227 of 241 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating look at Lincoln, the man
"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...
Published on February 1, 2003 by J. Grattan
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Scholarly, Not Entertaining
Lincoln was a born storyteller; Herbert Donald was not. I enjoyed the first part of the book (Lincoln's early years), but once Lincoln was into politics, the biography was no longer about Lincoln. Rather, it was about the politics and people surrounding him. I wanted to learn about Lincoln's life beyond what his political life entailed, and Donald left most of that out,...
Published 19 months ago by Mrs. July
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227 of 241 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating look at Lincoln, the man,
"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.
81 of 86 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Honest Abe" comes alive,
David Herbert Donald's biography of Abraham Lincoln is an outstanding work that emphasizes his most important aspect, his humanity. Lincoln came to the presidency with one of the skimpiest political resumes of any non-General in American History. Donald shows how this Washington outsider had to grope his way around at first, but then used his remarkable skills to find the political center, which was vital though he often seemed to stand alone. Donald's book focusses on Lincoln's life through Lincoln's eyes. He does not go into great detail about Civil War battles or anything else that Lincoln did not personally witness. The result is a biography that is as thorough as it is readable and that, like its subject, will stand the test of time.
53 of 56 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars As free of biases as one could imagine,
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.
44 of 46 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very Good Single Volume of Lincoln Biograhpy,
I really enjoyed this dense, but extremely informative Lincoln biography. The biography demands that we reexamine Lincoln. Not in some politically correct revisionist view, but rather as a man with many human frailties and a relatively limited ability to influence the behavior of key individuals around him. Often times, you wonder how much he is controlling the fate of the country and it is controlling him.
This book does not diminish Lincoln as a President or a man, but does provide deeper insight into his character, his view of race relations and how little (or at least public) thought he gave to the practical effects of emancipation, expecially prior to his presidency.
I should probably have given this book 5 stars, but I thought Donald spent too much time on newly discovered evidence of Lincoln's uniteresting legal practice prior to his public life. Moreover, while this is obviously a biography and not a history of the Civil War, the description of the war effort was at times meager given the significance of certain battles and how they ultimately affected the outcome of the war.
All in all, these are very minor concerns over what has been called our generation's biography of Lincoln.
38 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb account of 16th President,
Recently, I picked up David Herbert Donald's biography of Abraham Lincoln for the second time in 4 years. I now realize that I was too young then to appreciate this superb account of the our 16th President. Inspired by a meeting with President Kennedy in whick JFK criticizes historians for judging presidents who must make decisions without the 20/20 hindsight of historians, Donald undertook to write this biography from Lincoln's perspective -- analyzing him and his decisions based upon only what Lincoln knew, believed, and sought to accomplish at the time. We see the great struggles of the mid-1800s completely through his eyes; thus, while Donald doesn't delve into what (I'm sure) are fascinating related subjects, like the details of the great military campaigns or internal Confederate politics, we do gain an insightful look into the life and character of America's greatest president.
I agree with other reviewers that while there is not enough of Lincoln's personal life -- at times I had to remind myself that the man even had kids! -- Donald still skillfully paints a portrait of an amazingly complex man. Fueled by a desire to escape the fate of his uneducated, unambitious father, Lincoln felt driven all of his life to succeed ; he felt pushed forward to a great destiny by God, or the "Doctrine of Neccsity",that was completely out of his control and would lead him safely down life's path. He was an incredibly charming man who could light up a room with his energy, but he also regularly plunged into a deep and dark depression. He was utterly self-confident and knew he was the equal of any man. Intitially a moderate who opposed abolishing slavery in the states, he slowly realized that either slavery would be destroyed, or the Union surely would be.
He was also a master politician. He sensed early on in the 1840s that the nation was on the brink of a new era and that the Whig party had to adapt to the changing times, or die. After his beloved Whig party disintegrated, he helped establish the IL Republican party and, after an unsuccessful run for the Senate in 1858, triumphed over well-known and powerful opponents like William Seward and Salmon Chase to win the presidential nomination and election in 1860. Throughout his political career and his tenure as President he stuck to the center and walked a tightrope between the Conservatives and Radicals in his own party and the Peace Democrats in the other party. While unailingly honest, he understood the political value of ambiguity to cloud facts that he would admit only if forced. Finally, at the dawn of his second term, he had so outmaneuvered all of his opponents in the Congress, in the North, and in the South, that he stood as the unquestioned master of American politics -- not bad for a boy who had grown up in a log cabin with less than a year of formal schooling.
