a single paragraph after he breathes his last. I’m aware that there are entire books written about the assassination and its aftermath, and entire books written about Lincoln’s wife and children, but after spending 600 pages with him here I’d have appreciated one more follow-up chapter.
Profile Image for Randall Wallace.
518 reviews359 followers
January 30, 2014
Five stars for showing Americans that Lincoln, like Martin Luther King, may now be loved universally, but he sure wasn’t during most of his important years. DKG likes to push her “special” Lincoln Team of Rivals theory but: wasn’t the history of prior American politics the forming of unusual alliances to get the job done including odious patronage, non-stop party feuds and petty duels between seemingly grown men? Once Lincoln enters politics most of this book shows not how Goodwin’s Team of Rivals save the day, but rather how Lincoln’s ability, agility and even affability while walking the smoldering edges of the divide between the two heated sides of the emancipation question saves the day. Only someone thus situated in the very center of political power in America, neither conservative nor radical, could have done what Lincoln did. Part of his genius was that he wasn’t thrown by different opinions; he didn’t move faster than public opinion and when he made one his opinion appeared to be that of committee.

Some of the pearls inside this book “Lincoln”:

“Towering genius disdains a beaten path, It seeks regions hitherto unexplored” –Lincoln

Non-slaveholders often wanted slavery because they fantasized themselves one day (through good fortune) with their own slaves.

Lincoln knew England and other countries had outlawed slavery and America was actually a Johnny-come-lately in banning it and in fact he said, “We are proclaiming ourselves political hypocrites before the world”. [Lincoln sounds here just like Cornel West, Noam Chomsky, and Howard Zinn explaining that by historically bullying the world to do our bidding while we pretend to be only helping, we proclaim ourselves as political hypocrites before the world.]

How far has the Right in America come? Back then, Lincoln was taunted by the Right telling him that Abolitionists merely wanted to sleep with and marry “negroes”. Today the Right says, “If men can marry men, then why can’t they marry goats or toasters?” or “Raise the minimum wage to $10 per hour? Why not $100?” First, they make your thinking more extreme than you’d go, then accuse you of extreme thinking - what Lincoln called “counterfeit logic”. It’s not new…

“It is true. But is it wise or politic to say so?” –Lincoln

Brilliant is p.268-269 where Donald discusses Lincoln’s defense of revolution of that “most sacred right of a people to rise up”… When you read the full passage you feel that Lincoln would approve of Snowden, Chomsky, Bradley Manning, and other truth tellers who the mainstream media is loath, for corporate reasons, to discuss in a sympathetic light.

Lincoln knew that in wanting France & England to see the war as clearly as a moral issue - anti-slavery against pro-slavery - the Border States could no longer maintain slavery.

Lincoln rarely found people around him who were willing to personally absorb some of the flak he was constantly receiving. He moved in hostile circles and it is pretty amazing that he kept calm and easygoing where today’s leaders would have flipped out in his lonely shoes – ending with the blood of 620,000 dead Americans on his hands just because of a non-corporate idea. A lot of prior presidents had owned slaves. While Lincoln walked between needs of the elites and the people, today’s presidents walk only among the elites and apart from the people who in return get hopeful false promises and their concerns ignored.

Great book, easy to read, filled with stuff I needed to know to understand American History better. I was totally impressed by the matter-of-factness of the writing, and I now have huge respect for Lincoln’s ability to have made amazing decisions when surrounded by so many abrasive and narcissistic others telling him he is making a mistake. Lessons for all of us…

Profile Image for Jon.
32 reviews1 follower
February 10, 2021
Often considered the quintessential single-volume Abraham Lincoln biography, David Herbert Donald’s “Lincoln” is a triumphant piece of scholarship. Donald, a Pulitzer prize winning author and historian, sticks closely to Lincoln from his ascendency from humble beginnings through to his final hour, ending precisely with War Secretary Stanton’s timeless remark “Now he belongs to the ages”.

Throughout “Lincoln”, Donald places less emphasis on the general history of the times and focuses almost solely on his subject, never steering too far from Lincoln’s viewpoint and actions. The greatness of this biography is that it removes any hagiographic adulation or mythic idolization of Lincoln. There is no overarching theory of greatness. The story is told as the story unfolded.

