Tuesday, May 19, 2009

David Herbert Donald, 88, Was Renowned Lincoln Biographer

David Herbert Donald, a historian and renowned biographer of Abraham Lincoln, has died. He was 88. The New York Times has the obituary.

Donald's classic one-volume work,
Lincoln, was considered the finest biography of the 16th president in a generation. The book came out in 1996. I was in graduate school at the time and I held off on buying a copy. Lincoln scholarship was outside my specialty and it wasn't like I was hurting for things to read! But when I traveled to Washington, D.C., in 2007 I picked up a copy in the giftshop at the Lincoln Memorial. I read parts of the volume that summer.

Lincoln page at Amazon boast a number of reviews, as well as the following passage from the book. My thoughts and prayers go out to Professor Donald's family:

On the day after the Quincy debate, both Lincoln and Douglas got aboard the City, of Louisiana and sailed down the Mississippi River to Alton, for the final encounter of the campaign. Looking haggard with fatigue, Douglas opened the debate on October 15 in a voice so hoarse that in the early part of the speech he could scarcely be heard. After briefly reviewing the standard arguments over which he and Lincoln had differed since the beginning of the campaign, he made the peculiar decision to devote most of his speech to a detailed defense of his course on Lecompton. He concluded with a rabble-rousing attack on the racial views he attributed to Republicans and an announcement "that the signers of the Declaration of Independence...did not mean negro, nor the savage Indians, nor the Fejee islanders, nor any other barbarous race," when they issued that document.

In his reply Lincoln said he was happy to ignore Douglas's long account of his feud with the Buchanan administration; he felt like the put-upon wife in an old jestbook, who stood by as her husband struggled with a bear, saying, "Go it, husband!-Go it bear!" Once again he went through his standard answers to Douglas's charges against him and the Republican party. Recognizing that at Alton he was addressing "an audience, having strong sympathies southward by relationship, place of birth, and so on," he tried explain why it was so important to keep slavery out of Kansas and other national territories. This was land needed "for an outlet for our surplus., population"; this was land where "white men may find a home"; this was "an outlet for free white people every where, the world over-in which Hans, and Baptiste and Patrick, and all other men from all the world, may find new homes and better conditions in their lives.

And that brought him again to what he perceived as "the real issue in this controversy," which once more he defined as a conflict "on the part of one class that looks upon the institution of slavery as a wrong, and of another class that does not look upon it as a wrong." Rising to the oratorical high point in the entire series of debates, he told the Alton audience: "That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent. it is the eternal struggle between these two principles--right and wrong--throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings."

With a brief rejoinder by Douglas, the debates were ended. After that both candidates made a few more speeches to local rallies, but everybody realized that the campaign was over, and the decision now lay with the voters.


Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Douglas: I learned that Jack Kemp died from reading your blog. Now I learn David Herbert Donald has died. Perhaps you could put a black border around the blog...

Seriously, this is a blow that's just as big in its very different way as Kemp's death was. I don't doubt that you still have plenty to read in your day job, but if you ever get a chance, read Donald's biography of Thomas Wolfe. Donald made his rep in the Civil War era, spending a lifetime writing about it. But when Thomas Wolfe's life, which had only the wispiest connection to the Civil War, gripped his imagination, he wrote a splendid biography, at sixty seven. This biography is easily one of the ten best literary biographies ever written. Proof enough of what a loss his death is.

Sincerely yours,
Gregory Koster