All achievers

David Herbert Donald, Ph.D.

Two Pulitzer Prizes for Biography

American history is exciting. With the Civil War, it is the fascination of two roads. One might have led to an independent Confederacy — two nations under this continent. It encourages you to imagine things that were different. One puzzles, 'What can I do with this? What can I make out of it?'

David Herbert Donald was born in Goodman, Mississippi, about 30 miles north of Jackson. When Donald was growing up, the town had fewer than 700 inhabitants, a population nearly equally divided among its black and white residents. Donald’s father was a cotton farmer, his mother a schoolteacher. Although their means were limited, they encouraged all their children to study and go to college. Young Donald had no particular inclination to pursue an academic career when he entered Millsaps College in Jackson, but he was deeply impressed by his history professor, Vernon Wharton.

1946: David Herbert Donald (second from right) during the Ph.D. graduation ceremony at the University of Illinois. Donald was born in Goodman, Mississippi, where his father was a farmer and his mother was a schoolteacher. After Donald graduated from Millsaps College in Jackson, he earned a master’s degree in history from the University of Illinois in 1942 and a doctorate in 1946, studying under the eminent Civil War scholar Professor James G. Randall.

Professor Wharton encouraged his student to write a dissertation on a Lincoln-related theme, the better to take advantage of his familiarity with the material. At Randall’s suggestion, Donald produced a study of Lincoln’s friend and law partner, William Herndon. Herndon himself had been the subject of intense controversy since 1889 when he published an unusually candid memoir of his friendship with the late president. Donald’s dissertation was published as a book, Lincoln’s Herndon, in 1948, with endorsements by Randall and by the poet Carl Sandburg, an Illinoisan who had himself written a popular book on the life of Lincoln. The critical success of Donald’s book led to prestigious academic offers, including one from Columbia University. Donald genuinely enjoyed teaching and gladly served as mentor to successive generations of young historians. 

1960: Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War by Dr. David Herbert Donald, the first volume in his biography of Sumner, the leader of the anti-slavery forces in Massachusetts and a leader of the Radical Republicans during the Civil War, won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1961. Charles Sumner and the Rights of Man followed in 1970.

When he graduated, David Herbert Donald still had no greater career ambition than to become a high school band teacher, but the one interview he had for such a position put him off the idea. He applied to a number of graduate schools, in hopes of receiving a fellowship and postponing his job hunt. He won admission to the University of Illinois, where he was befriended by the historian James G. Randall and his wife, Ruth. Randall was the era’s pre-eminent Abraham Lincoln scholar, then at work on Lincoln the President, a four-volume study of the 16th president that would remain the definitive work on the subject for many years. Donald assisted Randall with his research, meticulously checking references in libraries and in the archives in Springfield, ground zero for Lincoln research. Donald immersed himself in the subject and deeply enjoyed the research process.

David Herbert Donald won his second Pulitzer Prize in Biography, in 1988, for Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe (1987), a biography of the volatile Southern novelist Thomas Wolfe. In the preface of Donald’s biography, he wrote: ‘‘Later, as an adolescent, I really read Look Homeward, Angel and was certain that Thomas Wolfe had told my life story.’’ Growing up in rural Mississippi, the young David Herbert Donald fell in love with Wolfe’s novels.

In the 1950s, Donald wrote Divided We Fought, a pictorial history of the Civil War, and edited the diaries of Lincoln’s treasury secretary Salmon Chase, as well as two collections of essays, Lincoln Reconsidered and Why the North Won the Civil War. He also revised his mentor James Randall’s textbook Civil War and Reconstruction. Donald’s revised edition appeared in 1961. He would revise the work again in 2001. But as a small-town Southerner, Donald felt out of place in New York City, and when his contract at Columbia expired, he surprised his colleagues by turning down a permanent appointment there to teach at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. This was the beginning of a long academic odyssey that would lead him back to Columbia, then to Princeton, Johns Hopkins, and Oxford.

Professor Donald continued his own work on the Civil War era with a two-volume biography of Charles Sumner, the abolitionist senator from Massachusetts who enjoyed a personal friendship and a complex political relationship with President Lincoln. The first volume of this work, Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War, won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for Biography.