Utilizing mostly primary sources and Lincoln’s own words, “Lincoln” is not intended to be a dramatic page turning telling of Lincoln’s life. The prose is simple and informative. More so a point-by-point historical account through Lincoln’s eyes than a greater historical analysis.

I greatly enjoyed David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln and it should be a staple in every Lincoln library. Advanced students of Lincoln looking for a more nuanced view beyond Lincoln’s presidency-- as in analyses of internal confederate affairs, or more descriptive accounts of Civil War battles, or even a philosophical interpretation of say the Emancipation Proclamation-- should look elsewhere. But for those looking to get a better understanding of the man, his character traits, his unending ambitions, his life and rise, Donald’s Lincoln is a great place to start.
Profile Image for Michael Perkins.
Author 6 books331 followers
December 27, 2018
I love history. I love biography. Lincoln is one of the most fascinating American originals. He may be our greatest President.

The facts, sometimes in pedantic fashion, are all here. But the writing is plodding, dry, dead, two-dimensional.

The author constantly tells us that Lincoln was humorous and a popular raconteur, but he never gives any direct sense of that to the reader. We have to take his word for it.

There are some utterly engaging biographies that read like novels. One example is "The Last Lion" about Winston Churchill, by William Manchester. A friend of mine described it as "like eating candy." He was right.

Another example is "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt" by Edmund Morris. When TR flees his grief and and goes West, you are right there with him, foraging through the once-in-a-century blue blizzard.

You feel as if you know both of these characters intimately by the end of these books. This is my third try with this Lincoln bio and I still have no deep sense of him from this book.
Profile Image for Jeremy Perron.
158 reviews23 followers
August 22, 2011
In my first review with Joseph Ellis' His Excellency: George Washington, I pointed out that there were certain American icons I did not think too much about. `Honest Abe' was just another one, a perfect do-gooder who could not possibly measure up to the marble statues we have of him. I found that after reading this book, although Lincoln was from a perfect human being (who is), he was an incredible individual who earned his place as one of the greatest presidents in history.

The man who would become our sixteenth president grew up in extreme poverty; he had an intense dislike of his father that was match by love for his stepmother*. Having no formal education, Lincoln educated himself while working hard labor jobs as a boy. His tools for learning were the works of Shakespeare, the Bible**, copies of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.

He would, after many false starts, begin a career as a lawyer. As a lawyer, he would have incredible success and recognized as a talent. His political career, however, would be less then stellar. Although, he had some success as a state legislature he would just have one mediocre term in the United States House of Representatives. Donald also chronicles Lincoln's family life, his courtships, his marriage, and his very attentive parenting style with his younger children.

The most pressing concern in Lincoln's time was slavery, the expansion of slavery, and what to ultimately do about it. Donald's describes Lincolns understanding of the concept. To Lincoln, slavery was the ultimate evil and he hated that it existed in a country that espoused freedom above all other values. Lincoln is historically aware of slavery in his country's past. He knows that the country had slavery in all of the thirteen original states but the northern states had all gradually abolished it after the American Revolution. For a time, it seemed like it would gradually disappear everywhere but somewhere along the line things had changed. The invention of the cotton gin made slavery profitable again and its expansion into the southwest, where it had been prohibited in the northwest, had given it strength and life. He felt that in this national battle the pro-slavery forces were winning out against the anti-slavery forces.

"Lincoln had trouble defining his own position. A practical man, he knew--as he had remarked in his eulogy of Henry Clay--that in America `the man who is of neither party, is not--cannot be, of any consequence.' But it was not clear what party he should choose. When his old friend Joshua F. Speed, with whom he now differed politically, inquired where he now stood, he replied: `That is a disputed point. I think I am a Whig; but others say there are no whigs, and that I am abolitionist.' But, he went on to explain, he resented efforts to `unwhig' him, since he was doing no more then oppose `the extension of slavery,' which had long been the position of most Northern Whigs. Certainly, he explained to Speed, he was not a Know Nothing. `How could I be? How could anyone who abhors the oppression of Negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people?' The United States began with the declaration that all men were created equal; it is now practically read as `all men are created equal, except Negroes,' and if the Know Nothings gained control it would read `all men are created equal except Negroes, foreigners and Catholics. When things came to this pass, he told Speed, `I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense for loving liberty--to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.'" p.189

