Thursday, April 22, 2010


A review of David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln (1995)

(Rating:5 of 5)

In my first review with Joseph Ellis’ His Excellency, I pointed out that there were certain American icons I did not think too much about. ‘Honest Abe’ was just another one, a perfect do-gooder who could not possibly measure up to the marble statues we have of him. I found that after reading this book, although Lincoln was from a perfect human being (who is), he was an incredible individual who earned his place as one of the greatest presidents in history.

The man who would become our sixteenth president grew up in extreme poverty; he had an intense dislike of his father that was match by love for his stepmother*. Having no formal education, Lincoln educated himself while working hard labor jobs as a boy. His tools for learning were the works of Shakespeare, the Bible**, copies of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.

He would, after many false starts, begin a career as a lawyer. As a lawyer, he would have incredible success and recognized as a talent. His political career, however, would be less then stellar. Although, he had some success as a state legislature he would just have one mediocre term in the United States House of Representatives. Donald also chronicles Lincoln’s family life, his courtships, his marriage, and his very attentive parenting style with his younger children.

The most pressing concern in Lincoln’s time was slavery, the expansion of slavery, and what to ultimately do about it. Donald’s describes Lincolns understanding of the concept. To Lincoln, slavery was the ultimate evil and he hated that it existed in a country that espoused freedom above all other values. Lincoln is historically aware of slavery in his country’s past. He knows that the country had slavery in all of the thirteen original states but the northern states had all gradually abolished it after the American Revolution. For a time, it seemed like it would gradually disappear everywhere but somewhere along the line things had changed. The invention of the cotton gin made slavery profitable again and its expansion into the southwest, where it had been prohibited in the northwest, had given it strength and life. He felt that in this national battle the pro-slavery forces were winning out against the anti-slavery forces.

“Lincoln had trouble defining his own position. A practical man, he knew—as he had remarked in his eulogy of Henry Clay—that in America ‘the man who is of neither party, is not—cannot be, of any consequence.’ But it was not clear what party he should choose. When his old friend Joshua F. Speed, with whom he now differed politically, inquired where he now stood, he replied: ‘That is a disputed point. I think I am a Whig; but others say there are no whigs, and that I am abolitionist.’ But, he went on to explain, he resented efforts to ‘unwhig’ him, since he was doing no more then oppose ‘the extension of slavery,’ which had long been the position of most Northern Whigs. Certainly, he explained to Speed, he was not a Know Nothing. ‘How could I be? How could anyone who abhors the oppression of Negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people?’ The United States began with the declaration that all men were created equal; it is now practically read as ‘all men are created equal, except Negroes,’ and if the Know Nothings gained control it would read ‘all men are created equal except Negroes, foreigners and Catholics. When things came to this pass, he told Speed, ‘I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense for loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.’” p.189

However, how to get rid of slavery, was still a question up in the air. The Anti-slavery movement was wide and diverse. On one hand, it was good that slavery was being challenged on multiple fronts, on the other; these groups would undercut each other with political infighting that would undermine their overall effectiveness. Each section did not agree with each other on method or ideology. William Lloyd Garrison and his group believed in universal human equality that put them far ahead of good deal of others in their day. Unfortunately, although their beliefs were good, their politics were bad. They could not work with anyone who did not share their ideals, which made them incapable of building any sizable coalition. Garrison was also a terrible persuader to anyone who did not already share his passionate beliefs. At one point in his career, he burnt the U.S. Constitution in front of a shocked crowd, ‘abolitionist’ became a dirty word and pro-slavery forces could build them up as the creators of disorder and anarchy. Lincoln wished to build a coalition strong enough for Congress to ban slavery in the territories of the United States forever. This would mean all new states would be free states and then could put pressure and incentives on the remaining slave states to get them to gradually abolish slavery.