Doanld shows us Lincoln, the man and not merely the statue. Like the rest of us, he was a fallible human being who wasn't always sure that what he was doing was right but sure that he owed it to his country to serve it with honor and dignity in its hour of greatest peril. Donald makes it clear that we owe our country to this man, and one can't put down this book without agreeing.
23 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very worthwhile read (even for historically challenged),
By A Customer
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.
27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lincoln the man, not the myth,
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David Herbert Donald accomplishes with this biography the difficult goal of presenting Lincoln as a character at once thoroughly ordinary and exceptional. Although millions of words have been written about his subject, Lincoln remains shrouded in myth for many of us, but a reading of this fine biography parts those mists and reveals that the sixteenth president is not difficult to understand or relate to, onerous as his burdens may have been to bear.
Donald's prose is as plain-spoken as the words favored by Lincoln, but that is not to say that it is ordinary. On the contrary: Donald's mastery of his subject allows him to write with exceptional clarity and admirable dispassion.
While it is clear that on balance Donald greatly admires Lincoln, he never glorifies him. He is critical, for example, of Lincoln the Whig's occasional taste for demagogery in his partisan attacks on the rival Democratic Party early in his political career. In analyzing Lincoln's writings and speeches, he doesn't shy away from pointing out flaws and speciousness in their reasoning.
The book is also valuable for its ability to present landmarks in Lincoln's career in a clearer light. The best example of this is the recounting of the famous series of debates in pursuit of a Senate seat between Lincoln and his primary rival of the time, Stephen Douglas. History, particularly as it is taught in high school, often presents these debates as lofty philosophical interchanges between the two on slavery, individual rights and the nature of liberty. Donald's careful analysis of each of the seven debates shows that while they contained moments of high drama and keen insight, they were all dragged down by petty attacks -- on both sides -- repetitive arguments and occasional poorly prepared remarks.
Similarly, Donald points out a fact that is often forgotten: while Lincoln deplored slavery on moral grounds, he never believed that African-Americans were the equal of whites on any level. In fact, the author is quite critical of Lincoln's stubborn adherence to the idea that blacks could be relocated to Africa -- one that he held on to far longer than it merited, if indeed it ever did.
The most intriguing and insightful portions of the book center on Lincoln's presidency, for which he was wholly unprepared, by his own admission. While many of us are aware in a general sense that Lincoln was under great pressure during his first term as a wartime president, Donald dramatizes the difficulties in great detail, bringing to life the nearly unbearable weight that Lincoln bore in trying to juggle the demands of a highly disputatious cabinet, a stubbornly unresponsive military leadership, and a Republican Party that was in many cases more hostile to him than were the Democrats.
Lincoln's final success in bringing the war to a successful conclusion -- albeit at staggering human and financial cost -- is all the more satisfying and poignant for Donald's attention to the four years of disappointments. With the description of his death and the knowledge of the unfinished business that awaited his second term in rebuilding the nation, one is left to ponder more than ever what might have been had he not been assassinated.
As a finely drawn portrait reveals something of its subject's inner life, "Lincoln," through its meticulous attention to detail, gives the reader a greater understanding of the man than any mere collection of facts could ever provide. Highly recommended.
