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David Herbert Donald
David Herbert Donald
ISBN: 068482535X
Professor Donald talked about his recent book, Lincoln, published by Simon and Schuster . The book emphasizes four aspects of President Lincoln's life: his ambition, his law practice, his married life and his several electoral defeats. Parts of the audio cassette abridgement were also played. Professor Donald's first book was about President Lincoln's law partner.
Program Air Date: December 24, 1995

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: David Herbert Donald, author of "Lincoln," I don't know if you've seen this or not, but in the Christian Science Monitor, there's a review of your book that says -- it's by Gabor Boritt -- and it says the following -- by the way, have you seen this?
DAVID HERBERT DONALD (Author, "Lincoln"): I have not seen it, no.
LAMB: Here's the first couple of sentences. "This is a masterwork. It stands alone among 135 years of Lincoln biographies."
DONALD: My gracious. I'm not sure I deserve it, but I'm pleased.
LAMB: "Its author, David Herbert Donald, has spent much of a lifetime studying and teaching the Civil War era and its central figure." What have you done to deserve this?
DONALD: I'm not sure I've done enough to deserve that. But I've been working in this area for a long, long time. He's quite right about that.
LAMB: When did you first get introduced to Abraham Lincoln?
DONALD: I came up from Mississippi, my home state, to the University of Illinois to write a history of Mississippi and I fell under the spell of the great professor at the University of Illinois, James G. Randall, who was working on his Lincoln biography, ultimately published as "Lincoln: The President In Four Volumes." I was captivated by him. I became his research assistant -- worked with him closely -- and became an apprentice, which is the best way for an historian to be trained, I think.
LAMB: What year was this?
DONALD: This was -- oh, goodness. This is about 1942 through '48 -- along in there, so a long time ago. And having got immersed in it, he suggested, "Well, why don't you go ahead and do a Lincoln subject for your dissertation?" I had already done something, and so I said, "Well, what shall we do?" He said, "Lincoln's law partner, Herndon, has never been properly studied. His papers have just become available. Why don't you try?" So I did. And my first book was called "Lincoln's Herndon," a biography of Lincoln's law partner, published in 1948 and, I'm still pleased to say, recently reissued in paperback after all these years. So I have been in this field for a long time.
LAMB: This cover -- did you have anything to do with it?
DONALD: I did. The original cover was very different from this. We had a younger Lincoln looking rather ideal -- abstractly, I think, in the distance, behind him the unfinished dome of the Capitol and so on. We liked it. It was quite colorful. The sales representatives at Simon & Schuster said this will never do. "It won't do," they said. "Because people will look at it and say, 'That's a book for young adults. That's not a grown-up book.'" So back to the drawing board and we tried several, and this came out and I'm very pleased with it. It seems to be a distinguished jacket. And since I can't draw or anything like that, I can only report how I feel about it.
LAMB: I thought I'd do something a little different for this Booknotes.
LAMB: Just because we've never done it before and you see it happening more and more and that is: I bought this...
DONALD: Great.
LAMB: ...which is the audio. We'll get a close-up of this. Now did you have anything to do with this?
DONALD: Yes, in the sense that I reviewed the script. This obviously had to be an abridgment of this very long text to get it under six hours. And so a lot had to be left out. And I reviewed it in the hopes of getting it as complete as one can in six hours and to see that not too much was left out. I had nothing to do with the recording of it, except from time to time I was called to ask about pronunciations. "How do you pronounce," they said, "Is it Chick-a-ha-manee? Chick-a-homey? How do you pronounce it?" I'd say, grandly, "Chickahominy River," that kind of thing. So in that sense, I had a little to do, but not much.
LAMB: The six hours of tape -- I listened to it to get ready for this -- and listened to an actor, James Naughton.
DONALD: A very good actor, too. Good voice.
LAMB: How much is on the tapes -- or better put, how much isn't on the tapes that's in the book?
DONALD: I would guess this is approximately a third of the book, so there's a lot in the book that isn't there. And necessarily some complexities have to be omitted. And, of course, obviously, the enormous amount of material in the notes is not in the audio, but you wouldn't want them there anyway.
LAMB: Let's listen to just the opening part.
LAMB: And it only takes about a minute or so.


JAMES NAUGHTON: "Lincoln" by David Herbert Donald. Abraham Lincoln was not interested in his ancestry. In his mind, he was a self-made man who had no need to care about his family tree. In 1860, when John Locke Scripps of the Chicago Tribune proposed to write his campaign biography, Lincoln told him, "Why, Scrips, it is a great piece of folly to attempt to make anything out of my early life. It can all be condensed into a single sentence, and that sentence you will find in Gray's "Elegy": "The short and simple annals of the poor." That's my life, and that's all you or anyone else can make of it."


