A review of Lincoln (Simon and Schuster, 1995) by David Herbert Donald
Professor David Herbert Donald of Harvard University, a son of Mississippi and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, is one of the most prominent historians of the late twentieth century. His biography of Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts—probably the most sanctimonious politician in American history— earned that statesman the label “perhaps the most perfect impersonation of what the South most wanted to secede from,” his Lincoln Reconsidered is a fine collection of insightful essays on Lincoln-related questions, and his The Civil War and Reconstruction may be the best short textbook on the period. Thus, historians have looked forward to Lincoln, which is obviously the capstone of a distinguished half-century-long career, with considerable anticipation.
To put it simply, the book is a disappointment. It has its share of simple mistakes of fact, and the theme around which Donald intends to organize the book simply is not borne out by the evidence he adduces. In addition, Donald uncritically accepts all of the suppositions of the neo-abolitionist school that has dominated the study of Lincoln ever since John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of the sixteenth president of the U.S.A. in 1865.
Lincoln said of his conduct as President that, “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me,” and Donald has set himself the task of providing conclusive proof of this most famous piece of Lincolnian fatuousness. Lincoln may have adopted this idea—thereby taking credit for, but attempting to avoid the moral culpability associated with, that gargantuan war for which he was responsible—but that is no excuse for Donald’s accepting it despite his own evidence.
Besides accepting Lincoln’s argument against his own moral culpability, Donald employs the narrative technique made famous by Douglas Southall Freeman in his biography of General Robert E. Lee, which is to tell his reader only what his hero knew at the time he knew it. Thus, there is nothing in this book about the suffering that befell the nation Lincoln’s armies laid waste: no civilian populations subjected to cannonade, no civilians intentionally starved to death, no Confederate cities denuded of their proudest architectural monuments by arsonous Union “soldiers.” One can see that Freeman’s technique is useful in telling the story of a great military strategist and tactician, for one is enabled by it to understand why the general made the decisions he did; however, when it comes to telling the story of the chief protagonist of a massive aggression, of the single most destructive war ever launched up to its time, to omit the effects of that war on the people it affected is evidence of a grievous moral miscalculation— one typical of the historiographical tradition to which Donald is heir.
The myth of Lincoln is that he was born into nothing, failed all his life, assumed leadership of the anti-Douglas faction in Illinois, and was shortly elevated to the presidency of the United States. Virtually nothing in that myth is true. Lincoln was born to a hard-pressed, ill-educated father, yes, but his father provided him a stable family life. Donald, typically of his treatment of Lincoln’s decision making, characterizes Lincoln’s decision to break off relations with his father by saying Lincoln “had adopted values of which his father did not seem to him to be an adequate representative.” What Donald has in mind is that Abraham had decided to pursue a life of self-glorification, via personal enrichment and political activity, and his father was not possessed of such “values.” Thus, rank paganism is simply taken for granted.
Abraham Lincoln’s limited education was most evidently displayed in his peculiar religious thought. He early latched onto the “doctrine of necessity,” a sort of neo-Gnostic idea that God is a great martinet who manipulates man to His will. This idea was reinforced in his mind by his favorite teaching of Shakespeare, who had famously written that, “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.” Lincoln used this idea in excuse of all the ill he wrought.
The second element of untruth in the Lincoln myth is that he was a nobody before 1858. In fact, he was one of the most prominent lawyers in Illinois, having demonstrated a single-minded dedication to his craft that struck his fellow circuit-riding attorneys as extreme. Donald pleads Lincoln’s professional obligations in extenuation of his failure to ride to his father’s side when the latter was on his deathbed; a reader approaching Lincoln from a less sympathetic perspective may arrive at a less sympathetic conclusion.
His wife, meanwhile, proved a match for him; she delighted in lavish expenditures, whether on furniture, on expansion of the Lincoln house, or on clothes, so Mr. Lincoln was constantly beset by unanticipated debt. (Indeed, had he lived through his second term, Donald hints, he would have received quite a shock from his wife’s creditors.) Mary Lincoln also burned for her husband’s advancement to the presidency, which she predicted well before it seemed possible to anyone else. Life was a matter of flaunting one’s attainments. It was Mrs. Lincoln, the first woman ever called “first lady” (and one supposes this was a title of derision), who introduced communers with fallen spirits into the White House.
The final untruth in the Lincoln myth was that Lincoln was a political nobody before he became Douglas’s antagonist. In fact, as the reader will realize on recollecting that Lincoln was chiefly responsible for moving the
Illinois capital to Springfield, Lincoln had been a very influential state legislator. He had made quite an impression on his fellow Whigs, who saw in him the potential of better things. He left the legislature after four terms, convinced there was no more for him to accomplish there and that in Illinois, where all state-wide elections were won by the Democrats, he had no political future.
Lincoln’s Whig identity stemmed from his economic experience as a riverboatman, which was one of the several lines of work he had followed before settling on law. Simply, he had become convinced that the government could improve river communications, and it was on that basis that he had first offered himself for public office. His district was a river district, and he promised—in the mode of Henry Clay—that the pork barrel would be larded. Despite the arguments of the sympathetic historians who dominate the field, it was partly because of Lincoln’s consistent advocacy of the activist government program the South had opposed that he was seen as a thorough-going enemy of the South. Donald virtually ignores the question why the South should have been so alarmed by the idea of a Lincoln presidency.
Donald’s account of the war includes some great gaffes, such as his statement that the U.S. Navy bombarded Charleston into ruins (I guess he’s never been there) and his idea that there were few political appointees among Lincoln’s generals, and some errors in judgment, such as his acceptance of the common notion that Lincoln was some kind of a great war leader. It is, however, right on in taking some minority positions, including his acceptance of the fact that McClellan’s was prudent generalship. One can only wonder at the preachy nature of Lincoln-related books that fail to note the weight of McClellan’s protestations that
the Union’s should be a “Christian” war effort—one that spared civilians. While Donald is not slow to take sides, his only response to this idea is to note that Lincoln had already realized what was necessary to the successful conclusion of the war.
Donald recounts Lincoln’s generals’ confrontation with Chief Justice Taney over suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, and he mentions the New York City draft riots of 1863 in passing, but the fact that Lincoln’s Union was essentially a dictatorship of the Republican Party—one in which elections were manipulated, for example—as it would more unabashedly be during Reconstruction, passes unremarked. Confederates are labeled rebels, the war a rebellion—the latter of which is certainly a taking of sides—but never does Donald gainsay Lincoln’s appraisal of the necessary; still less does he disagree with such as Sumner and Chase about what is moral. Lincoln, despite Donald’s epigram and stated intention, is not proven by this book to have been whipped about by circumstance; rather, his is the guiding hand that spurs on such as U.S. Grant, Phil Sheridan, and William Sherman to the first wholly Clausewitzian war.
As the end of the war approaches, Lincoln—who, Donald says in one throwaway line at the very end of the book, has been attending a Presbyterian church in Washington throughout the war—comes to feel a great weight on his conscience, as well he might. His recourse though, is to blame it all on God. Every negative result of Lincoln’s political and ideological imperatives (and in one early passage, Donald does admit that Republican refusal to accept secession or to accommodate the South’s demands, as earlier statesmen would have done, owes much to political imperatives) is God’s purpose. A true fanatic, Lincoln even goes so far as to say that he would be willing to see the war continue until it had destroyed all that Americans have created in 250 years if that were God’s will. Can there be any greater blasphemy? Donald finds this moving rhetoric.
The book, then, is yet another of the books President Jefferson Davis predicted would be the fruit of the War of Northern Aggression, books telling the story from the Union side. What is essentially a fascistic political tendency, one that puts a fallacious history and blind devotion to Union above all else, has the full support of the academic historical profession. Today, failure to call Frederick Douglass “great”— and he is the only “great” man, other than Lincoln, in this volume —is simply unthinkable; disagreement with Lincoln’s absurd misappropriations of passages from the Bible never occurs; and lamenting that he destroyed the government created by the sovereign states never enters the imagination. The victors have, indeed, written the history.
Once Lincoln’s men were through with the Confederacy, they turned their tender ministrations on the Indians. The fate of the Indians is the subject of much breast-beating, but the C.S.A. remains the object of scorn among Ivy League historians. Donald offers no explicit judgment on either of these matters, leaving it to his narrative to tell his story.
This review as originally published in the First Quarter 1996 issue of Southern Partisan magazine.