David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln

LincolnDavid Herbert Donald’s Lincoln, a one-volume biography of America’s 16th and most celebrated president, has been deservedly praised beyond what meager tribute I could hope to offer. I will content myself by saying that this book is a labor of love, the fruit of a lifetime of devoted study and admiration, that manages the difficult task of being even-handed in its portrayal of a man whose legacy has become consubstantial with the American mythos. The Lincoln that emerges after 600 pages is neither a born liberator nor an indifferent political opportunist, and  restoring him to his rightful stature requires, by necessity, giving a full account of antebellum America, with all its political and cultural tensions. As must inevitably be the case in any biography of Lincoln, the issue of slavery and emancipation looms large, but I wish to begin with a portrait of the man.

Born February 12, 1809, (on the same day, incidentally, as the 19th century’s other great emancipator, Charles Darwin) in rural Kentucky, Lincoln spent his youth in backbreaking labor and poverty. He received little formal schooling but was fortunate enough to be taught how to read and write. The lack of available books on the frontier forced him to travel great distances to borrow reading material, and he often memorized whole works before returning them, including a compendium of Shakespearean speeches that would prove crucial to his later oratory. He had a strained relationship with his father, who had little patience for his intellectual pursuits, but loved his mother deeply, and her early death, when Lincoln was just nine years old, caused him immense grief. Physically, he was lean and lanky, standing almost 6’5, and prodigiously strong, if the many stories of his youth are to be believed. Shy around women but beloved among men for his quick wit and inexhaustible supply of stories, anecdotes and parables, Lincoln was the center of curiosity from an early age.

He inherited his father’s antipathy towards slavery, which, from our earliest archival material, he denounced as a moral abomination, but the best thing that can be said of his views on black people is that he kept an open mind: publicly he denounced any notion of racial equality but towards the end of his life he became increasingly sympathetic to suffrage. His later opinions were no doubt influenced by the friendship he cultivated with the estimable black leader Fredrick Douglass, whom Lincoln aptly described as “the most meritorious man in America,” but his earliest political views were shaped by Henry Clay and the Whig Party, whose political stances included economic protectionism, public education and investment in infrastructure, the empowerment of the legislative over the executive branch of government and a general dislike of the institution of slavery, though Whigs, unlike Abolitionists, did not call for an end to slavery: most wanted it limited to the Southern states, where they thought it was doomed to extinction, though a few were not opposed to its expansion into newly acquired territories.

The bulk of the book concentrates on his brief presidency, and it is here that Donald’s scholarship is especially impressive, illuminating the incredible challenge Lincoln faced in uniting a nation divided not merely along the north-south boundary but internally as well. Surely never before has a president been faced with so bleak an outlook and with so little margin for error. Northern abolitionists, too inconsequential to carry his platform, were constantly agitating that his presidency did not do enough in attacking slavery or promoting racial equality; the so-called War Democrats, opposed to Lincoln on principle and sympathetic to slavery’s continued existence, reluctantly supported him in his quest to maintain the Union and denounced him viciously for every concession he made towards emancipation. And, as the Civil War dragged on and the public zeal gave way to horror at the mounting death toll, every Union defeat, every delay, every further call for more troops, added to his opponents’ strength.

There is an ongoing debate among historians about the role played by individuals in shaping events and the extent to which they should receive credit for how those events transpired (“would Germany have descended into fascism and genocide without Hitler?” is an oft-debated example), and Lincoln himself seems to have put little stock in his own influence – “I confess not to have controlled events,” he wrote a friend, “but confess plainly that events have controlled me” – but if he was sincere he was nonetheless wrong. Donald reveals him to be a shrewd politician, ingratiating towards his adversaries, who were content to underestimate him as a country bumpkin, well-meaning but ineffectual, overwhelmed by his responsibility, and loyal to his allies and sympathizers. As a president, he was among the first to use his position as a platform to express his views and attempt to sway public opinion, and he spent hours each day admitting to his company citizens who wished to speak with him, either to petition him for a job, seek his advice, air a grievance or simply shake his hand. His friends and detractors denounced this indulgence as a waste of his time, and indeed it did cost him immensely in time and energy, but in an age without sophisticated polling, it put him in touch with the people and public sentiment.

There is, however, a darker side to Lincoln’s presidency. For a former Whig, and one who publicly advocated for legislative authority over unchecked presidential power, Lincoln’s presidency expanded executive power beyond all precedent, and the civil liberties that he so eloquently championed as a lawyer and young politician, including the freedom of speech and due process, were trampled with impunity in service of Union war efforts. Indeed, in his quest to impose his vision on the American public, he did not merely bend the laws restraining him but often outright broke them, or lied to achieve his aims, as when he downplayed Southern willingness to sue for peace in order that Congress ratify the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery (events recounted in Spielberg’s Lincoln). The extent to which a leader can champion a righteous cause against the will of the people he has been elected to serve has no better illustration than in Lincoln’s presidency.

I wish to speak briefly about Lincoln’s skill as an orator, surely unmatched by any president before or since. He himself named, as his three greatest oratorical influences, the Bible, Shakespeare and Euclid, and you cannot fail to notice the Biblical overtones and gravitas of the Gettysburg Address, or the almost deductive reasoning of his best speeches, but Shakespeare’s influence is subtler. Consider, for example, the following excerpt:

The dogmas of the past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country. Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves… We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free  – honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last, best hope of earth.

I know of no poet, novelist or journalist so eminent that they would not swell with pride to call these words their own, worthy as they are of the occasion and the task ahead. The cadence, particularly of the final lines, is eminently Shakespearean, and some of the key phrases and words are culled from speeches by Brutus, Hamlet and Henry V. The Folger Shakespeare Library has a fuller discussion of Shakespeare’s influence on Lincoln that can be found here, but perhaps the most poignant Shakespearean moment is found not in Lincoln’s speeches or philosophy but in his death. John Wilkes Booth was an actor of some renown who conceived of himself as Brutus, pure of heart and armed with a noble cause, to Lincoln’s usurping tyrant, and on the night of April 14th, 1865, he made the words of Cassius, standing over the slain Caesar, frighteningly prophetic: “How many ages hence / Shall this our lofty scene be acted o’er  / In states unborn and accents yet unknown.”

Donald’s Lincoln delights in honestly portraying Lincoln, beset on all sides by difficulties and hindrances but possessive of a moral compass and basic decency far in advance of the age, and wins from its helpless readers a greater appreciation for Lincoln’s genius and courage without sacrificing either its integrity or its readers’ credulity.