LAMB: David Herbert Donald, what did he mean by that?
DONALD: He meant that he did think he was a self-made man, that he did not think that he inherited a great deal from his parents. His father he was more or less in rebellion against or, at least, he was removed from, I would think would be the better word. His mother died when he was an infant, small boy, seven, nine years old -- so that he didn't feel that he gained much from his parents. He thought that he had created a life of his own that was very different from that of Thomas Lincoln. Thomas Lincoln was a hardworking, comfortably fixed, small farmer who did manual labor. Lincoln did not like to do manual labor. He could work very hard, but he didn't like it. He was a professional. He'd established himself as a member of the upper class in Springfield. He was a leading politician. And he just simply didn't want to be thought of as a product of Thomas Lincoln and of Nancy Hanks.
LAMB: You say in the opening that you gave attention to four different things, and I want to go through each of the four...
DONALD: All right.
LAMB: ... and have you expound on them a little bit. One of them was that you wanted to give attention to his unquenchable ambition.
DONALD: Right.
LAMB: Where did you learn over the years of investigation that he had ambition?
DONALD: I think every Lincoln student has always quoted one remark of his partner William Herndon, and I certainly quoted it in an earlier book, as in here and so on: "His ambition was a little engine that knew no rest." Herndon was his law partner, sat in the same law office with him for 16 years and watched him. And constantly Lincoln was looking for the next step. What do you do next? What's the next opportunity, both in law and in politics? He saw that this was a man who was really going places and who was determined that he would succeed. That ambition, I think, grew from his very early experiences. As a boy, he excelled. He was taller than, he was stronger than, he was smarter than any of his contemporaries out in southern Indiana, and he knew that he was better than they were. He had no doubt whatsoever about his ability. And what he needed was simply to find the right niche to fit in, and that was where he would, indeed, excel.
LAMB: Second on your list is that you want to give attention to his brain-numbing labor in his law practice.
DONALD: That is certainly true. We, for the first time, are able really to document and show this. The Lincoln legal papers have been under way in Springfield now for about seven years, something like that. They've collected papers on every case in which Abraham Lincoln was ever involved. They searched the county courthouses all over Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, other places as well. They've collected not merely what Lincoln has to say, but what his opposing lawyers had to say, what the judges' rulings were, what the jury decisions were, what the fees. We can, for the first time, see the whole pattern of that career. And the amount of work that Lincoln went through is just almost unbelievable. After all, there were no secretaries, there were no copying machines, there were no fax machines -- everything done by hand. One memorable document runs to 53 handwritten pages that Lincoln himself laboriously writes out by hand. He worked very, very hard, not merely at the papers but at the research behind those papers. So the image that some people have of Lincoln as sort of a good country lawyer who shambles into the courtroom, cracks a few jokes, wins over the jury, gets his case -- this isn't the case. He was a very hardworking, well-prepared lawyer.
LAMB: When you were at the University of Illinois in Illinois, how much time did you spend around things Lincoln in that state?
DONALD: A lot. I grew up, so to speak, to manhood in Champaign-Urbana, which is where Lincoln practiced much of the time. We went to Springfield quite regularly. I spent summer after summer in research in Springfield, where the people are wonderfully hospitable to outsiders like myself, an alien from Mississippi, and one grows to know a lot about Springfield. The life in Springfield -- the Lincoln home is still there exactly as it was in Lincoln's time; the capital now restored to its pristine beauty, what it was in Lincoln's time -- it had been deformed later -- so that one grows up feeling part of the Lincoln community if you live in Illinois long enough.
LAMB: How long did you stay in Illinois?
DONALD: Oh, let's see, 1940 through about '50 -- at least 10 years.
LAMB: Why did you leave it?
DONALD: I left because I got my degree at the University of Illinois and had to make a living teaching. My first teaching invitations came on the one side from the University of Colorado, which I visited in the heaviest snowstorm of history, and the other from Columbia University in New York, which I accepted, and that's where I began teaching.
LAMB: How long did you stay there?
DONALD: I stayed there nearly 10 years.
LAMB: Then where?
DONALD: Well, from Columbia, I went briefly to Smith, where I taught for a couple of years, back to Columbia, and then, after an interlude at Oxford as the Harmsworth professor, I went to Princeton for three years, and after Princeton moved to the Johns Hopkins University, where we stayed for just about a decade. And then for the past 20-some-odd years, I've been at Harvard.
LAMB: Are you still teaching?
DONALD: I have retired now. This is, I think, the third year of my retirement.
LAMB: And on this particular book, how long had you worked?
DONALD: Seven years full-time. Now, fortunately, I had a backlog of materials from earlier studies of Herndon, of Samuel P. Chase, of Charles Sumner, things that could be sort of assimilated into this larger picture here, but full-time work on this book for a little more than seven years.
LAMB: The third item on your list of the four you wanted to give attention to was his tempestuous marriage...
DONALD: Oh, yes.
LAMB: ... or married life. What was so tempestuous about it?
DONALD: Well, it was tempestuous because he and Mary Lincoln were both difficult people to live with. Most people are difficult people to live with, but they were exceptionally so. Let's do, first of all, a little of the difference in background. He's a young man, from really pretty hardscrabble beginnings, little in the way of education, nothing in the way of social polish, who arrives in Springfield and begins courting Mary Todd, who's the daughter of a very wealthy, upper-class Kentucky planter, banker, merchant, slave owner, too. She was polished. She had the best education women could have in those days. She spoke French, for example. She was at one end of the social spectrum; he was at the other. There were hard adjustments to be made for these two people to live, to have a common style of life -- very simple kinds of matters. He liked to go around in his shirtsleeves. When somebody'd knock at the front door -- he was just an old-folksy person -- he would go to the door and answer it. She thought that he should put on his coat and have a tie when he opened the door for visitors. He liked to stretch out on the floor in the living room in front of a fire and read. She thought he should sit properly upright and discourse.

