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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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David Herbert Donald
David Herbert Donald
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David Herbert Donald Interview (page: 3 / 8)

Two Pulitzer Prizes for Biography

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  David Herbert Donald

Lincoln began his presidency with some experience as a politician, but not a lot of experience as a leader. Could you tell us about Lincoln's learning curve while he was in the White House?

David Herbert Donald: Lincoln had, I think, as little experience as anybody who has occupied the White House. Think back on it. He had served one term in Congress without distinction. He had never been mayor of his town, never been governor of his state. He had never been a member of a Supreme Court. He was very little known, and there was a feeling that he had never actually done anything much. He was recognized as a good lawyer, but he was the head of a two-man law firm only, not one of the big Chicago firms. They did try to enlist him, by the way, to come up to Chicago and live. He said no. He was used to a really small firm in Springfield. So how did a man like that learn experience? How did he learn to cope with people, how to lead? Well first of all, he had an innate tact. Second, he started off with some bad blunders. It took time for him to get on his feet, so to speak. Almost any new president, as a matter of fact, it took time to learn the ropes in Washington. He worked at it very closely and very hard, and by the middle of his first term, he was already a master politician, well endowed with the knowledge it takes to rule in Congress, to make suggestions, and to get your way, but it was not something that came easy for him. He had to work at it.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

Did Lincoln's position as a moderate within the Republican Party make him more effective during his years in the White House, or did it create problems for him?

David Herbert Donald: Lincoln himself thought of himself as a moderate, as somebody who did not go to extremes. There were, within his own party, radicals like Charles Sumner who wanted to act decisively against the South, whether they had the power to do so or not. They wanted to declare all slaves free, they wanted to divide up Southern plantations and so on. Lincoln was not interested in that kind of dramatic, drastic action. He knew that to get any measure through Congress, he had to have a certain amount of Democratic support. This Democratic support could come from the group called War Democrats, those who went along with Lincoln as fighting a war for the Union, but once he announced, "I am going to abolish slavery. I am going to remake Southern society," they would drop off, and he knew it. He had a Republican base. He reached out to the Republican radicals, but even more, he reached to moderate Democrats. By the end of his term, he was a centrist, so much so that it was not possible to nominate anybody who would outflank him either to the right or the left. The Democrats felt this, and the Republicans even more so. There was kind of a rump Republican movement to replace Lincoln in 1864, and they thought of people like Salmon P. Chase, the Secretary of the Treasury, who was indeed a strong abolitionist and a very careful figure in promoting himself. People realized that it wouldn't work, and he had almost no following, and when he tried to set up a party of his own, Lincoln let him go his own way. He didn't dismiss him from the Cabinet for ages, and when Chase was ready to form his own party, there he was marching with his banner, and nobody was behind. It was a wonderful feat of allowing people to have their own way, not cutting them off, but gradually working them in to your following and very successfully so.

David Herbert Donald Interview Photo
Lincoln showed extraordinary patience with General McClellan during the first years of the Civil War. This led to enormous frustration in the North. Why was Lincoln so patient, and did it ultimately serve a purpose?

David Herbert Donald: Lincoln put up with more from George McClellan than any other person. He repeatedly urged him to take action, and McClellan couldn't. The army wasn't ready, "My horses' mouths are sore," and Lincoln wrote, "What on earth have your horses been doing that makes their mouths sore?" He couldn't get supplies in time. He was not ready to attack. There would be all of these things. Why didn't Lincoln fire him? One big answer and good answer is that there was nobody to take his place. Ultimately, Lincoln did dismiss McClellan, and look what happened. In his place, there was Burnside, bumbling Burnside who led to catastrophe. Oh, good gracious. There was Joe Hooker who boasted he was going out and kill all the Southerners, and he again had disaster. They could not lead. There was nobody in the offing that Lincoln could say, "Ah-hah! If I put this man, he would do better than McClellan."

Now, over two years in the West, he watched very closely as generals developed, away from Washington, away from his overseeing eye, away from politics, and several of them were becoming major figures, notably Grant and Sherman. Watching them closely, Lincoln thought, "Ah-hah! This is the team that I really ought to have." So when the final blow came, it became necessary to dismiss McClellan, Lincoln turned at once to Grant. He went out to the West. He did not know Grant. Maybe they had met once, but I think probably not. Grant did not know him, but Grant was a very loyal soldier in contrast to McClellan, who played his own hand. Grant would do whatever the President wanted and do it extremely well, as he had already done in the West. He brought him to Washington. He made much of him, and Grant was indeed totally loyal to Lincoln. So this is the evolution. Would McClellan ever have fought a battle if he'd been in power, a major battle? Would he ever have won a victory? I think nearly everybody agrees not. He might have had an occasion and then pulled back before he got underway. He probably would have retreated and tried a new plan or maneuver. McClellan was not an aggressive soldier. His forte was arming, getting equipment, getting the horses ready, all the entourage, but not for fighting. Grant, on the other hand, cared little about this. He appeared in his old work uniform, no epaulettes and medals and so on, all ready to go. He settled down at once to work, not for show, and he got the results.

