le 21 avril 2004
With word that later in 2004 several new Lincoln biographies are to be published I again turned to my unread copy of Donald's LINCOLN. It had been highly recommended to me when I mentioned that I had never read a biography of Lincoln. I was told this was one of the best Lincoln Biographies.Overall, David Donald's book is just full of details and is interestingly told from Lincoln's perspective. (What did Lincoln know and what did he do? A real time biography.) I greatly admire Donald's accomplishment and learned a great deal but was disappointed that this is just not an "entertaining" narrative. The writing is dry, without a visual sense or an emotional core. You never feel you're experiencing Lincoln, feeling what he must have felt as he comes across in the narrative as stoically reactive to events while holding on to only one true principle, saving the union. I especially like the first part of the book covering Lincoln's early years up to the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates. But once the Great War takes hold Lincoln is depicted as a man given to compromise and taking the middle ground unable to do anything more than ride the whirlwind of events. (Actually Lincoln said himself that this is the case and it comes so apparent in this narrative.) Lincoln appears here as an uncertain politician and seldom the statesman. This may be true and a bit unsettling to those of us who might want to "worship" the Lincoln as statesman who belongs to the ages. My reading left me with little insight into Lincoln's thinking, and more important without an insight into what he is feeling that I felt distanced from subject. The feeling I came away with was that Lincoln was not really comfortable in his own skin and I was uncomfortable and unsure that this could be true. I recommend Donald's book for its detail, overall insight, but warn that it is a tough read.
le 1 février 2003
"Lincoln" is a remarkable look at Abraham Lincoln as he advanced from extremely poor, rural roots, in what was then the western United States, into both the Illinois legislature and the U.S. Congress for one term, through a career as a self-taught lawyer, and finally to the presidency. The author has extensively researched Lincoln's movements, first-hand accounts of his utterances, his formal speeches and writings, as well as official records kept in the discharge of his various duties and offices.
It is a fascinating look at the evolution of the character and personality of a man of meager origins and virtually no formal education. Lincoln was driven to make something of himself; this is best seen in his insatiable desire to educate himself. Beyond self-development, Lincoln had an inherent ability to relate to others. He combined humility with a great ability to tell stories. This ease among his fellow citizens led to his being elected to the Illinois legislature at a fairly young age and to a reasonably successful career as a lawyer.
Lincoln was a Whig and devotee of Henry Clay and his American system of internal improvements. But it would be completely wrong to regard Lincoln as mostly an opportunistic politician. He was principled, if anything. Manipulating a political view to get elected would have never occurred to Lincoln. Furthermore, Lincoln was a man of his word. When elected to Congress in 1846, he returned home after one term as he promised, though undoubtedly he could have been re-elected. However, the author shows that Lincoln became very astute politically with a substantial network of political friends both at the state and national levels.
Early in Lincoln's career, slavery was seldom an issue. But by the mid-1850s, slavery came to dominate the political and social life of the country. Lincoln, though clearly antislavery, was not an abolitionist. In his debates with Stephen Douglas in 1858 and on his way to being elected president in 1860, Lincoln articulated, often eloquently, a moderate position on slavery that resonated with a large segment of Northern voters. The extension of slavery to new territories became the foremost issue of the day as compared to eradication.
Lincoln was probably not technically qualified to be president; he had never held an administrative post of any importance. Nor did hundreds of high-level administrative assistants perform most of his duties, as is the case in the modern era. In addition, Lincoln faced perhaps the greatest challenge that any president in our history ever has. The secession of the South exacerbated political divides in the country. Not only did Lincoln have to deal with radical and moderate Republicans and War and Peace Democrats, but also his own cabinet, populated with some of his political rivals, exhibited the same sort of splits. Militarily, the U.S. was totally unprepared to put down a rebellion, as Lincoln called it, of the size that the Confederacy represented. He was often driven to the edge of his patience in dealing with a series of incompetent generals that cost the Northern armies defeat after defeat in the early years of the War.