However, how to get rid of slavery, was still a question up in the air. The Anti-slavery movement was wide and diverse. On one hand, it was good that slavery was being challenged on multiple fronts, on the other; these groups would undercut each other with political infighting that would undermine their overall effectiveness. Each section did not agree with each other on method or ideology. William Lloyd Garrison and his group believed in universal human equality that put them far ahead of good deal of others in their day. Unfortunately, although their beliefs were good, their politics were bad. They could not work with anyone who did not share their ideals, which made them incapable of building any sizable coalition. Garrison was also a terrible persuader to anyone who did not already share his passionate beliefs. At one point in his career, he burnt the U.S. Constitution in front of a shocked crowd, `abolitionist' became a dirty word and pro-slavery forces could build them up as the creators of disorder and anarchy. Lincoln wished to build a coalition strong enough for Congress to ban slavery in the territories of the United States forever. This would mean all new states would be free states and then could put pressure and incentives on the remaining slave states to get them to gradually abolish slavery.

Lincoln gains national fame during his Senate campaign through the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Both he and Stephan Douglas tried to paint the other as an extremist and sell themselves as the moderate. Douglas stated that although he did and would not own slaves himself, it was not for him to decide if other white people in other states could, and Abraham Lincoln was a race mixer and an enemy of self-government. Lincoln fought back most elegantly, although he did not argue for full racial equality, he argued for the compassion and decency of humanity.

"Up to this point Lincoln's appeal had been chiefly to reason and everyday experience, but his address took on a new tone when he turned to the next argument, that `the scared right of self-government' required that the restrictions on slavery be removed so the residents of the territories could decide for themselves whether to admit or exclude it. Of course the inhabitants of the territories should make their own laws, Lincoln conceded, and those should not be interfered with any more than `the oyster laws of Virginia, or the cranberry laws of Indiana.' But whether they could permit or exclude slavery depended upon `whether a Negro is not or is a man.'

Here Lincoln reached the crux of his disagreement with Douglas. He and the senator might both regret that slavery had ever been introduced to the American continent and they might both believe that African Americans could never be the moral or intellectual equals of whites. But their views of African-Americans were fundamentally different. Douglas, Lincoln said, `has no very vivid impression that the Negro is human, and consequently has no idea there can ever be moral question in legislating about him.' But to Lincoln the African-American was very much a man. The Declaration of Independence taught him that all men--even men of limited abilities and prospects--are created equal. Because the Negro was a man, there could be no moral right to slavery, which was `founded on the selfishness of man's nature.' `No man,' Lincoln announced, `is good enough to govern another man, without that other's consent. I say this is the leading principle--the sheet anchor of American republicanism.'" (p.175-6)

Before Lincoln was able to take office, Southern States begin succeeding from the Union one by one and then they formed the Confederate States of America. Lincoln, declaring succession unconstitutional, proclaimed all the laws would be enforced in every state of the Union. However, Lincoln would have a great deal of trouble and a sizable portion of that trouble would come from his own generals. His generals seemed timid and wanted to avoid fighting. This would continue until U.S. Grant started his string of victories in the Western front. President Lincoln would become General Grant's biggest supporter. The team of Generals Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan would win a great deal of victories in battle and this would help Lincoln insure a victory in politics. Lincoln winning the presidential election of 1864, crushing his old subordinate, General George McClellan, secured victory not only for himself but for the nation as a whole to remain a whole.

The act, however, that he was most famous for: the Emancipation Proclamation; is one he would never imagined he would do. Although, he hated slavery more then anything, presidents, as he knew, had no legal power to free slaves. However, with the Civil War in full swing, he had found a legal technicality that would allow him to do the unthinkable. As the Commander-In-Chief in the time of war, he had powers that he would not have otherwise had. Citing Confederate advantages to using slaves, Lincoln legally liberated all the slaves in the Confederacy***. Later, the Thirteenth Amendment, endorsed by Lincoln, would end legalized slavery in the Union forever.

"Lincoln believed that there was more than personnel satisfaction at stake in the 1864 election. He saw it as a test of the feasibility of democratic government. The will of the people was `the ultimate law for all.' If the people supported the Union cause, he said, they would act `in the best interest of their country and the world, not only for the present, but for all future ages.' If, on the other hand, `they should deliberately resolve to have immediate peace even at the loss of their country, and their liberty, I know not the power or the right to resist them. It is their own business, and they must do as they please with their own.' The decision they made would determine `the weal or woe of this great nation.' (p.540)

Abraham Lincoln was one of the greatest leaders in the history of the world. The homeliest man to look at, but one of the greatest intellects and visionaries the world had ever seen. David Herbert Donald's work is and extraordinary masterpiece with excellent prose that captures the heart and soul of this great American.