Into that, though, there were other matters. He, as a lawyer, was out on the circuit a lot of the time. The courts moved from one county seat to another, to another. There sometimes were 12 counties they travelled -- too far to get back home over weekends. So he was gone, maybe, as much as 12 weeks at a time. She was left at home with little infants squalling in a tiny, little uncomfortable house alone. And when he came back, she wanted company. She wanted society. She liked to entertain. She liked people around. By that time, he was tired out. He'd been riding the circuit and telling stories and pleading, you know, cases. He wanted just to be quiet. So he would come home and she would want conversation and entertainment, and he paid no attention. And there were occasions where things really did become tempestuous. He would be sitting in the living room in front of the fireplace; she'd be back in the little kitchen -- it was very inadequate -- cooking dinner for the family. And she'd say, "Mr. Lincoln, the fire's dying down. You better put some wood on." "Mmm," he would say and go on reading.
LAMB: How do you know this?
DONALD: Well, we know this because neighbors recorded it exactly as I'm telling it.
LAMB: Did they hear it through the walls?
DONALD: They heard it either from Mrs. Lincoln or from Abraham Lincoln, or it was reported at the time. There are many stories about Mrs. Lincoln that are made up. The stories that do exist can be verified in the sense that these are people who are in a position to know; Mary Lincoln talked to them or Abraham Lincoln talked to them.
LAMB: Let me just run ... I mean I want to periodically run some of this audio.
LAMB: By the way, this costs $25. Is this selling very well, do you know?
DONALD: I don't know. I've nothing...
LAMB: Did any of your other books ever -- or were they ever put on audio?
DONALD: No. I have them on tapes for the blind, but I have not had one audio.
LAMB: On the back of it is actually a picture. Your picture and also James Naughton's picture.
LAMB: Did you ever meet the actor?
DONALD: I did not.
LAMB: Let's listen to this. It's...
DONALD: A wonderful voice he has. OK.
LAMB: ...some of what you said, but we'll just -- it's only a short clip.
DONALD: Right.
LAMB: Let's listen to it.


JAMES NAUGHTON: The Lincolns' domestic life was often troubled. Husband and wife were as different in temperament as they were in physique. He was slow, moody, given to bouts of melancholy and long periods of silence. He depended on his inner resources. She was lively, talkative and sociable, constantly needing the attention and admiration of others. Indifferent to what other people thought, he was not troubled when visitors found him in his favorite position for reading: stretched out at full length on the floor. She, who had grown up in houses with liveried black servants, was embarrassed when he answered the doorbell in his shirtsleeves.


LAMB: What about this? And you mention it throughout the entire book a lot -- the melancholy, the depression. It seemed like there was a lot of it.
DONALD: There was a good deal of it, though I think it may have been exaggerated by historians. There are certain times in Lincoln's life, especially his early life, where he really did suffer from what I think we could now call clinically medical depression. This was true after Ann Rutledge died. It was certainly true after he broke off his first engagement to Mary Todd. He was engaged. He was not really ready to be married. He couldn't support a family. He broke off the engagement. And then he went into a real depression because he thought he had done her wrong, that he had led her to make promises that he couldn't keep, and he was really in his bed for a week.

There are some cases like that, that really are a medically, a depression. In the war years he was often, I think, sad and overwhelmed by the burdens of his office, but I don't think there were periods of this kind of deep, blacked-out depression. Any man who's in his position, who in some sense is responsible for the killing of all those people, for the bloodshed that seems never to end, for the suffering, must feel the burden of the office. But this, I don't think, leads to the kind of bleak, depressive sentiments that you find in some of Lincoln's earliest years.
LAMB: Is it just happenstance that you live in Lincoln, Massachusetts?
DONALD: It is happenstance. Furthermore, I live on Lincoln Road in Lincoln, Massachusetts, I'll have you know. But, alas, they're named after another Lincoln, though vaguely related way back.
LAMB: Does anybody use that, the fact that you live there, for any reason? I mean...
DONALD: People always believe in long-range plans as conspiracies. `No doubt,' they said, `when you moved to Massachusetts 23 years ago, you had all this in mind, so you moved to Lincoln Road in Lincoln, Massachusetts, so you could capitalize on it.' It isn't true; it's near the good schools that my son went to.
LAMB: Do you think you would like Abraham Lincoln if he were here today?
DONALD: I do. And it's interesting that if you had asked me that when I was writing my first book on Herndon, I would probably have said, `No.' At that time I was very young, and I had the impatience that young people had toward people who tell long-winded stories, who think they're funny, who don't get to the point and get it over with. Now, looking back on it, I realize Lincoln would have been a wonderful companion, a very amusing man, and he was also tremendously intelligent. This, I think, would be what really would count. Of American presidents, I know of none that I would like to have known well and intimately like Lincoln.
LAMB: Your fourth item that you wanted to give attention to, you say in the introduction, is his repeated defeats.
LAMB: How many times was he defeated?
DONALD: He was defeated twice for the Senate of the United States, once in 1854, once in 1858. Before that time there had been earlier, less important defeats; that is, he had hoped to be re-elected to the House of Representatives. He served one undistinguished term and it led nowhere. He rather hoped they would draft him for another term, and this did not happen, partly because of his opposition to the Mexican War. So he had had bad defeats, though, for his two major races for national office. And there was little to suggest in 1860 that this was a winner. The record was this is a man who lost every time that he ran for major office.
LAMB: The two years that he was in the United States House of Representatives were?
DONALD: They were '47 through '49 -- 1847-'49. This is the time of the Mexican War. The Mexican War has just ended.
LAMB: Let me interrupt because we have another clip...
DONALD: Great.
LAMB: ...from this audio clip, and I wanted to run this because I want to compare it with a lot of the discussions we're having today about war...
DONALD: Great.
LAMB: ...and politicians and whether you should...
DONALD: Great.
LAMB: ...send troops to foreign countries.
DONALD: Right.
LAMB: Let's listen.


JAMES NAUGHTON: A few days later, Lincoln continued the campaign against Polk in a long speech on which he had worked very hard. Subjecting Polk's version of the origins of the war to a close, lawyerly scrutiny, he demanded that the president respond to the interrogatories he had posed: "Let him answer fully, fairly and candidly. Let him answer with facts and not with arguments." Piously he professed that, if the president could do so, "then I am with him for his justification." But if he failed to respond, that would show "that he is deeply conscious of being in the wrong, that he feels the blood of this war, like the blood of Abel, is crying to heaven against him." Proud of his effort, Lincoln hoped it would establish his place in the House of Representatives. His expectations were quickly dashed.


