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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

“Lincoln”, by David Herbert Donald

714 pages, Simon & Schuster, ISBN-13: 978-0684808468

Lincoln by David Herbert Donald is a remarkable look at Abraham Lincoln as he advanced from extremely poor, rural roots 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, best seen in his insatiable desire to at self-education. Beyond this, Lincoln had an inherent ability to relate to others, displayed through his 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 began as a Whig and devotee of Henry Clay and his American system of internal improvements, but it would be wrong to regard Lincoln as mostly an opportunistic politician. Manipulating a political view to get elected would have never occurred to Lincoln; furthermore, Lincoln was a man of his word, as shown 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 a major issue, but by the mid-1850s slavery had come to dominate the political and social life of the country. Lincoln, though clearly antislavery, was not an abolitionist, and in his famous 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 he have hundreds of high-level administrative assistants to perform most of his duties, as is the case in the modern era. In addition, Lincoln faced the greatest challenge that any president in our history ever has: the secession of the Southern states that precipitated the Civil War. 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, 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.

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