36 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The definitive account of our nation's greatest president,
By A Customer
The joy of reading is one that cannot be adequately expressed. The sense of accomplishment along with gaining another life chapter of knowledge is why I continue to seek out great literature. I have had the pleasure of reading several books on President Lincoln, but will always consider this masterpiece the biography to base the life of a complex hero. Along the course of the swiftly reading, eloquently paced chapters, we find our way meandering through a river of Lincoln's experiences. From his humble Kentucky beginnings and following him on the trail to his greatest challenge (No, I do not mean Mary Todd, all together as exasperating as she appears to be), the White House. Donald brings to life the vignettes of Lincoln engaged in playtime with his sons, to pacing frantically through the Telegraph office awaiting word on the recent war events. We tend to think of Lincoln as a stone figure, but we see insecurities and doubt with the fate of the Union resting in his hands, but never surrendering the belief in a Unified nation. After finishing a novel of this caliber, my gratitude must be given to the author for a job well done. I recalled that the dedication was to his children thanking them for "living their entire lives with Lincoln". After absorbing this book, I can't imagine a better person to have lived near.
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars More fox than hedgehog,
If you are looking for a 1-volume biography of Lincoln, then look no farther than this. This book gives a definitive portrait of America's greatest President. I recommend it highly, but have my own 'nits' to pick. This is Lincoln the politician, the 'fox' who has many stratagems rather than the principled 'hedgehog', who has only one big stratagem. James M. McPherson in 'Lincoln and the Second American Revolution' argues explicitly for Lincoln the hedeghog, a picture reinforced by Garry Wills' brilliant 'Lincoln at Gettysburg'. Clearly there were elements of both 'fox' and 'hedgehog' in Lincoln's makeup - a canny politician yet totally devoted to the principles of Declaration of Independence. Where you set the limit of each part of his personality is up to each biographer. Looking at this contemporaries, Stephen Douglas was the typical fox and Jefferson Davis a good example of a political hedgehog, perhaps that is why they both failed. This book, in my view, makes Lincoln too much fox, but it makes an excellent case. For example, David Douglas seems to think that Lincoln might have diluted his position on slavery somewhat (in his ill-fated 1865 negotiations with Alexander Stephens) in order to end the war some months earlier. This is dubious in that the only witnesses were Confederates, and otherwise Lincoln gave no sign of adopting any position other than support for the 13th Amendment. To push this case makes Lincoln too foxy for my liking. However, a great book - it should join Sandburg on anyones shelves. If anything it is a better book in many ways than Sandburg's as it steers clear of myth, and does not shrink from some of Lincoln's 'warts'.
19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Fascinating Portrait of America's Most-Admired President,
Donald's book is the remarkable product of an enormous amount of research, replete with quotes and insight not only from Lincoln's personal writings, but also from countless individuals who surrounded Lincoln at any given time in his life, resulting in a balanced portait of our most beloved President. What is perhaps most surprising is the book's readability - Donald masterfully avoids getting bogged down in insignificant detail, and succeeds in keeping the book moving along the major events of Lincoln's life.
The reader (at least, this reader) is left with a sense of awe at Lincoln's humble integrity, tested in the most trying of circumstances and confronted with the most impossible of choices. The accuracy of his foresight has been amply confirmed by our hindsight, and we as a nation are left with deepest gratitude for his service.
I disagree with criticism that Donald's book lacks sufficient information about Lincoln's personal life and emotions. The biography is designed to be primarily a story of Lincoln the statesman, not Lincoln the husband or father. Those elements are introduced at relevant times, but Donald (appropriately, in my view) does not dwell extensively on those relationships. There are other books which explore those aspects of Lincoln's life in greater detail. I appreciate that Donald avoids engaging in supposition at what Lincoln "must have" been feeling at any particular time - he sticks to what is evidenced in Lincoln's writings and what others observed in him. This inspires in the reader greater confidence in the accurary of Donald's analysis.
Finally, my one criticism: at times I would have appreciated getting the full text of some of Lincoln's short, remarkable speeches, such as the Gettysburg Address or Lincoln's second inaugural address. Donald wrote about them and quoted certain phrases, but we do not get the text in full, which I thought would have been appropriate and feasible. Also (okay, maybe two criticisms), I would have liked to see a few pages or a short chapter about the immediate aftermath of Lincoln's death - the reaction of the nation, the funeral, his legacy. Donald ends the book the moment Lincoln expires.
That said, I would recommend the book to anyone interested in learning about the man who lead our nation through its greatest crisis. I am not normally a big fan of histories or biography, but this one is indispensable.
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Lincoln by David Herbert Donald (Audio Cassette - November 1, 1995)
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