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If you like David Herbert Donald's story, you might also like:
Stephen Ambrose,
Shelby Foote,
Doris Kearns Goodwin,
Frank McCourt,
David McCullough,
James Michener
and Gore Vidal

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Ford's Theatre
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David Herbert Donald
David Herbert Donald
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David Herbert Donald Interview (page: 2 / 8)

Two Pulitzer Prizes for Biography

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  David Herbert Donald

Lincoln's historical identity is closely linked to his rural Western youth. What role did this Western-ness play in his success in politics? Did this Western identification pose any challenges for him in the White House?

David Herbert Donald: Lincoln was our first Western president. When you look back, you say, "Well, there was Andrew Jackson," but Jackson had not been born or raised in the West. He got there fairly late. There was William Henry Harrison, but he lived such a short time, and anyway he was one of a great family of Virginia. So Lincoln is the first sort of self-made man who comes from the West. Now, there's a lot of advantage to this.

Westerners in those days felt often underrepresented in politics, that all the leaders of the country had hitherto come from the seaboard, many of them had been interrelated by marriage and so on. Here was a man who was outside. He was not one of those insiders, and this was a great advantage, especially in the West where people had been feeling deprived. "We have nobody representing us in the government." It was a great advantage too, in that his language from the West was something that it was very clearly understood. Everybody could follow him quickly. Whereas, if he had gone to college in the East, if he had gone to Princeton shall we say, he would have undoubtedly studied rhetoric. That's one of the subjects you had to study, and he would understand how you formed an argument and how you use this kind of flower of language and that kind of flower of language, and he would have been incomprehensible to most of his Western listeners who, by and large, were self-educated, if educated at all.

David Herbert Donald Interview Photo
There were some disadvantages to being a Westerner. One was that when Lincoln became president, he really was not very well acquainted with the nation as a whole. Look at it from this point of view. Lincoln had spent maybe a couple of weeks in a slave state, Kentucky, which was generally the least harsh of the states where slavery was practiced. So he didn't know anything about Mississippi or Louisiana. Those were not part of his reckoning. He didn't know really much about the East. He traveled a bit in his later years to New York, to Boston, and he got very good reception, but he didn't know these people and their problems the way he would if they had been out in Illinois. So there were some disadvantages that show up in Lincoln's behavior, but on the whole, Western-ness was, I think, a great advantage.

Lincoln's Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, dismissed Lincoln out of hand when they first met as young men practicing law, but they became close allies. How do you account for that?

David Herbert Donald: Stanton first met Lincoln, I believe, in a trial case in Cincinnati. Lincoln had been brought in to have a true Western lawyer on the team. He had worked very hard on the case, drew up an elaborate brief, was all ready to make the argument, and when he got to the courthouse, he found that Stanton and the people he had already chosen had made the arguments, and he had no role at all. When word came to Stanton that Lincoln expected to speak, Stanton said, "That gorilla from Illinois?" and he just wouldn't let him get in front of the courtroom. Lincoln was terribly hurt. He had not only wasted a lot of time, but also he was not used to being looked down on, and so for a time then, there was friction, and one might want to have said there would be mortal friction. When Lincoln became president and when his first Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, did not work out well, Lincoln knew that it's time to have somebody very able, very skillful, and as blunt as Stanton had been to him in Cincinnati. So he called Stanton in. Stanton was dubious. After all, he didn't know anything much about Lincoln. Lincoln had little experience at that time. Maybe Lincoln would try to dominate him. Lincoln brought him into the family. He listened to him very carefully. He took great interest in the Stanton children. The Stantons often summered out at the Soldiers Home where Lincoln and Mary Lincoln summered. He got to know them that way, and gradually the Lincolns and the Stantons became really quite good friends, and Lincoln trusted him. Stanton I'm not sure ever trusted anybody, but as far as Lincoln was concerned, that was nearly as near a person he could really confide in. So by the end of the war, they were thinking about the same things in the same way, and Stanton had become a true ally.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

Do you think the development of this friendship with Stanton was representative of the way people's perceptions of Lincoln evolved as they got to know him?

