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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: 4 / 8)

Two Pulitzer Prizes for Biography

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  David Herbert Donald

What might the aftermath of the Civil War have been like if Lincoln had not been assassinated? How might this have changed the process of Reconstruction?

David Herbert Donald: Historians like to play "if" games and "what if" and "What would happen if Lincoln had not been assassinated?" or "What if he lived after an assassination attack?" And of course, the answer is we don't know, and nobody does know. We make some guesses. Probably, the readmission of the Southern states, or some of the Southern states, would have been easier. There would have been less draconian Reconstruction measures, and probably, there would have been some guarantee of the rights of freedmen. The Black Codes enacted in Reconstruction would not have been tolerated. Whether this would ever have led to real equality for blacks I think is uncertain, and indeed, I'm not sure blacks still have complete equality. Things would have been different also on a political level. Lincoln had just been reelected by an overwhelming majority. He had now the mandate that he never had in 1860. He was able now to go to Congress and say, "I want this done, and the people are behind me," and he can move with that fashion, which he could not do earlier. So that measures for Reconstruction could have been enacted by Lincoln that would be more moderate, more careful, slower probably, and on the whole probably even worked out better, but who knows?

What do you see as Lincoln's legacy today?

David Herbert Donald: Some years ago, when I didn't have anything much else to do, I went through a series of newspapers, looking at a presidential race to see how often people invoke Abraham Lincoln. The answer was everybody invoked Abraham Lincoln. If you are a racist, you say Lincoln hated the blacks. If you were an equal rights person, Lincoln loved blacks and tried to give them freedom. If you were a Republican, Lincoln loved the Grand Old Party. If you were a Democrat, Lincoln was at heart really a Democrat, he just ran for the Republican ticket. Everybody loved Abraham Lincoln. Now, some legacy to give is the legacy of understanding this was, first of all, a very great leader, and we've had so few in our history. Second, that this was a man of absolute integrity, that you could trust whatever he said, and we've had so few people like that in our history. But also, this was a man of peace who wanted to adjust, who did not want to dominate, who did not want to rule like a czar, who did not want to be an emperor of the South. He had modest goals. He kept to them, and I think that is one of the legacies that our presidents ought to keep from Abraham Lincoln, namely that there are realistic limits on the powers of a president that Abraham Lincoln knew and that we ought to know, too.

We'd like to take a few minutes to talk about the woman behind the man, Mary Todd Lincoln. Can we talk a little bit about Mary, and her journey from Springfield to the White House?

David Herbert Donald Interview Photo
David Herbert Donald: Yes. I have great sympathy for Mary Lincoln. Mary Lincoln was left an orphan at a fairly early age. Her stepmother did not like her and pushed her out of the nest as soon as she could. She went to live with her sisters, including the one in Springfield, when she was an adolescent. So she had a hard bringing up. She had a father who loved her, that's true, but her stepmother really did not like her, and they didn't get along at all. So Mary had no experience in close, relaxed friendship with other women, and this made it hard for her when she moved to Springfield. Her sister put up with her, but they were not really close friends. She had very few close friends, and it was easy to take a dislike to Mary because, first of all, she was pretty, she was lively, she was vivacious, and she caused envy among the other young women in Springfield. It's easy to see why she might well be disliked. All the young men were courting her, and if you were a young woman in Springfield, you might think that Mary Todd is a dangerous character.

Well, she married Abe, and their marriage was in many ways a very rocky one because he really was not used to dealing with women at all. He didn't know anything about women. His mother had died. His stepmother was an uneducated dear old lady, but he didn't learn anything from her. He had little association with women of education and competence, so he had to adjust his sights too. It was a rocky first start for them, and they had some serious quarrels, including a break-off of the engagement before they got married. But they did get married, and they decided to make do. It was a hard life for her because he was away so much of the time on the circuit. She was a good mother. They had how many children?

They had Robert. They had Eddie. They had Willie, and they had the young boy called -- the youngest -- called "Tad," Thomas. Now, Robert grew up not really knowing his father at all, raised by his mother, and he was not a lovable person. On the other hand, Eddie was always sickly, and we have no personality for him. Willie was apparently the delight of the family. He was smart. He was clever. He was witty. He wrote poems at age eight that were published in the newspapers. He had a wicked sense of humor in the White House as a little boy. As his father was out in front on the stand, he would speak how we would support our troops and we support the Union, and the people in front started laughing because there behind him, Willie and Tad, the littlest boy, had got a big flag of the Confederacy stretched out behind him. There was no malice. They were just being funny. When Mary Lincoln was having a big reception, all the ladies in their crinolines and their big skirts, they were all around, and they were in the East Room sipping whatever you gave them in those days. The doors would burst open, and here would be Willie and Tad pulled by a nanny goat on a chair rushing through the flock of ladies who would gather up their skirts as best they could, because they were riding a sled. It was a chair from the White House. They had very little discipline, but Lincoln did not believe in discipline for children. He said, "Oh well, let them grow up as they like. They will be constrained much in the future. Let them try." Mary was perhaps a little more strict, but she could not bear to punish her children, and she loved them. She doted on them.

