Friday, January 14, 2011

Lincoln by David Herbert Donald

The course of history of our country is more often than not decided by the person in the leadership role of President. Could it have been different if another individual were in that position? For the Civil War era this would definitely been true. Lincoln by renowned historian David Herbert Donald is a hefty read that begins with Lincoln's birth and ends with his assassination. Donald's purpose in writing the biography was to only cover the events that Lincoln saw and in which he was a prominent figure -" what he knew, when he knew it and why he made his decisions." It was an intimidating read, but also an enlightening one.

The reader is immediately immersed into the life of the Lincoln ancestors and family, from Virginia to Ohio to Kentucky to Illinois. Abraham Lincoln left his father's household in 1831 and arrive at New Salem where he lived for six years. He was encouraged to run for the state legislature based on his hard work ethic, his gift for speech, and the need to position the future of the town within the state. And so began his political career. Becoming a lawyer through self-study and taking a place on the circuit court enabled him to become familiar to much of the Illinois population and in turn gave him a forum for his views.

I found the book absorbing for the insights into Lincoln's personality and psyche. I realize that what is presented in Donald's viewpoint and to make judgments based on that alone would not be true scholarship. However, he does cause the reader to rethink many of the "truths" that have been taught in school. Lincoln was not a leader from the get- go. His stance was to react to a situation rather than head it off. I believe that in today's world he would have had a hard time being elected to public office. He changed his stance on issues, was not particularly good looking, and lacked self-confidence.

The military history presented in the book was quite detailed and painstakingly researched. Again, what stood out was his relationship with General George McClellan and eventually with Ulysses Grant. McClellan outright refused to obey Lincoln's orders and commanded the troops on his agenda and according to his plan. Could it be that by allowing him this freedom that Lincoln prolonged the Civil War? He should have been replaced sooner rather than later. Once McClellan was replaced by Grant, Lincoln managed to, in a passive aggressive way, conduct the war in his way (p. 498.). His leadership grew as he grew in the job of President, but he never completely dismissed the fatalism that characterized many of his decisions, including the disregard for security measures when traveling or leaving the White House. Quoting from Shakespeare's Hamlet, ""There's a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough hew them how we will."

Lincoln believed that slavery was morally wrong, but wavered among solutions to eradicate or contain it. He thought colonization was an acceptable plan, but instead wrote and issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The process by which he did this was fascinating as he gathered his thoughts and those of the political leaders of the time. His firm belief was to save the union at all costs as he writes to Horace Greeley,
"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.."

Finally, no biography of Lincoln would be complete without examination of his relationship with his wife and children and their mental states. Mary Lincoln was a strong-willed and extravagant woman. She loved the ability to spend money and did it with abandonment, mounting thousands of dollars of debt. Both in Illinois and Washington, Mary was responsible for family life as Abraham was absent so much of the time. She and Lincoln were both subject to mood swings and times of deep depression. The depression was deepened by the deaths of two of their sons. They were subject to severe headaches and often spent days secluded in their respective rooms. But there was a love and attachment there that often does not get communicated in writing about the President and his wife.

David Donald's portrayal has been subject to criticism by those who think he may be a bit too harsh in his analysis of the Lincoln years. Nonetheless, it remains an account based on primary sources and scholarship and occupies a significant place in the collection of Lincoln treatises.

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