The author captures the immense pressures on Lincoln during his presidency. His ungainliness was fodder for the various political factions that publicly labeled Lincoln as an "imbecile" or a "baboon." Though the presidency took a tremendous toll on Lincoln, he retained his generally good humor, even seeing countless numbers of nameless citizens straight from the streets in his office. He functioned at a high level of awareness, navigating the political minefields of the day, in making difficult decisions. The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 was just such a decision. It was a typically moderate Lincoln response to the antislavery and unionist extremists. When Lincoln was shot at the beginning of his second term, he had prevailed and brought the country through a terrible experience through the sheer strength and flexibility of his intellect and personality. One doubts whether there existed another individual in the country at that time, who could have dealt with all of the issues that Lincoln did with the same degree of success.
Though the author is favorably deposed towards Lincoln, he does not push Lincoln on the reader - he does not have to. He does a great job of letting the reader closely watch Lincoln in action for about forty years. It is an incredible story.
le 22 avril 2002
When comparing David Herbert Donald's one volume biography of Lincoln to other biographies that have preceded it, one can easily draw as many parallels to other works as can be contrasted. Although Donald reads very much like Thomas' biography, written over sixty years ago, there is considerably more detail in the additional one hundred plus pages Donald contributed to the story of Lincoln's life. This additional information does not appear much like embellishment, but true detail, perhaps to the point of tedium.
Although much of Thomas is found within Donald, the additional information gives the reader a look into the reason why the author would decide to add another Lincoln biography to the existing long list. Clearly, although Donald appears to have a strong interest in the motives and person of Abraham Lincoln, there is much less of the unbridled respect Thomas reveals in his work. To call Donald a revisionist based only on this work would be an overstatement. There is however enough evidence to fairly describe him as a contrarian.
The biographies I have read, written before the Civil Rights Movement were largely complementary to Lincoln's memory. Donald, written in 1996 is much less so. Isolating the exact reasons why Donald appears to be negative toward Lincoln when compared to other biographers can be elusive, but not impossible. By Donald's description, Lincoln's actions leave a tyrannical aura in the mind of the reader. Although the author himself never refers to Lincoln as a tyrant, his frequent use of conservative and Democrat supporting press, frequently without offering a liberal or conservative counterpoint, tended to leave a negative attitude toward the Lincoln administration.
Was Lincoln a tyrant? A tyrant, according to the Oxford English Dictionary is someone who seizes powers within a state without the legal right to do so. If this is the case, is allowing supportive constituencies better opportunity to reach the polls than opponents an act of tyranny? What about the removal of basic and fundamental rights of American citizens to insure your program of government? By American standards, is this a tyrannical act? Would Americans stand idly by if the same actions Lincoln took were levied against the citizenry today? Lincoln was guilty of all of these actions. Donald's tone is subtly critical of the necessity of these actions.
Certain decisions of the administration can be singled out as possible examples of tyranny. For example, freedom of speech is considered one of the most fundamental rights we as Americans have. In fact, it is one of our defining principals of a free people. The right to expose one's opinions without fear of persecution was one of the founding fathers most important contributions. The removal of this right would have an altering effect on society, as we would no longer be a society of free speaking, free thinking people. Yet, out of preservation for principals, including the freedom of speech, Lincoln felt it necessary to suspend the writ of habeas corpus, thus allowing military and other appointed officers the right and responsibility of arresting and persons whom they perceived as potentially injurious to the government. It is important to point out that never did Lincoln authorize the arrest of anyone who spoke out against him or his administration, but only against those who sought to undermine the war effort. To some, the Lincoln administration and the war effort may have been one and the same.
Why does Donald read more negative on Lincoln than other historians. I believe Donald demonstrates his disapproval of Lincoln's handling of certain situation, most notably those we would today describe as civil liberties, by offering a single-sided point of view in citing contemporary judgments. Although the writings and speeches of many individuals may be cited, usually the use of these quotes were to support a one-sided opinion.
Throughout the book, the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus was mentioned thirteen times. In each of these instances, the author demonstrated negative attention toward Lincoln's decision by citing numerous liberal newspapers, such as the Illinois State Register or notable persons of the day such as the United States Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in dissent of the President's actions. Only in one instance, when referring to Lincoln's letter to strongly conservative Erastus Corning explaining his actions on suspension of writ of habeas corpus, did Donald offer any redeeming motives to Lincoln's actions.