*His real mother died on him at an early age.

**Although, he was not one to subscribe to the literal interpretation of the Bible, he did feel it had a good deal of value.

***The people who were held in slavery still needed the army to come to see their freedom granted de facto what had already been achieve de jure.

Profile Image for Thomas.
87 reviews5 followers
January 7, 2023
I haven't read a book on Lincoln in a long time. In fact I was probably in 6th or 7th grade, and I don't remember who the author was. I figured I'm starting at the beginning again, and I definitely picked the right book. This is the perfect first book on Lincoln. What a fascinating person. I can't help but want to dig deeper, and I've already started two other books on Lincoln plus I've begun Shelby Foote's three volume Civil War narrative. I've yet to finish any other Lincoln biographies to use as comparison, suffice it to say that this book was very entertaining, well written and hard to put down. David Herbert Donald focused on Lincoln the man, and no so much on the war, or anything that didn't directly involve him. I would have liked perhaps a little more on his personal life. Other than that, I was very satisfied with the book.
Profile Image for Mary.
806 reviews15 followers
August 6, 2014
In May of 2014, on two separate occasions, I ran into a man I was fortunate enough to have worked for and learned a lot from. The second time I saw him, I was having lunch with a friend, and he came into the restaurant alone. I invited him to join us. The conversation turned to our mutual love of reading.

He told me that everyone should read a biography of Abraham Lincoln. So that night, I found this prize winning biography and got started.

This biography seemed so well-balanced and documented that I feel it offers a true portrait of Lincoln. Since Lincoln is such a revered figure in American History, I thought most biographies would be all sweetness and props to Abe.

However, this biography revealed his strengths and weaknesses. His journey from undereducated frontiersman to self-educated attorney is remarkable. It shows the drive and desire that is often lacking in our society today.

It is difficult to read about how he and his wife suffered the loss of their two boys, and how the Civil War took a toll on him. Last year, I read a history of the Civil War and reading about it again from the the viewpoint of the pressures and concerns of the President brings home the pain and destruction of the war in a new way.

Some of the most interesting chapters were the ones discussing Lincoln's career as an attorney riding the circuit. Also, I never realized the financial burdens he faced through out his life.

An excellent read from someone interested in Lincoln or history.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
1,205 reviews18 followers
October 16, 2011
I think I read more memoirs/autobiographies because true biographies often end up as hagiographies or hack jobs. I often wonder how any other human can understand another enough to write a definitive story of their life.

Having said that, I believe Donald has done an admirable job with this book. This is probably the most balanced, objective view of a man a lot of people might tend to put on a pedestal (myself included). And actually, this book did much to make me truly appreciate Lincoln, even knowing his faults. All men are human and completely imperfect, which often does not come across when others sometimes rhapsodize about Lincoln. That Donald could show the man's eccentricities, failings, and shortcomings while also explaining the reasons he did transcend his times makes me appreciate this biography even more.
55 reviews1 follower
August 22, 2015
A good look at Lincoln's life that remains interesting despite its necessary length. I enjoyed learning about his early years and seeing how greatly they shaped him. He was really strong, largely self-taught, and great at managing people of opposing personalities/interests. It was good to learn about his weak points too, like being indecisive in many things and too lenient with people he liked. Lincoln's views on race and slavery were nuanced and he's often wrongly portrayed as either a champion of equal rights or a racist who used emancipation merely as a tool of war. He was neither. He was the best moral compass the country could have hoped for, dedicated to preserving the union during the greatest crisis it's ever faced.
Profile Image for Kerry.
672 reviews1 follower
January 5, 2015
Tuthfully, this book deserves 5 stars. It was so well researched and so well done. The only reason I gave it 3 stars is that it took me forever to get through it (and to be honest, I didn't get all the way through. It's over 700 pages or 33 CD's if you listen to it on Audio and it was due back to the library when I was ~80% through) because it almost read like an encyclopedia/text book. So, if you're a civil war buff/history buff/Lincoln buff, this is a 5 star, excellent book. But if you aren't, then it's hard to get hooked and make it through the whole book.
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