When approached for information about his life, Abraham Lincoln warned a would-be biographer to look up Thomas Gray’sElegy Written in a Country Churchyard (“The short and simple annals of the poor”), claiming playfully, “That’s my life, andthat’s all you or any one else can make of it.”
Of course, ever since then, biographers have tried diligently to prove their subject wrong. The latest effort is definitelysuccessful. The distinguished historian David Herbert Donald has produced by far the finest single volume on Lincoln’s life yetattempted, a work that is a monumental achievement in scholarship.
Donald’s Lincoln will undoubtedly displace popular Lincoln biographies by Benjamin P. Thomas and Stephen B. Oates as thedefinitive modern study. Donald, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer and long-time student of Lincoln and hiscontemporaries, is perfectly matched for the challenge of writing original and engaging material about the Great Subject.
The evidence of Donald’s superior command of the material comes early. Where predecessors like Thomas and Oates racethrough Lincoln’s formative years, relying heavily on secondary sources, Donald demonstrates care and abundant primaryresearch. He devotes roughly half of the biography to the period leading up to 1861, with results that will gratify most readers,while admittedly frustrating some military buffs. Donald takes special care to explain the significance of new research intoLincoln’s early romantic life and his legal career, making excellent use of the many newly discovered documents.
Although the imbalance in previous Lincoln biographies almost certainly reflected the greater national significance of the CivilWar period, Donald recognizes the mistake of devoting four-fifths of a book to one-tenth of man’s life and methodicallyexplores the experiences that shaped Lincoln’s character before he faced the crucible of a wartime presidency. The resultmeans less space for the war, but more context for the reader. Quite simply, Donald’s biography now stands as the mostreliable source of information on Lincoln’s first 50 years. No other work with this scope even approaches the detail orunderstanding exhibited in these pages.
As a narrator, Donald scores significant points. He manages to make the war come alive, even for a well-versed student of theconflict, by addressing each event through Lincoln’s viewpoint, showing connections that were clear to him, but have sincebecome faded. Although Donald does not write with the same elegant fire that suffuses some of his previous biographies, mostnotably on Senator Charles Sumner and novelist Thomas Wolfe, his storytelling skill keeps the reader on a steady, dependablecourse. Donald is particularly adept at navigating the political currents running through Lincoln’s mind, as he developed theEmancipation Proclamation, for example, or as he struggled to find a general capable of winning the war.
Donald falters only when he sets for himself the almost impossible challenge of positioning Lincoln as largely a beneficiary (andoccasionally, a victim) of circumstance. “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlledme,” said Lincoln in words that become the credo of this biography. Donald believes the “essential passivity” of Lincoln’snature is a fundamental theme of his life. For readers who desire courageous heroes and have come to expect constant praisefor Lincoln’s genius, this is a difficult judgment to accept.
Actually, what Donald seems to argue is not that Lincoln was passive as a political leader, but rather that he was patient, ableto outlast his more mercurial rivals, such as Stephen Douglas and Salmon Chase. The biographer shows repeatedly, and oftenin exquisite detail, how Lincoln out-managed his political rivals by allowing them to hang themselves. The biographysuccessfully charts Lincoln’s development as a leader, placing his setbacks and triumphs firmly in the context of his life. Whilemany others have discussed Lincoln’s pragmatism, the fullness of Donald’s explanation is unparalleled.
Still, a patient, pragmatic Lincoln is not the stuff of American myth. No doubt this biography will strike some readers asunderstated. Of course, many of Lincoln’s contemporaries found him so. Perhaps that is a sign of Donald’s success. Orperhaps Donald has created a biography that, like Lincoln’s self-description, intentionally hides greatness beneath the short andsimple annals of the poor.
Few biographies have been as anticipated as this one. Donald is practically a legend as a scholar and a teacher, having trainedcountless historians, including me. Thus, expectations are incredibly high. Still, in his own quiet, firm manner, Donald meets theburdens of his reputation. While this biography may not represent the final word on Lincoln, it will almost surely be the firstword on the subject for generations to come.