LAMB: You know, in recent years we often hear people say that freshmen congressman should be seen and not heard. What impact did he have in one term?
DONALD: None. He had hoped this speech would make a name for himself. Well, opposing a war with the United States already involved in it is not a popular thing to do, ever. And he found that he had very few backers in Illinois, and nobody in the Congress really paid very much attention -- freshman congressman, obscure Western state, probably won't be re-elected anyway, more or less amusing speech, "Let's get it over with, but it's campaign oratory," and so it had very little impact. Again, he hoped that it would make enough of a sensation that they would send him back despite a previous agreement that he would serve only one term.
LAMB: What happened, then, later on when the Civil War came along and he wanted to send troops to battle?
DONALD: He found it very embarrassing, because repeatedly, when he would take dramatic steps as president to extend presidential powers, his critics would point out, `But in the Mexican War you said the president shouldn't do this sort of thing. He should not send in troops without approval of Congress, he should not increase the Army without approval of Congress,' all of which he had done. And the answer, of course, is simply that Lincoln was then a very young man; he was in the opposition. When you're running the government things look very different.
LAMB: Did we get through all the defeats?
DONALD: Yes, that's right.
LAMB: He was postmaster?
DONALD: He was postmaster.
LAMB: What other jobs did he have?
DONALD: Oh, he was a surveyor.
LAMB: And...
DONALD: He was a riverboat man, he was a farm laborer, he was a cabinetmaker. Oh, let's see -- what else? He did whatever odd jobs came along in New Salem in his early days. He didn't know, really, where he was going. He was willing to try out anything. He tried them all out and found that he didn't like any of them that involved vigorous, physical labor. This is one cardinal point, that he didn't want to do that kind of work, which is what his father had always done. He rather liked being a postmaster, but it paid almost nothing. He was so conscientious about it. When the mail came in and people weren't there to collect it, he would take the mail out and deliver it by hand to them, often getting a free meal in the process for so doing. But that's no career for a man to have. So the one career that really opened up to him at that point was that of being a lawyer and a politician. So he got elected to the state legislature and that was the beginning of his political career.
LAMB: Seven years in Kentucky -- what impact did that have on him?
DONALD: Very little. He was so young when they left Kentucky. You see, they moved to Kentucky when he was so small that he remembered only a little of the physical surroundings. He did not remember neighbors or anything of that sort. His earliest real memories were of southern Indiana.
LAMB: Fourteen years there.
DONALD: Right.
LAMB: What impact did that have on him?
DONALD: Quite a lot. There he remembered, first of all, something of the experience of living on the frontier, where there were bear and panther that you could hear. He remembered the privations of the frontier. His father, as I said, worked hard, but he would make only a modest living. And it was a terrible time when his mother died, leaving the two children, Lincoln and his sister, with nobody to take care of them and nobody to clean for them.

