Synopses & Reviews
David Herbert Donald's Lincoln
stunningly original portrait of 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.
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.
The phenomenal national bestseller that is "the Lincoln biography for this generation" (Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.)--now in paperback. Drawing on resources not available until recently--including Lincoln's personal papers, archives, and newspaper reports--two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Herbert Donald presents a masterful account of Lincoln's rise to the presidency and the political and personal challenges he faced while in office.
Includes bibliographical references (p. -686) and index.
About the Author
A Note to Readers:
I hesitated for a long time before deciding to write a
biography of Abraham Lincoln. There were already
thousands of books on the subject, and many of them
were excellent. Some were monumental, like the
ten-volume Abraham Lincoln: A History (1890), by John G.
Nicolay and John Hay. A few, like Lincoln the President
(4 vols. 1945-55), by J. G. Randall and Richard N.
Current, were masterworks of historical research.
But most of these books were written before the
publication of The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln,
edited by Roy P. Basler (9 vols.; 1953-55), which provided
the first authentic texts of all of Lincoln's voluminous
personal papers, long sealed in the vaults of
the Library of Congress. These manuscripts included
thousands of letters that came across the desk of the
Civil War president, from other members of the
government, from soldiers in thearmies, and from private
citizens. The opening of these papers in 1947
made it possible to understand just how Lincoln functioned
in the White House. Now, for the first time, a
historian could learn (to borrow a phrase from a later,
unhappy administration) just what the president knew
and when he knew it.
Even more recently it has become possible to
reconstruct Lincoln's career at the bar, which was the
basis both of his income and of his political success.
The Lincoln Legal Papers (an organization of expert
legal researchers) has collected thousands of documents
relating to every legal case in which Lincoln was
involved, and we can now trace the growth of Lincoln's
skill as a lawyer and the evolution of his distinctive
Finding the new sources so plentiful, I concluded
that a new biography was called for. I wanted to write
a narrative account of Lincoln's life, one almost novelistic
in form, though every statement would be buttressed
by fact. My intention was to tell the story of
Lincoln's life as he saw it, making use only of the
information and ideas that were available to him at
the time. My purpose was to explain rather than to
In telling the story from Lincoln's perspective, I
became increasingly impressed by Lincoln's fatalism.
Lincoln believed, along with Shakespeare, that "there's
a divinity that shapes our ends,/Rough-hew them as we
will." Again and again, he felt that his major decisions
were forced upon him. Late in the Civil War, he
explained to a Kentucky friend: "I claim not to have
controlled events, but confess plainly that events have
controlled me." This does not mean, of course, that
Abraham Lincoln was inactive or inert, nor does it
imply that he was incapable of taking decisive action.
But this view -- which is something that began to
emerge from his own words, and not a thesis that I
originally started out with -- emphasizes the importance
of Lincoln's deeply held religious beliefs and his
reliance on a Higher Power.
OTHER WORKS BY DAVID HERBERT DONALD:
Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe --
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, 1988
Liberty and Union:
The Crises of Popular Government
The Great Republic:
A History of the American People
Gone for a Soldier: The Civil War Memories
of Private Alfred Beard
Charles Sumner and the Rights of Man --
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, 1961
The Nation in Crisis
Why the North Won the Civil War
Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War
Lincoln Reconsidered: Essays on the Civil/ War Era
Divided We Fough
Reading Group Guide
Reading Group Discussion Points
- Lincoln was essentially a passive man. He was not formally educated. He repeatedly failed when running for various political offices. He was not considered a handsome man, and he was inexperienced and unprepared for the presidency. Yet all this considered, he still became one of the greatest presidents the United States has ever known. To what do you attribute this? How might the elements of Lincoln's character and his time have blended together to create a man so successful in casting off slavery and bringing the Union back together?
- How, in many ways, was Lincoln the most American of presidents?
- Donald brilliantly explores the development of Lincoln's character. Describe this development and its impact on the outcome of slavery and the Civil War. What in Lincoln's character led him to greatness?
- How did Lincoln's growing belief in a Higher Power sustain him through the agony of a country divided?
- In April of 1864, Lincoln wrote to Albert G. Hodges: "I claim not to have controlled events but confess plainly that events have controlled me." How is this accurate and not quite true at the same time?
- Though Donald's Lincoln is primarily about Lincoln's political life, Donald portrays Lincoln as a family man. Discuss Lincoln as a father and husband. What portrait emerges of Mary Todd Lincoln? How did she ultimately contribute to his political career, and in what ways might she have detracted from it?
- In reading Donald's Lincoln, we view in great detail the political machine of the mid 1800s. How has the political process in this country remained the same? How has it changed? What role did the media play then, as opposed to now?
- From the time he was a boy, Lincoln was opposed to slavery. Even so, his policy and position on slavery developed very slowly over time, beginning with a hands-off approach and culminating in his eventual, stated belief that the slaves must be given their freedom. Trace the growth of Lincoln's attitude and actions regarding slavery. Estimate the impact the Emancipation Proclamation had on the people of its day. How is the impact still felt in our times?
- Donald's Lincoln forces the reader to confront slavery. We come to understand that racism meant something very different in Lincoln's time, manifesting itself in ways distinct to that era. Discuss the gains we've made over the past one hundred and thirty years.
- Lincoln never wavered in his belief that the Union must be preserved. Even in the face of enormous casualties for both the North and the South, Lincoln did not falter in his resolve. Do you believe, as Lincoln did, that it was of the utmost importance to preserve the Union? If so, why? If not, why not?
- Although Lincoln lived over a hundred and thirty years ago, and many presidents have come and gone, we are still fascinated by him. Why is he remembered more than any other president? What about him is so enduring and immortal? Why do you think his place in history is so secure?
Abraham Lincoln: The War Years
Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, James M. McPherson
The Civil War, Ken Burns (VHS tape)
The Civil War: A Narrative, Shelby Foote
The Civil War: An Illustrated History, Geoffrey C. Ward
The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Roy P. Basler, ED.
The Face of Lincoln, James Mellon
The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara
Lincoln: A Novel, Gore Vidal
Lincoln: A Photobiography, Russell Freedman
Mary Todd Lincoln, Her Life and Letters, Justin G. Turner
Parting the Waters, Taylor Branch
The Portable Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Delbanco
The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane