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Lincoln,9780684825359

Lincoln

by
Format: Paperback
Pub. Date: 11/5/1996
Publisher(s): Simon & Schuster

Summary

David Herbert Donald'sLincolnis a 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.

Author Biography

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 the armies, 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 style.

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 judge.

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 Fought: A Pictorial History of the War

  • Inside Lincoln's Cabinet:
    The CiviI War Diaries of Salmon P. Chase

  • Lincoln's Herndon

Text Excerpt

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Excerpts

On the day after the Quincy debate, both Lincoln and Douglas got aboard the City, of Louisiana and sailed down the Mississippi River to Alton, for the final encounter of the campaign. Looking haggard with fatigue, Douglas opened the debate on October 15 in a voice so hoarse that in the early part of the speech he could scarcely be heard. After briefly reviewing the standard arguments over which he and Lincoln had differed since the beginning of the campaign, he made the peculiar decision to devote most of his speech to a detailed defense of his course on Lecompton. He concluded with a rabble-rousing attack on the racial views he attributed to Republicans and an announcement "that the signers of the Declaration of Independence...did not mean negro, nor the savage Indians, nor the Fejee islanders, nor any other barbarous race," when they issued that document.

In his reply Lincoln said he was happy to ignore Douglas's long account of his feud with the Buchanan administration; he felt like the put-upon wife in an old jestbook, who stood by as her husband struggled with a bear, saying, "Go it, husband!-Go it bear!" Once again he went through his standard answers to Douglas's charges against him and the Republican party. Recognizing that at Alton he was addressing "an audience, having strong sympathies southward by relationship, place of birth, and so on," he tried explain why it was so important to keep slavery out of Kansas and other national territories. This was land needed "for an outlet for our surplus., population"; this was land where "white men may find a home"; this was "an outlet forfree white people every where, the world over-in which Hans, and Baptiste and Patrick, and all other men from all the world, may find new homes and better conditions in their lives.

And that brought him again to what he perceived as "the real issue in this controversy," which once more he defined as a conflict "on the part of one class that looks upon the institution of slaveryas a wrong, and of another class thatdoes notlook upon it as a wrong." Rising to the oratorical high point in the entire series of debates, he told the Alton audience: "That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent. it is the eternal struggle between these two principles--right and wrong--throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings."

With a brief rejoinder by Douglas, the debates were ended. After that both candidates made a few more speeches to local rallies, but everybody realized that the campaign was over, and the decision now lay with the voters.

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Excerpted from Lincoln by David Herbert Donald
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