The father was not especially a fostering kind of parent anyway, and they were in desperate straits until Thomas Lincoln remarried and brought in the best of all possible stepmothers, Sarah Bush Johnston, who instantly saw that these little children were neglected. And she cleaned them up and she dressed them, and she gave them places to sleep and she fed them, and she really made the life of these young children possible. Now that in turn impelled Abraham Lincoln on to schooling. He got his first schooling there. It was not much. All told it amounted to, he said, less than a year, but we have to look at that a little more in perspective. Schools in those days only ran, usually, six weeks to two months out of a year. So if you broke up a total year into two-month period, hmm, he would have the equivalent, maybe, of a six-grade education. And if you look at his sum books, his mathematical notebooks, you realize he was doing some quite complicated figures. He would be taking things like divide 6,428,927 by 327,000, or something like that. I don't think high-school students could do that these days, and this little boy in grade school could.
LAMB: Who was Nicolay and Hay?
LAMB: Who were they?
DONALD: All right. They are known principally as his official biographers, but they were more than that. Nicolay was Lincoln's personal secretary as he became president, and, as the duties were overwhelming, John Hay was brought in as his assistant. Now John Hay went on to become secretary of state and a very distinguished literary man as well. Hay, from the beginning, had a sense that this was a great man they were working for and that they were in a unique position to see what was going on. They decided they would write a book, and Lincoln said he would cooperate with them. He did, and the result was the 10-volume Nicolay and Hay "Abraham Lincoln: A History," which up till 1950 was the only biography of Lincoln that had access to his personal papers. They were something...
LAMB: Why did you say... I noticed a little liner note in the book that, up until 1947 ...
LAMB: ... these papers were not available to the public. Why not?
DONALD: They were inherited by Robert Todd Lincoln, Lincoln's surviving son, who was very sensitive about the family reputation and about his father's reputation. He didn't want people sort of mucking around in the family history, and he didn't like any kind of stories that reflected at all on his father. So he let nobody but Nicolay and Hay use those papers. He ultimately presented them to the Library of Congress, where they were sealed until 1947. Nobody could get at them, even to index them. They were just there. We all knew they were there, but we didn't know what was in them. This means that the great biographies -- Carl Sandburg, Albert Beveridge, James G. Randall -- they didn't have access to Lincoln's papers. They couldn't see what came upon his desk as president. We now can. We've got all those papers. We've got 97 reels of microfilm, 1,500 pages per reel, something like that. Or you can sit at Lincoln's side and see what did he know about the Sumter crisis, or about his re-election campaign in 1864 -- what it really is; as the papers come upon his desk, how does he know, when did he know, from whom did he know, how did he make his decisions? And this is the sort of thing that previous biographers have not been able to do.
LAMB: How did you write this book? I mean, at one point I noticed that there were -- I don't remember the years -- there was, like, 3,500 different books and articles written, and that was up to 1967 or something like that.
DONALD: That's right, and there are probably 7,000 now.
LAMB: Seven thousand different...
DONALD: About.
LAMB: ...books and articles.
DONALD: Now once one says that, let's make some discounts immediately. All of those aren't really worth any -- many of those not really worth anything much. They are pamphlets. One of my favorites is a little booklet called "Abraham Lincoln on the Coming of the Caterpillar Tractor;" another one, "Abraham Lincoln Never Smoked a Cigarette." Now these one can push aside. You're not really serious about that. Nevertheless, I would guess there are, at least, 1,500, maybe 2,000 books that are worth serious attention as sources about Abraham Lincoln.
LAMB: And how did you make this different than all the others?
DONALD: Well, I first of all started by saying that I was not going to write a commentary on previous biographies. I did not wish to explain why so-and-so was wrong, and somebody else should have known this, and so on. I was going to try to write a book as though no life of Lincoln had ever been written before. Second, I wanted it to be a straightforward narrative of what Lincoln did, felt, saw and concluded; not a general history of the Civil War -- I've tried that in some other books -- but this is a story of how he developed, how he thought. His mental processes are my real subject here. Third, unlike most biographies, this is not a biography that attempts moralizing contemporary judgments. I feel that biography is an art, like a novel, and they grew up together. In the 19th century they were very similar. And 19th-century novels -- you know better than I -- you'd have a character and he would appear, and then your novelist interjects and says, "But what a stupid thing it is to do this," or "How unwise it was. He should have done this, that and the other." And biographies tended to do the same thing. Novels, of course, have progressed beyond that. If you tried to write a novel like that today you'd never get it published. Biographies, by and large, continue in that mode. I thought it important to get the author, me, out of it, to let the story tell itself and have it as ambiguous, as ambivalent as a modern novel, so that you could read it and draw one conclusion; I could read it, draw another; somebody else could read it and draw another, just as a modern novel should be. And that's what I was trying to do here.
LAMB: Here is who you dedicate this book to. For -- is it Aïda?
DONALD: Aïda is my wife.
LAMB: And Bruce.
DONALD: And Bruce is my son. Aïda Donald is a superb historian, who is the editing chief at the Harvard University Press. Bruce, my son, is a professor of computer science at Cornell University. And I am very proud of them both and they both have helped me immensely.
LAMB: Why didn't you have this published through the Harvard University Press or Simon & Schuster?
DONALD: Well, a number of reasons. First of all, I think it would not be appropriate to have my wife there as the editor of my book. That puts her in an ambiguous role. She is a wonderful critic and helps enormously, but to have her in charge of producing my book would not be good. Other than that, this is a book intended for a very broad audience, which, indeed, it has achieved, and University Press books, by and large, are intended for a more specialized audience.
LAMB: Now I counted 15 -- I probably have it wrong, though -- how many books are listed all together here on this?
DONALD: Yes. Oh, I've been involved in, oh, maybe 25, 26 books of one sort or another.
LAMB: And here are the ones listed at the front of your book.
DONALD: Different ones...
LAMB: Of all these, where does this book on Lincoln rest on this list in your -- about your favorites?
DONALD: Let me be ridiculous for a moment. If one thought how ridiculous it would be of some kind of a comparison, my early books would be my 'As You Like It' books. They are sort of young and invigorous books of a very green young man; and then in the middle, like Shakespeare, they are my histories; and then there comes my tragedy of the two-volume life of Charles Sumner, who had a tragic life, I think; and then at the end there comes maybe a period of tranquility and reflection. This book is my "Tempest." This is my last reflective book.
LAMB: Are you finished writing these kind of books now?
DONALD: I think so. I would hope to write something else. I might write a mystery story.
LAMB: Who was your audience? In your mind, as you went through that seven years, who were you thinking about sitting down one day and reading this book?
DONALD: I hope that any reasonable, intelligent and literate American interested in the past of this country could and would read it. It was written for them, particularly, and written in a special way. My way of writing might be worth about two sentences. Anyway, I sit at my computer and write, and then when I have a couple of sentences, I read them over aloud to see how they sound -- not what they look like, but how they sound. Could a reader get the meaning of this? Could he follow the words and the sound of it? Sometimes it leads to rather amusing results. Had a couple of carpenters working around my house while I was doing this, and they were hammering away. And once I took a break, found them out under the trees -- they didn't know I was there -- they were saying to each other, "Do you think he's all right?"said one of them. "Well, I don't know," said the other. "He sits there talking to himself all day." Well, I talk to myself as I write in the hope of getting something of the spoken language into the written page, because I think that's the way people read; how you reach people with language they can both hear and see at the same time. And that's what I was trying to do.
LAMB: Under those circumstances, I want to ask you why in this audiotape -- there are four tapes, six hours -- why you didn't read it instead of the actor, James Naughton?
DONALD: I volunteered to read it. And they decided, first of all, my voice was probably not suitable, and in the second place, they weren't sure that it would hold up long enough, that I would probably lose voice before I finished the six tapes. But it would have been amusing to do.
LAMB: Do you have any sense of how many books will, at this point, be sold, based on how it's selling at this stage?
DONALD: Well, all I can tell you at this point is that nearly 200,000 are in print.
LAMB: How many of those audiotapes did they make? Did you know?
DONALD: I don't know. That's a different branch...
LAMB: Different world.
DONALD: ...of the company and I really have little to do with that, now that it's out.
LAMB: In your own personal preference, would you rather people listen to it or read it?
DONALD: I'd rather they read it, because there are complexities, subtleties that one can do in print that perhaps have to be omitted from the page here. And, of course, this is sheer vanity. A lot of a historian's work consists in digging up sources that nobody else has used much, or interpreting them in different ways, and you write long notes at the back, which don't affect the text at all, but you really like to think somebody's going to look back there and see them. You can't see that in an audio; you can see it in a book.
LAMB: Got another audio clip, and this takes us into the Lincoln-Douglas Debates.
LAMB: Because we've spent so much time here with Stephen A. Douglas...
LAMB: ...and Abraham Lincoln and the re-enactment out in Illinois...
LAMB: 1994. Let's listen to this clip and I'll get your reaction to it.