This portrayal seems unfair to me. Although Donald clearly states that Lincoln's foremost purpose was to save the union regardless of the cost, understanding the completeness of this motive seems to get lost along the way. The consistent attention paid to the negative reports of Lincoln's actions, are encountered so many times, the work give the reader an impression that those opposing Lincolns may have been right, or at least justified. At the very least, I believe Donald thought so.
le 30 juin 2004
Overall, I found Donald's account of Honest Abe to be a good one and I humbly offer what I thought were the good and bad points of this book:
1. The first couple of chapters describing Lincoln's early life were quite interesting and informative, from the strong relationship with his stepmother to the strained relationship with his father. Reading about his other early struggles and failures further impressed me with Lincoln's persistence and incredible tenacity.
2. Deep level of detail concerning certain points of his life, notably his early law practice, political career, and relationships with cabinet members. If you like this kind of information, then this book is right down your alley!
3. Interesting descriptions of his relationship with certain generals, notably George McClellan (aka "Young Napoleon"). I developed a greater appreciation of the military pressures Lincoln endured during the Civil War.
1. The book's length - the text was right at 600 pages and at times proved to be a dry read. While interesting anecdotes were incorporated, the text often seemed to drag on with dry policy decisions. Granted, I am more interested in military affairs as opposed to politics. However, I still believe the book spent too much on the politics and not nearly enough on the military.
2. Personalization of Lincoln - as mentioned in other reviwes, I concur that the reader still misses the essence of Lincoln (What did he experience and how did he really feel about a policy issue or military action? How about more of his relationship with his wife and children?). While the reader is often told things like the incredible number of hours Lincoln put in while in the White House, the essence of Lincoln is left out.
Overall, I do believe the book is a worthwhile read - just be ready to spend plenty of time due to the large content!
Since this is the first comprehensive biography of Lincoln I have read, I cannot honestly compare it to other Lincoln biographers. However, I can say that I have read other biographies (Lee, Grant, etc.) of other famous Americans and I feel like I have gotten to know the person better instead of just knowing ABOUT the person.
Despite this, I still recommend the book.
le 18 avril 2004
I read this book as part of my ongoing hobby to read a biography of every President and to be honest this is the worst one I have read to date.
I thought it got bogged down too much in the details of cabinet positions and the daily grind. I wished it would have gone into greater detail on the Civil War and Lincoln's relationships with members of the Union Army, like U.S. Grant for instance. It touched on the subject, but in reading Grant's biography they had an interesting relationship. They both admired each other greatly. I didn't get that from this book.
At times, Lincoln seemed to be a bumbling President that stumbled into good fortune. I hope that was not the case and don't believe that it was, but Donald's writing style suggests that he was lucky and made a habit of listening to bad advice.
My biggest beef was the lack of information surrounding the Gettysburg address. At the very least I expected it to be included in the book, but it just wasn't. There was also a brief mention of his other great speeches, but not enough detail on them.
Just an average book and to be honest I think if you looked hard you could find a better biography of Lincoln.
I will commend the writer for his research. It's thorough, but it's VERY DRY. Usually I read a book in a week, this took me a month.
le 20 février 2004
I'm not typically a biography fan. I'm a history buff, but I tend to prefer reading about events in history, and getting relevant information about the players in those events within the context of that event.
But, I saw a copy of Donald's book a couple of years agao in a bookstore at a discount, and snagged it. Naturally, the course of events required me to shift it down on my reading pile. Recently, I resolved to read it once and for all.
I'm pleased that I did. First, what I know of Lincoln came in broad strokes-what he did mostly, little of what he did. I'm also not a Civil War buff (just more interested in WW II). So my knowledge of both has been greatly enhanced. (Admittedly, Donald wasn't quite interested in parsing out the War, so I will have to pursue that information elsewhere.)
Donald's examination is as even a work as one could ask for. While he admires Lincoln, he's willing to acknowledge that the Lincoln was human, and takes him to task when appropriate.
