Notes Concerning the Author:
David Herbert Donald (1920-2009) was born in Goodman, Mississippi and received his bachelor degree from Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi and went on to get his PhD, under noted Lincoln scholar James G. Randall, at the University of Illinois, in 1946. “His dissertation eventually became his first book, Lincoln’s Herndon, which is also on the Society’s Recommended Reading List. Following attainment of his PhD, Donald taught at Columbia University and Johns Hopkins. The history of the southern States and historical relations between the sections was his greatest professional interest. As he was finishing his second volume on Sumner, he served as President of the Southern Historical Society, based at the University of Georgia (1969-1970). Following the publication of his second volume on Sumner, Donald went to Harvard University, where he taught until retirement. He was at Harvard when he wrote Lincoln. He died in 2009 at the age of 88 years.
Three of his books are on the Society’s Recommended Reading List: Lincoln’s Herndon (1948), Charles Sumner (1960 and 1970) and Lincoln (1996).
To understand the politics of political sectionalism that swept across the northern States between the early 1850’s and the 1860 election, and gave rise to the sectional Republican Party and the secession of seven States, four biographies are essential. One is the biography of Stephen Douglas of Illinois (we recommend Johannsen’s of 1973). Another is the biography of Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania (we recommend Current’s of 1942). The third is the biography of Charles Sumner (we recommend Donald’s of 1960 and 1970) and the fourth is the biography of Abraham Lincoln of Illinois (we recommend three here — the one by Donald discussed herein, the one by DiLorenzo and the one by Herndon).
Our biography abstracts always begin with the subject’s birth and we make no exception here. But, in this case, the evidence is murky. Mainstream historians accept as a fact that Thomas Lincoln was the father of Abraham, and David Donald did not challenge that conventional dogma. It’s “so-called fact” assures us that baby Abe was born on February 12, 1809 to Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks Lincoln, who had married on June 12, 1806; and furthermore that the birth occurred at the Lincoln’s recently-built, 290 square foot log cabin on a rather poor 300-acre farm near Hogdenville, Kentucky. But research into the basis for this “so-called fact” requires the student of truthful history to question the statement that Thomas Lincoln was baby Abe’s biological father, not his step-father. There is significant evidence that Abe’s mother, Nancy Hanks, herself almost certainly illegitimate, was truly the biological mother. However, contrary to the conventional dogma, there is also significant evidence that baby Abe was conceived during an affair Nancy had with Abraham Enloe in North Carolina, prior to immigrating to Kentucky and marrying Thomas Lincoln — that Abe was at their wedding, a boy of about 2 years old. The only suggestion in David Donald’s biography that Abe’s genetic background was not straight-forward, is reports of conversations Abe had with law partner Billy Herndon where he, Abe, was puzzled that he did not resemble his father in any way, of “his sense that he was different from the people with whom he grew up.” And Donald speculated that “Lincoln imagined a noble Virginia ancestor.” Nancy Hanks Lincoln died on October 5, 1817 of “milk fever” shortly after the family had immigrated into southern Indiana (scientist later figured that the Lincoln cows, running wild in the woods, had eaten a lot of the poisonous white snakeroot plant, producing milk that made people sick). At the time Abe was only 8 years old (11 by the alternative ancestry).
For more information on Abe’s ancestry, the student can go to another book on the Society’s Recommended Reading List, the Epic History, “Bloodstains . . .”
For considerable detail on Abe’s life before moving to Washington, D. C. in 1861, the student is encouraged to read the Lincoln biography by law partner Billy Herndon, as mentioned earlier in this review.
Donald’s biography of Lincoln contains 714 pages, making it long, but of an appropriate length. On page 256 the reader leaves behind the Kentucky-Indiana-Illinois years of Lincoln’s life — as a husband to Mary Todd Lincoln and father to their children; as a reasonably successful a lawyer in a two-man partnership with Billy Herndon; as a small-time Whig politician, and, from 1856 forward, as an important leader of the newly-founded Illinois Republican Party. On page 257, begins the history of the man as President-elect and as President.
When faced with reporting the ugly side of the Lincoln Administration, David Donald does not shirk his duty to do so. He explains what this reader call’s Abe’s “First Shot Strategy,” whereby he persuaded his Cabinet to send a fleet of Federal warships and transports to Charleston in hopes their eminent arrival would incite the Confederates to fire on partially-built Fort Sumter, where a small garrison of Federal soldiers were holed up in the middle of Charleston Harbor. Lincoln figured, if Confederates could be tricked into firing on Federal soldiers, he would have his basis for calling up militia from the Republican-controlled northern States; subjugating Democrat-controlled Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri, and invading the Democrat-controlled seceded States recently reorganized under their Confederacy.
When faced with explaining slavery’s role in the War Between the States, Donald refrains from improperly advancing the time-line. We learn that Lincoln refrained from playing the “slavery card” until the Federal efforts to defeat Confederate forces had bogged down and become often desperate, especially anywhere near Richmond. And, when he played that “card,” it was clearly a “war measure.”
When faced with explaining the Lincoln Administration’s dealings with opposition in the northern States and in Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri, its program of censorship and imprisonment of opponents is fairly described.
For a reader who thinks of the “American Civil War” as “The War Between the States,” or as “The War Between Republicans and Democrats,” or as “The Federal Invasion of the Confederacy,” David Donald, although he does not use such language, does nothing in his presentation of Lincoln to discourage such interpretations. In reading Lincoln we always understand that the seceded States just wanted to be left alone to do their own thing — that they never wanted to conquer any of the northern States or interfere with their established union under the Federal Government.
Donald, from his office at Harvard, presents his biography in such a way that it does not overly offend mainstream historians and mainstream media. It has good balance and a person can read the book and cite its passages without being accused of bigotry or some such thing.
This concludes the write-up of the Society’s abstract of David Donald’s Lincoln. There are hundreds of Lincoln biographies out there. If you have not yet read one, we suggest you choose Donald’s.
Availability of this Book
David Donald’s Lincoln can be obtained as a print book and as a Kindle e-book. Select from a book store or Amazon or similar sources.