JAMES NAUGHTON: Douglas, in order to make this oppression tolerable, lugged in the absurd charge that Republicans wanted to vote and eat and sleep and marry with Negroes. He was simply trying to capitalize on that natural disgust in the minds of nearly all white people to the idea of an indiscriminate amalgamation of the white and black races. Bluntly, Lincoln rejected that counterfeit logic which concludes that, because I do not want a black woman for a slave, I must necessarily want her for a wife. The authors of the Declaration of Independence never intended to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments or social capacity, but they did consider all men created equal -- equal in certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.


LAMB: The thing that was not on the tapes that I noticed -- and we probably wouldn't know this if we hadn't done this recreation -- was this. I went to the book, of course, and I found this on page 221. This is Abraham Lincoln at Charleston...
LAMB: ...and, as you say, Charleston, the lowest point in his campaign...
LAMB: 1858. Quote, "I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races. I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people. There is a physical difference between the white and black races, which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality." They left that out of the audio. Do you think that would change the meaning if somebody were listening to it?
DONALD: Well, certainly it would reinforce the points that we were trying to make on the audio, and it is just a question of what can be worked in and what can be left out. But this is a very significant statement as far as Lincoln's racial views are concerned. It's important, I think, to realize that Lincoln, contrary to myth, did not sort of emerge the opponent of slavery and the advocate of equal rights for blacks; he came to this very slowly. And by the end of his life he was almost there. But well into the war years, he was still saying pretty much the same thing.

He called a group of African-American leaders to the White House -- first time an American president had ever met with black leaders -- to urge them to go colonize in Central America. "Get out of this country, show that you can set up an independent, free society under American protection in Panama, and this would do much to end the institution of slavery, to remove racial prejudice." And he goes on to say that, "You and I are not equal. Whether this is right or not is not for us to discuss." Now by this time he's shifted. Earlier, there's no question in the Lincoln-Douglas debates. He's saying it's quite all right for us to have superior, inferior races. By the presidency he's saying, "Whether this is right or not, there's no point in our discussing." He's meaning, "I don't think it's necessarily right, but public opinion says we got to deal with this and the way to deal with it is through colonization."