As you see it, what were Lincoln's beliefs about slavery before the Civil War, and how did his thinking change during the course of the war?

David Herbert Donald: Abraham Lincoln as a young man knew almost nothing about slavery. He was born in Kentucky, but he was too young to have any memories there. In Indiana, of course, there were no slaves. In Illinois, he saw very few blacks. They were not enslaved. He did take a visit to Louisville and its environs, and was well treated there by a great plantation which did have slaves, but he didn't really know much about slavery. So what his concern was in those early days was not particularly slavery, though I'm sure he thought of it as a bad institution. What he was thinking about was how it impinged on the white settlers, how it would make areas like Kansas, for instance, a slave state, or rather that it be free. Kansas would become a new, shall we say, South Carolina rather than a new Pennsylvania. This worried him a great deal. So his early stand about slavery had to do, very simply, with its expansion. He did not want it to go further than it was. Now, at the time, a great many people agreed with him that slavery was a dying institution, that if you could constrain it, if you put these limits around the Southern slave states, they would ultimately have to get rid of the institution itself. It would die of its own accord, and it had to expand in order to live. Now, that was the mind-set of the pre-Civil War Lincoln. He was, of course, opposed to slavery, and when he appeared in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, he said flatly, "If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong," and he said that, "As I would not be a slave, I would not be a master," but he didn't plan to do anything particularly about it.

He was constrained by the Constitution, which said this is a domestic institution that individual states rule on and decide about, and if they could just keep it that way, he thought it might be all right. Then the Southern slave states became expansionist, first the move into Texas -- that vast area that potentially had the makings of being four more states, all slave states -- and then further into the West. Presently, in 1854, Stephen A. Douglas opened up the rest of the national territories to choose whether they wanted to be free or slave. From Lincoln's point of view, this showed slavery on the warpath, that "We're going to be hurt here, because slavery is going to encircle us, rather than we contain slavery." So his views became stronger, but even so, he did not propose any practical measures to do away with it. Then comes the secession of the Southern states. He becomes President of the United States. What should he do? In his first inaugural, he assured the Southerners that, "Your peculiar institutions are safe in my hands." That sounded all right, except the Southerners didn't believe him, and they started withdrawing from the Union, and as they did, he increasingly came to see that they were withdrawing because of slavery. Slavery was the central institution in the Confederacy.

Furthermore, living in Washington as President of the United States, he saw a great many slaves, also a great many freedmen, and for the first time had some acquaintance with blacks as individual people, notably Frederick Douglass. Before that time, Lincoln had thought of blacks as maybe somebody who cut your hair every now and then, or takes care of milking your cow. Now Frederick Douglass appears. This is a powerful man, well educated, an immense orator with a huge following who comes and gives specific plans to Lincoln of what ought to be done, and Lincoln is taken by him. This is a man of intellect. Clearly, some blacks at any rate are as smart as some whites, and his view toward slavery gradually becomes very different from what it had been. Presently, he came also to see that the Confederacy would not exist -- could not survive -- if slaves were emancipated, because their economy depended on slavery, and if they didn't have those slaves working in the field, the whites in the army would have to go back and support their families. So something had to be done here. Finally, as the Union armies advanced, more and more blacks flocked around them, hundreds, thousands of them, a kind of black trail, so to speak, following the Union armies, and many of these were able to help the Union fight, and President Lincoln, he enlisted them in the Union armies. So that by the end of his first term, Lincoln had come to have a very different view about blacks and about slavery, and when that occurred, he was now ready to move to the next step.

David Herbert Donald Interview Photo
He knew he could not unilaterally free all the slaves successfully. His constitutional powers did not allow it. He could free them under military order, but that might not be constitutional. It might not last. The time had come for an amendment to the Constitution. And Lincoln, as a practical politician, worked carefully with the Congress to get exactly the number of votes that were needed to pass the 13th Amendment, and of course it was, to his great joy. He also came slowly and sometimes reluctantly to see that blacks were people of real achievement, that they served nobly in the army, and they did very well at places like Fort Hudson, where they led in the attack. They were to be depended on, and when it came to the question of reorganizing the Southern states once they were conquered, he began to see that we are going to have to take blacks into account, we are going to have to see that they are freed. And the best way to do this is to see that at least some of them -- at least the educated ones -- ought to have the vote, and this was rank heresy, something that Lincoln in 1846 would never have said, Lincoln in 1856 probably would never have said, but comes 1865, he realizes we have got these people, they are our allies, we have got to do something for them, as they have done for us.

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