Lincoln gains national fame during his Senate campaign through the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Both he and Stephan Douglas tried to paint the other as an extremist and sell themselves as the moderate. Douglas stated that although he did and would not own slaves himself, it was not for him to decide if other white people in other states could, and Abraham Lincoln was a race mixer and an enemy of self-government. Lincoln fought back most elegantly, although he did not argue for full racial equality, he argued for the compassion and decency of humanity.

“Up to this point Lincoln’s appeal had been chiefly to reason and everyday experience, but his address took on a new tone when he turned to the next argument, that ‘the scared right of self-government’ required that the restrictions on slavery be removed so the residents of the territories could decide for themselves whether to admit or exclude it. Of course the inhabitants of the territories should make their own laws, Lincoln conceded, and those should not be interfered with any more than ‘the oyster laws of Virginia, or the cranberry laws of Indiana.’ But whether they could permit or exclude slavery depended upon ‘whether a Negro is not or is a man.’

Here Lincoln reached the crux of his disagreement with Douglas. He and the senator might both regret that slavery had ever been introduced to the American continent and they might both believe that African Americans could never be the moral or intellectual equals of whites. But their views of African-Americans were fundamentally different. Douglas, Lincoln said, ‘has no very vivid impression that the Negro is human, and consequently has no idea there can ever be moral question in legislating about him.’ But to Lincoln the African-American was very much a man. The Declaration of Independence taught him that all men—even men of limited abilities and prospects—are created equal. Because the Negro was a man, there could be no moral right to slavery, which was ‘founded on the selfishness of man’s nature.’ ‘No man,’ Lincoln announced, ‘is good enough to govern another man, without that other’s consent. I say this is the leading principle—the sheet anchor of American republicanism.’” (p.175-6)

Before Lincoln was able to take office, Southern States begin succeeding from the Union one by one and then they formed the Confederate States of America. Lincoln, declaring succession unconstitutional, proclaimed all the laws would be enforced in every state of the Union. However, Lincoln would have a great deal of trouble and a sizable portion of that trouble would come from his own generals. His generals seemed timid and wanted to avoid fighting. This would continue until U.S. Grant started his string of victories in the Western front. President Lincoln would become General Grant’s biggest supporter. The team of Generals Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan would win a great deal of victories in battle and this would help Lincoln insure a victory in politics. Lincoln winning the presidential election of 1864, crushing his old subordinate, General George McClellan, secured victory not only for himself but for the nation as a whole to remain a whole.

The act, however, that he was most famous for: the Emancipation Proclamation; is one he would never imagined he would do. Although, he hated slavery more then anything, presidents, as he knew, had no legal power to free slaves. However, with the Civil War in full swing, he had found a legal technicality that would allow him to do the unthinkable. As the Commander-In-Chief in the time of war, he had powers that he would not have otherwise had. Citing Confederate advantages to using slaves, Lincoln legally liberated all the slaves in the Confederacy***. Later, the Thirteenth Amendment, endorsed by Lincoln, would end legalized slavery in the Union forever.

“Lincoln believed that there was more than personnel satisfaction at stake in the 1864 election. He saw it as a test of the feasibility of democratic government. The will of the people was ‘the ultimate law for all.’ If the people supported the Union cause, he said, they would act ‘in the best interest of their country and the world, not only for the present, but for all future ages.’ If, on the other hand, ‘they should deliberately resolve to have immediate peace even at the loss of their country, and their liberty, I know not the power or the right to resist them. It is their own business, and they must do as they please with their own.’ The decision they made would determine ‘the weal or woe of this great nation.’ (p.540)

Abraham Lincoln was one of the greatest leaders in the history of the world. The homeliest man to look at, but one of the greatest intellects and visionaries the world had ever seen. David Herbert Donald’s work is and extraordinary masterpiece with excellent prose that captures the heart and soul of this great American.

*His real mother died on him at an early age.

**Although, he was not one to subscribe to the literal interpretation of the Bible, he did feel it had a good deal of value.

***The people who were held in slavery still needed the army to come to see their freedom granted de facto what had already been achieve de jure.

{Video was taken from Gore Vidal's Lincoln adapted to film in 1988.}

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