The black leaders turned down his offer, quite reasonably, pointing out that they had been in this country as long as his ancestors had been in this country. Now gradually, Lincoln, then, watching the accomplishments of black soldiers in the Union armies, watching the progress made by blacks in states like Louisiana as they were reconstructing, came to see that blacks were capable of citizenship. He favored allowing at least the intelligent and the educated to vote -- those who served in the army -- and he was perhaps moving further than that by the end of his life. So it's a mistake to have a kind of candid shot of Lincoln at any one point and say, "This is Abraham Lincoln's racial views." They were constantly changing and moving in a progressive fashion.
LAMB: Did he have any principles?
DONALD: Yes. The first absolute principle was devotion to the Union. This was, Alexander Stephans said, "a kind of a mystical belief for Abraham Lincoln." He simply would not tolerate its ever being challenged or questioned. He was never prepared to say, "Well, after all, there might be some good to be said from dividing the country or allowing the South to go in peace." Or one could do a calculus on this and say, "600,000 men were killed and wounded in this war. Was the Union worth that?" For Abraham Lincoln it was. There was never any question; Union: absolute. Second principle adds to this as the war goes on; that is, freedom. He'd always been in favor of freedom, opposed to slavery, but not sure he could do anything about it until the necessities of war pushed him in that direction. And with the Emancipation Proclamation there comes the second war aim. And toward the very end, he's beginning to add the third: equality. These are, I think, are his guiding principles.
LAMB: In the back of the book, in the sources and notes, you say that, "I have not read or consulted these distinguished works in the preparation of the present volume." And before you listed Benjamin Thomas and Stephen Oates and Reinhard...
DONALD: Luthin.
LAMB: ...Luthin.
LAMB: Did you purposely -- I mean, you read them, I assume, at some point.
DONALD: Yes. These are the previous standard, one-volume biographies. They are excellent books in their own way. I have taught from all three of them, used them in my classes, and profited by them. And I have no doubt that there are echoes of these books in this present book, because you can't erase your memory. But because of an exceedingly unpleasant dispute that arose over Stephen Oates' biography with charges of plagiarism, I resolved when I began this that I don't want that to be even a possibility. I will seal those books on my shelf. I will not consult them, look at them or anything for any purpose whatsoever -- not even to check a date or anything of that sort -- because this is my book; this is not a derivative book made from other people's thoughts. But, again, this goes back to my original purpose: to write a life of Lincoln just as though nobody else had ever written one.
LAMB: How did you come down on that Stephen Oates controversy?
DONALD: I thought that he was grossly maligned. I think he wrote a fine book. I wish he had been more generous in his acknowledgments, which he could easily have done. But the book is his and it is an excellent book, and I thought he was very unfairly attacked.
LAMB: If we had followed you around over the last seven years, before you got to your home where you had -- did you write everything from your home?
LAMB: All on a computer?
DONALD: All on a computer.
LAMB: And you spoke it all out loud, every word of this book?
DONALD: I spoke it out loud -- reciting to myself.
LAMB: Have you always done that that way?
DONALD: I've always done that.
LAMB: You know anybody else that does that?
DONALD: No, I don't.
LAMB: If we'd have followed you around, where else would we have found you, shall I say, happy with the environment where you were learning something about Abraham Lincoln?
DONALD: You would have found me very happy out in Springfield, Illinois, where the Lincoln legal papers, that collection of documents I've already talked about, opened their files to me and said to "Make yourself at home. See what you can find in these 70,000 documents." And I was just as happy as a clam. You couldn't have a happier man. I was also always happy in the Illinois State Historical Library. One of the great collections of Lincoln's papers, the papers of his contemporaries, the papers of all the townsmen around. I'm very happy at Lincoln's house in Springfield, which has for me special resonancies. And the wonderful superintendent of that house, Norman Helms, made it available to me and walked out with me to show me what the original house was like. It was just a little cabin. It was only two rooms with a kitchenette attached to it. And how cramped the Lincolns must have been before they were able to expand the house in the 1850s. And this gives you a special kind of feeling. I'm also very happy in the Library of Congress -- always -- which is a marvelous place to work.
LAMB: Ninety-seven reels of microfilm?
DONALD: Those I read at home. I have my own microfilm reader and printer. And one just sits and reads them day after day. And you pretend that you're sitting at Mr. Lincoln's side. Somebody asked me not long ago, "You say you sat by Lincoln's side on a day-by-day basis. Was he at your side at night?" And the answer is yes, that I would wake up and a voice would say, "You can't say that that way. That is not the way to say that." I don't know whose voice it was, but I'd get up and I'd change it. It's often in the middle of the night. Somebody laughed and said, "At least you slept with Lincoln as well as lived with Lincoln." Well, in a way, yes, I slept with Lincoln.
LAMB: The children -- how many?
DONALD: The oldest boy was Robert Todd Lincoln, who grew up to be a Harvard graduate, secretary of war, minister to Great Britain and so on. Then the next little boys were Edward, who died young; Willie, the little boy that died in the White House; and Tad, who survived the assassination year only by a few years, and he died in his early teens. He had a lisp and probably a cleft palate, so he was never very clear in his articulation. But there were four boys. And Lincoln was devoted especially to the young ones, whom he just doted on. The little boy, Tad, would come in and interrupt Cabinet meetings with his bad speech. He would say, "Papady, Papady, Papady," and only Lincoln would understand he meant, "Papa dear." Something had to be done instantly. Lincoln would break off discussion of a national banking act to go take care of whatever Tad's needs were. The little boy would fall asleep on his couch in the Cabinet room. Lincoln would take him up to bed with him at night. He loved that little boy. But his heart really belonged to Willie, the little boy that died in the White House. And that was the great tragedy of the Lincolns, because he was the brightest of all the Lincoln children.
LAMB: You also learn from your book that Abraham Lincoln physically went out to a lot of battles during the Civil War.
DONALD: Yes. Yes, he did.
LAMB: How old was he when he was elected president?
DONALD: Fifty-one.
LAMB: And how many battles did he go look at?
DONALD: Well, he did not initially go out to see battles, though he went to see battlefields after the engagements were over. He was, however, actually present at the attack on Washington, DC, in 1864, out at Ft. Stevens. He went down to Petersburg just as Petersburg was falling and the Army was advancing into Richmond. He came into Richmond immediately after his surrender, which was a very daring thing to do. If one could imagine Hitler's bunker just collapsing, Hitler dying and, say, a Franklin Roosevelt or a Winston Churchill strolling the streets of Berlin. This is what Lincoln did. He was totally without fear for his personal safety. It never concerned him at all. It should have.
LAMB: How did it come to that in 1864 that his former general, George McClellan, ran against him on the -- and as you say, he couldn't even -- as a Democrat, he couldn't even go along with the platform of the Democratic Party.
DONALD: That's right.
LAMB: McClellan couldn't.
DONALD: That's right. And McClellan was to be nominated as a kind of general war candidate who was in favor of prosecuting the war but against what they thought were the excesses of the Lincoln administration. Around him, however, ranged pretty much all of the peace elements of the Democratic Party; some of whom wanted to end the war right away, which McClellan did not do and, therefore, he repudiated as a platform. He was a dangerous opponent because he was plausible, he was handsome, he was personable, he had a military record, which, of course, Lincoln did not have. Lincoln was saved in that campaign by Sherman's victories in Georgia.
LAMB: And you also say that when Grant was at Vicksburg -- General Grant...
LAMB: ... that he was not in touch with Abraham Lincoln at all, but it was ...