David Herbert Donald: A great many people started out with a negative view of Lincoln. First of all, in looks, he was ungainly. In those days, a man six-foot high was something very unusual. Six-foot-four, he stood out in any crowd, and especially since he insisted on wearing that top hat, which put him even higher. He looked odd, though he tried, and Mary tried even harder, to keep him pressed and neat. He just could not be neat. His clothes always looked wrinkled, and this is partly because he traveled so much. He had stuff in the suitcase. He'd take it out and put it on. His accent was Western with a twang. He would tend to say, "Well, why don't you sit in that chee-er..." rather than "chair," that sort of thing, and people thought, "This is an uncouth kind of person. How could this man be president?" Then you got to working with him, got to know him, and I would offer it as kind of a general law: there was nobody associated with Abraham Lincoln closely who did not come to admire and love him. He had almost nothing in the way of personal enemies from anything that he said or did. He was a very attractive, interesting, engaged man who would listen to you and actually hear what you're saying. That's a remarkable thing. So that by the time you got to see Lincoln three or four times, you realized this is an intelligent man who likes me and I like him, and with the feeling being mutual, they became often very close.

During his lifetime, Lincoln had pretty mixed reviews from the public, but after his assassination, he seems to have been canonized. What are the differences between the way Lincoln was viewed before and after his death?

David Herbert Donald: Lincoln, before his assassination, was certainly strongly criticized. He was "Abraham Africanus," the friend of the blacks, but not a proper citizen. He was uncouth, all the matters that one could think of there, and when it came to voting, over and over again, Northerners tended to vote for more polished and better educated Democrats. This was just the way it was, and when Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, it created such a hostile reaction that the Republicans lost most of those congressional races. So there was great hostility. There was also hostility among fellow Republicans, most of whom were better educated. They thought they were smarter than Lincoln. They certainly had more experience than Lincoln. They thought, "This is kind of a rough fellow who has come out of the West who doesn't really know what he's talking about." It took quite a while for a man like Charles Sumner -- who, polished as he was, Harvard educated, friend of Joseph Story of the Supreme Court, widely traveled in Europe, with always a pocketful of letters from the Duke of Carlisle and so on -- to think anything good could come of Abraham Lincoln, but Lincoln managed him. Lincoln flattered him. Mrs. Lincoln also flattered Charles Sumner, who was easy to flatter. He was indeed a tall, handsome, gallant, well-trained young man, and he became increasingly a part of the Lincoln entourage. When the Lincolns went out for a carriage ride, he would often take Sumner along with him. So that by the end, as Mary Lincoln wrote, Sumner and Lincoln were on the best of terms, and Mary said they played together like two young boys, which is unlikely one thinks for Lincoln. Even more unlikely for a sedate Charles Sumner, but he relaxed with Lincoln. This kind of transformation occurred with a great many people. So I think it is a mistake to think of Lincoln in his pre-assassination period as being disliked. He was suspected. He had many critics, but on the other hand he also had many friends.

David Herbert Donald Interview Photo
Then comes the assassination. This is the first great American assassination. There had been an attempt on Andrew Jackson, but not successful. There had been a couple of presidents who had died in office, but that is very different. The tragedy of it all, a man struck down in his prime, struck down on, of all things, Good Friday, brought to Americans a sense of total loss, especially since nobody knew where do we go from here. Nobody knew much about Andrew Johnson, except that he had a bad temper. There was no other alternative, and they thought, "We're lost now without Lincoln. We have to follow in his steps and try to find out what they are." So increasingly, people wrote eulogistic biographies of Lincoln, nearly always finding him as a great man, sometimes calling him a saint, which he wasn't, but they loved him, and that I think is the change that came about in Lincoln before and after his death.

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This page last revised on Feb 24, 2010 16:53 EDT