What I enjoyed most about this book is that I recognized certain traits in my personality that are similar to Lincoln. I don't flatter myself that I'm somehow a "great" man, but rather, I use this to illustrate how down-to-earth Lincoln really was, and how beautifully Donald illustrates that quality.
I don't know that this is the be-all-end-all of Lincoln bios. But, as a single volume piece, it's terrific, and more than worth the time of both historians and casual readers alike.
le 25 décembre 2003
For anyone curious about Lincoln or the American Civil War, Donald's biography is excellent. Laden with detail, it covers all of Lincoln's life and provides great insight into the forces that shaped the man. But the detail itself is perhaps too much.
Donald's research is impressive. One detail piled upon another. You get a great sense of how Lincoln spent his time, of how the nation thought. But what is missing is animation. Donald wisely keeps whatever biases and opinions he has to himself, for which he is to be greatly commended. No revisionist history here, no trumpeting of personal viewpoints as fact: a delightful relief from many contemporary "historians."
The result, however, is somewhat lifeless. I don't know if this is good or bad. It is left to the reader to supply the "color" of Lincoln and his times, the vibrancy of the world at that time.
I don't know if Donald could have added this missing flavor without destroying his fine narrative. I think probably not and am glad he didn't try. On the other hand, the missing element makes this otherwise exemplary biography a somewhat slow read.
That said, I recommend "Lincoln" to anyone who wants to know more of the man and his times without an author's bias distorting the truth.
le 5 mars 2002
My American history is weak, and I recall only a few specifics about the Civil War from High School. I knew that Donald's Lincoln would not fill my embarrassing void of knowledge on this era because he clearly states the objective of his book up front: a biography focused closely on Lincoln himself -- "on what he knew, when he knew it, and why he made his decision." Before starting, I was worried my lack of background knowledge would make reading difficult, and my missing historical backdrop for Lincoln's world, especially the Civil War, would cause me to feel lost as I read. However, this was not the case at all. Indeed, as I read, further questions arose about the Civil War battles, the generals, other politicians, and his wife, but never did I feel lost. On the contrary, I could see that the answers to these questions did not have a place in the book, and would have only distracted from the book's purpose of bringing the reader to know Abraham Lincoln. To that purpose, this book was a huge success, and exceeded my expectations. I was completely caught off guard with sadness I felt upon reading the final pages -- perhaps an indication of how well I had come to know Old Honest Abe. I highly recommend this book for those who want to get to know one of our most famous Presidents and a fascinating human being, even if, like me, you are historically challenged.
le 23 janvier 2002
Before reading _Lincoln_, I had read David McCullough's _John Adams_. The latter is good but nonetheless unsatisfying, because McCullough clearly worships Adams. (See my review of McCullough's book.) I went right into _Lincoln_. All I can say is that it's astonishing.
The organizing principle of _Lincoln_ makes Donald's job very hard. When Donald met JFK during the latter's presidency, Kennedy attacked historians for retrospectively judging the worth of presidents. Historians, said Kennedy, had no right to make such judgments until they sat in the presidential desk and had to make the tough decisions.
Donald wrote _Lincoln_ in an attempt to honor Kennedy's wishes, and he more than succeeded. Every sentence in _Lincoln_ is guided by the question, ``What did Lincoln know at the time he made this decision? What information did he have on hand? What could he have been reasonably expected to know? Why did he make this decision?" At no moment does Donald judge Lincoln - he is a scrupulous researcher, not historiography's answer to God.
Through this biography, we learn that Lincoln was very human. He made mistakes. Not only did he mess up, but Donald makes it clear that he wasn't always as revered as he is today. Through newspaper clippings, diary entries, and hundreds of other primary sources, Donald paints a picture of a man who very nearly lost the Union as well as his second term. Only through skillful politicking did Lincoln neutralize his enemies and get reelected.
I came into this book curious how Lincoln moved from his first inaugural address, during which he said
I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution
of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to
do so, and I have no inclination to do so.
to his second inaugural:
If God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two
hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop
of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as
was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of
the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
This is, naturally, a question that any Lincoln biographer would have to answer (if only by citing someone else who answered it). Donald does a fantastic job of answering this question without ever stating the answer outright. He merely describes the events of Lincoln's life, and lets the reader figure it out. The answer is clear: Lincoln had a fine line to walk between the abolitionists of his party and its less extreme members. At the same time, his main goal was to preserve the Union - whether or not slavery came with it. But as time went on, the political situation got easier to navigate, and Lincoln became more comfortable in his role as a leader. The evolution from one political landscape to another is vital to the answer, and Donald does a masterful job painting us a picture.