DONALD: That's right. And I often think that one can explain some of the successes that Sherman and Grant had in terms of their distance from Washington. If you were close to Washington, the president of the United States and the chief of staff and everybody else -- the secretary of war -- they were after you all the time. They were sending you directives of "Do this" and "Don't do that" and "Have you heard this?" and "Do you know somebody's coming from the left flank?" Out in Mississippi, out in Georgia, you couldn't reach Sherman. You couldn't reach Grant. And so they were allowed to do their own thing, develop their own strategy, and, of course, win decisive battles there, so that when they did come East, Grant -- particularly when he came East, he came with sufficient stature that you wouldn't overrule him lightly. You would counsel with him rather than direct him.
LAMB: You say that Abraham Lincoln was not a modest man.
DONALD: He was not a modest man. His secretaries were the best judge of this. And they would watch these senators -- but I suspect senators of all decades have had a certain amount of ego, and they think they're very important. They would come to the White House and they would think, "I'm a graduate of Harvard University. I have degrees from so-and-so. I'm a principal leader of this business, the other." And they look at this fellow in the White House who had no experience, really, who had to learn on the job, who was uncouth in appearance, who seemed to have kind of folksy, down-to-earth manners and no polish at all, and they all thought they were better than he was. Lincoln was never taken in by any one of them. He was never embarrassed by any one of them. He knew perfectly well that he was their intellectual superior. He was smart enough not to let them know it -- or try not to let them know it. But he knew it very well.
LAMB: You have a personal note that two presidents of the United States gave you personal tours of the White House living quarters.
DONALD: They did. And I am enormously grateful. Many years ago President and Mrs. Kennedy invited me down to give a lecture on -- what else? -- Abraham Lincoln in the White House. And we had a wonderful evening there in the Oval room. And afterward, the President and Mrs. Kennedy gave me and my wife a tour of the living quarters, showing the Lincoln bedroom, the Gettysburg Address, which is up there, and so on. It was a wonderful occasion. Then many years later, President and Mrs. Bush, again, asked me down to give the opening lecture in what proved to be a series of lectures on the presidency. And before that, the Bushes gave us a very careful tour of the White House, especially upstairs, where I did not have a clear picture of where the rooms were, where the president stood. I knew that he stood under the portico to make speeches to the crowds in front, but where was this room? Well, it turns out it had been turned into Nancy Reagan's closets -- enormous closets for dresses and so on. But we were able to locate this and find just what it was like in Lincoln's time. Without that kind of hands-on guidance around the White House, I think I would have lost a lot of the intimacy that I hoped to capture in this book.
LAMB: He was re-elected by how much in 1865?
DONALD: Overwhelmingly. But...
LAMB: In 1864, I mean.
DONALD: 1864 -- overwhelmingly, providing you remember that the Confederate states were out of the Union and therefore not voting. Now if they'd been back, it would have been a very close call. Lincoln himself thought he was going to lose that election until the very, very end. In August, he wrote a memorandum saying, "As of this moment it appears this administration is going to lose," and he developed a strategy of what he would do in those circumstances. So the victory -- while on paper it seems very impressive, was not perhaps such a wide victory. It was about 54 percent, is what it amounted to. But 54 percent with your enemies not voting is not such an overwhelming vote.
LAMB: What was Inauguration Day, 1865?
DONALD: That was the peak of Lincoln's career, in my judgment. That is, he comes before the nation now elected and fully vindicated...
LAMB: In March.
DONALD: This is in March. Of course, it's cold but, nevertheless -- and the sun comes out just as he is giving his inaugural address. He pulls it out -- one of the shortest addresses on record. I think it is the shortest inaugural address, and it is not what his readers expected to hear. Aside from the first sentence or two where he says it's his duty to make such a speech, he does not refer to himself at all. He does not review the events of the past four years or say, "We've claimed these victories" and so forth and so on. He reviews very carefully and thoughtfully the causes of this war and what he thinks the future is going to be. He makes no pledge, no promise. "Ernestly do we hope, fervently do we pray that the scourge of war will pass from us," but he doesn't say it's going to end tomorrow or a hundred days or three years.
LAMB: Seven hundred and some words...
DONALD: Seven hundred and three. Something like that.
LAMB: ...inaugural address. That's in March.
LAMB: What's known to be the -- not the last battle that's fought, but when the Civil War was over?
DONALD: Well, when Lee surrenders at Appomattox, that really is the end.
LAMB: What date?
DONALD: This is April ... Oh, what are we doing? -- the 11th, is it not? Yes.
LAMB: And then, the night of April the 14th...
DONALD: The night of April 14, Lincoln is ready for the celebration that everybody is rejoicing in. Lee has surrendered. The soldiers are coming back into Washington. Grant is in town. It's supposed that Lincoln and Grant and Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Grant will be at Ford's Theater that night as kind of a spectacle, as a rejoicing for soldiers to see them, to see that victory is really here. He has a very busy day that day. His theater party breaks up for a variety of reasons; different people otherwise engaged. Mrs. Grant did not like Mrs. Lincoln and would not go to the theater with her. And so she invented an excuse to take Grant off and out of the picture. And so finally, with Major Rathbone and his fiancée, Lincoln goes to the theater to see "Our American Cousin," and John Wilkes Booth went, too.
LAMB: And before we close this -- and I'm going to use the audio to close it -- John Wilkes Booth and others were conspiring to kill how many people?
DONALD: Well, the initial plan was not so much to kill as it was to kidnap. They would kidnap Abraham Lincoln and hold him hostage for Confederate prisoners in the North. If this could be done -- there were some 200,000 Confederate prisoners held in the North. If they could be freed, Confederate armies could regroup, the Confederacy could live again. When this failed, and they realized it was not possible to -- How do you kidnap a 6'4" man in a public place without any disturbance? Then the Confederacy is falling. John Wilkes Booth thinks the only solution here is not kidnapping but assassination. He will assassinate Lincoln. He will assassinate Secretary of State Seward. He will assassinate Vice President Johnson and then maybe others as well. It will be a kind of a sweeping out of the top echelon of the Union government.
LAMB: And then, as you say, Abraham Lincoln was shot around 10:30 at night...
DONALD: That's right.
LAMB: ...taken across the street to the Peterson house...
DONALD: Peterson.
LAMB: ...right there on 10th Street in Washington...
DONALD: Which is right where it is now.
LAMB: ...and died the next morning at 7:22…
DONALD: That's right.
LAMB: ...and let's let...
LAMB: ...the audio speak.
LAMB: This is the actor James Naughton, who speaks your words to close out the audio portion of the book.


JAMES NAUGHTON: Mary was allowed to return to her husband's side, and as Mrs. Dixon reported, she again seated herself by the president, kissing him and calling him every endearing name. As his breath grew fainter and fainter, she was led back into the front room. At 22 minutes past 7 on the morning of April 15th, the struggle ended and the physicians came to inform her: "It is all over. The president is no more." In the small, crowded back room, there was silence until Stanton asked Dr. Gurley to offer a prayer. Robert gave way to overpowering grief and sobbed aloud, leaning on Sumner for comfort. Standing at the foot of the bed, his face covered with tears, Stanton paid tribute to his fallen chief. With a slow and measured movement, his right arm fully extended as if in a salute, he raised his hat and placed it for an instant on his head, and then in the same deliberate manner removed it. "Now," he said, "he belongs to the ages."

"Lincoln" was written by David Herbert Donald and read by James Naughton. It was abridged for audio by Jesse Volks, editing and post-production by Common Mode, Paul Fally, technical director. The associate producer was Florence Perrault Adams. "Lincoln" was produced and directed by Susan Peron Totmen.

This has been a presentation of Simon and Schuster Audio.

Lincoln is also available in hardcover.


Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1995. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.