David Herbert Donald Interview Photo

We know this in an odd sort of way from digging in the septic tank behind the Lincoln house. There was no garbage collection in those days, so you threw all your waste in a pit behind your house. Some people -- I don't envy them the task -- excavated this to find what did the Lincolns eat, how did they live. Rumor had it for years and years that Mary Lincoln was so stingy, she barely fed her family. Well, you dig out the septic tank, and here are bones from the best cuts of beef and the best cuts of lamb. Clearly, Mary kept a good table. She was a good cook, and she fed her family and cared for them very well. She loved them. Now when she gets to Washington, things are different. First of all, she has an old entourage of servants. Most of them had been there from the previous administration, most of whom she did not trust. Second...

She had a budget that she was to remodel the White House, and Mary had no experience with money. She knew the White House was, as Lincoln himself said, "this damned old barn," and it needed something done for it, and so she went out on a shopping spree to get things for the White House. She went to Philadelphia in the big department stores and looked at what they had in the way of drapes and furniture and so. She went on to New York and did the same kind of thing, and she ordered like mad, one might say, because $40,000, which she had at her disposal, was a vast amount of money for Mary Lincoln, who had never seen more than I guess $100 at a time. So she ordered all these things for the White House, and they came in. She furnished the White House in what was for those days good taste. We would think it is ornate, overstuffed, very Victorian, but people commented on it that it was indeed very nice. And then the bills began coming in, and Mary had no way to pay for them. She committed much, much more than the Congress had allowed, and the manager went to Lincoln and said, "What are we going to do about it?" And Lincoln for once lost his temper. He said, "I'm not going to pay for these things, these trinkets that she's buying, all these foofoos. Why, this house was better when we moved into it than any house we ever lived in out in Springfield. I won't pay it." Then he said, "I'll put it out of my own pocket," which, of course, he couldn't afford to do. Well ultimately, they sneaked it into the budget under a different item, and they did pay for it, but Mary Lincoln's extravagance became well known.

David Herbert Donald Interview Photo
It persisted after that when she bought jewels, when she bought necklaces, when she bought bracelets. She had an irresistible time of buying, and this is more understandable I think when one realizes that before she became Mrs. President, she had lost her first son, Edward, whom she loved. Children did die early in those days. She comes to the White House with three boys. Robert himself was actually at Harvard studying, but the other little boys were there, and she wanted them to be well dressed. She wanted them to be well mannered. She wanted things to be exactly right for them, and this is one reason why she bought so much, she spent so much, she cared so much, and she wanted to impress the public, and the public, of course, was not impressed. They would come in the house, and they would see all this money she has spent, and this went on for a while, though she gave a couple of major parties that people seemed to enjoy a lot.

At that point, poor Willie fell ill, probably typhoid fever. The water in Washington was all polluted. They drank right out of the Potomac, and Willie -- Tad to a less degree -- fell ill. During one of their big parties, Mary Lincoln and a tired Abraham Lincoln stole off and went upstairs from time to time to nurse their severely ill child and try to bring him through it. And he got through for a few days, but then one morning, the secretaries in the office saw Lincoln come in bursting into tears. They said he said, "Boys, my Willie is gone. He's dead." The poor little boy, the brightest of the Lincoln family, had died. This was a blow to Lincoln and a blow to Mary Lincoln. She had her whole heart fixed on those children whom she adored, and she simply could not get over the loss of Willie. The funeral was very sad. She was much too ill to go to it, and Lincoln buried his little boy in a mausoleum there in Washington, but went back with Stanton, by the way, to have it opened once or twice. He just could not believe the boy was gone. Mary Lincoln never recovered from all this. She grieved so for the rest of the administration. She was cloaked in veils of black garments. You could hardly see her through that. She was so moved and so distressed, at one point Lincoln had to take her to the window and point down to the Potomac where there was an insane asylum, and he said to her, "Mother" -- he called her "Mother" -- "Mother, you had better get control of yourself, or you are going to have to be sent down there one of these days," and she tried. She really did try, but she had had such losses. Coming on top of that, the assassination of her dearly loved husband -- and she adored her husband -- was just more than anybody could bear. She collapsed. Presently, her mind was not safe, and she lived a tragically unhappy life for the rest of her years.

Is there anything else you'd like to add about President Lincoln?

David Herbert Donald: Indirectly. One of my former students is just publishing a new book called Did Lincoln Own Slaves? and other questions about the Lincoln administration. It is a wonderful, wonderful book. Of course Lincoln never owned slaves. This has raised every conceivable question anybody has ever raised about Abraham Lincoln, "What was the size of his foot?" "What did he drink for breakfast?" Anything you can think of, and he answers them calmly, coolly, and often very funny. It's a very amusing book, as well as a very capable book. So we haven't answered all those questions, but if we did, we'd be answering 350 pages of questions.

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