Yet never did I feel as though an historian were behind the scenes painting. Instead, it was as though I were watching Lincoln himself, through a lens that Donald provided for me. Surely every historian has his or her biases, even in such subtle ways as the sources he or she chooses to quote. Yet I feel as though Donald silenced these biases and stuck to the raw materials he was given. This is as pure and unadulterated a biography as I could imagine.
I couldn't help but think of _Crime & Punishment_ as I read this biography. In _C&P_, Dostoevsky is a pseudo-omnipotent narrator: he can get inside of Raskolnikov's head and record every thought that the latter has, but he has access to no one else's brain. Donald's biography of Lincoln is similar: it's as though we were living life from Lincoln's perspective, without any glimpses at all into related topics - no descriptions of battle scenes (where Lincoln never would have fought), nothing about life in the South beyond what Lincoln would have known, and so on. It's a subtle technique, but it's beautiful in context. It keeps Donald focused on the reality of Lincoln's life.
This book should be a model to all future biographers, and it is the standard against which I will judge all future biographies.
le 10 décembre 2001
1) Vandalia was the state capital of Illinois before Springfield; 2) William Knox wrote 'Mortality' which was Lincoln's favorite poem; 3) Lincoln used to read aloud for better comprehension; 4) Lincoln invented and patented a device using 'adjustable buoyant chambers' to lift steamers over shoals; 5) he appeared before the Illinois Supreme Court at least 300 times; 6) he once, in court, helped a slave owner against his fugitive slave; 7) most slaves came from Liberia; 8)Lincoln served only 1 term in the U.S. House of Reps (I thought he served longer); 9)was called 'Spotty Lincoln' when he was in the U.S. House of Reps; 10) was offered the governorship of the Oregon Territory by the Taylor administration, but Lincoln declined; 11)Lincoln lost the VP nomination in 1856; 12) the Lincoln/Douglas debates were for the senate race in 1858, not the presidency (I thought the debates were for the presidency); 13) Lincoln considered resettling the slaves to Panama, but later decided it was a bad idea; 14)Panama used to called 'New Granada'; 15)Lincoln was 2nd in the balloting at the 1860 convention behind Seward; 16)Lincoln never met his VP, Hamlin, until after the election; 17)the 'L.M. Wiley' was the train that took Lincoln to Washington after he won the presidential election; 18)Lincoln wanted to preserve the Union much, much more than he wanted to abolish slavery, and he would have accepted slavery in the states that already had it, if that meant preserving the Union (they never taught us that in school); 19)during the Civil War he suspended habeas corpus; 20)Seward threatened to prosecute the newspaper editer, Horace Greeley, under the Logan Act, which prevented Americans from negotiating with foreign governments; 21)Seward's son, Frederick, was Assistant Sectretary of State; 22)one of Lincoln's sons died in the White House; 23)General Halleck was called 'Old Brains' because he was a profesor at West Point; 24)the husband of Mary Lincoln's half-sister was Confederate General Benjamin Hardin Helm, who was killed at the Battle of Chickamauga; 25)Lincoln gave his Harvard-educated son a cushy job running errands for generals during the Civil War, while sending thousands of other people's sons to their deaths; 26)the Emancipation Proclamation did not free all slaves, just the slaves in the states in rebellion against the Union, which meant the the slaves in the border states were not yet free (I don't remember this little tidbit from school); 27)Joseph K. Barnes was the surgeon general of the U.S.; 28)on the night of Lincoln's assassination, Booth's other friend, Paine, attacked Sect of State Seward, and left him bloodied; 29)it took many hours for Lincoln to die after he was shot (I always thought he died immediately); 30)Lincoln's wife was a real dog face, no kidding.
I very highly recommend that you read this book. You'll learn a lot.