1988: Charles Warren Professor of American History, David Herbert Donald, at Harvard University in Cambridge, the year he won his second Pulitzer Prize for Biography. Donald considered himself a frustrated novelist, saying biographies ought to “let the story tell itself and have it as ambiguous, as ambivalent, as a modern novel.” (AP)

After his long immersion in the politics of the 19th century, Donald turned to American literature of the 20th century for his next work, an incisive biography of the Southern novelist Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938), whose first novel, Look Homeward, Angel, had made a huge impression on the young Donald as a teenager in Mississippi. Donald traced Wolfe’s journey from the hills of North Carolina to Harvard, New York City, Europe, and back again, through the publication of Wolfe’s posthumous novel You Can’t Go Home Again. Wolfe’s sprawling novels had fallen out of favor with critics in the ’60s and ’70s, but Donald’s Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe was hailed as a unique accomplishment. In 1988, Donald received a second Pulitzer Prize for Biography for this work. 

1995: Lincoln by David Herbert Donald. “Donald depicts Lincoln’s gradual ascent from humble beginnings in rural Kentucky to the ever-expanding political circles in Illinois, and finally, to the presidency of a country divided by civil war. Donald goes beyond biography, illuminating the gradual development of Lincoln’s character, chronicling his tremendous capacity for evolution and growth, illustrating what made it possible for a man so inexperienced and so unprepared for the presidency to become a great moral leader. In the most troubled of times, here was a man who led the country out of slavery and preserved a shattered Union—in short, one of the greatest presidents this country has ever seen.” After Lincoln, Donald published Lincoln at Home: Two Glimpses of Abraham Lincoln’s Domestic Life (1999) and We Are Lincoln Men: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends (2003). (© Simon & Schuster, Inc.)

The civil rights struggle in the United States reached its climax while Donald was at work on his biography of Sumner, and while the first volume emphasizes Sumner’s polarizing role in the years leading up to the war, the second stresses his fight to win equal rights for African Americans. This second volume, Charles Sumner and the Rights of Man, appeared in 1970. Between the volumes of his Sumner biography, Donald published Politics of Reconstruction: 1863-1867. Donald’s peregrinations through academe came to an end in 1973, when he settled at Harvard University, the last 18 years of his teaching career. He held an endowed chair as Charles Warren Professor of American History and chaired the graduate program in American history from 1979 to 1985.

2000: Awards Council member and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Dr. David Herbert Donald addressing Academy of Achievement delegates and members at a symposium during the International Achievement Summit in London.

Professor Donald retired from teaching in 1991, but some of his most important writing still lay ahead. Having enjoyed a vacation from Civil War studies, Donald returned to the subject to produce his crowning achievement. Since the publication of Randall’s massive Lincoln the President, new documentary materials had become available, including the records of Lincoln’s law practice, and Donald felt it was time for a new full-length biography of Lincoln, revealing the complex, calculating, and ambitious man behind the legend. Donald’s Lincoln, published in 1995, won universal acclaim and has become the Lincoln biography against which all others are measured.

Donald followed this with two related books, Lincoln at Home: Two Glimpses of Lincoln’s Domestic Life and We Are Lincoln Men: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends, profiling the members of Lincoln’s inner circle, the Illinois friends who carried Lincoln from Springfield to the White House.

May 10, 2005: Historian David Herbert Donald in the library of his Lincoln, Massachusetts home. From 1947 to 1949, Donald was an instructor of history in Columbia’s School of General Studies. He was an associate professor at Smith College (1949-1951) and returned to Columbia as an assistant professor (1951-1952). In 1952, he gained tenure and stayed at Columbia until 1959. Donald went on to Princeton University (1959-1962), to Johns Hopkins University (1962-1973), and finally to Harvard University as Charles Warren Professor of History (1973-2001). He was also a visiting professor at Amherst College (1950), a Fulbright Lecturer at University College of North Wales (1953-1954), and Harmsworth Professor at the University of Oxford (1959-1960). (Photo: AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

In his last years, David Herbert Donald’s attention turned from Lincoln and his associates to the Adams family of Massachusetts. His last published work was an edition of The Diary of Charles Francis Adams, the descendant of two U.S. presidents, who served as Lincoln’s envoy to Britain during the Civil War. Professor Donald co-edited this publication with his wife, Aida DiPace Donald, herself a noted historian. At the time of his death, Professor Donald was at work on a biography of John Quincy Adams, describing the post-presidential congressional career of the sixth U.S. president. David Herbert Donald wrote his last books while teaching at Harvard. Over the years, Donald was sought out by presidents from John Kennedy to Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, who sought his insight into the dynamics of presidential leadership, as exemplified by Abraham Lincoln.

February 11, 2007: President George W. Bush presents the Lincoln Medal to David Herbert Donald and Doris Kearns Goodwin, a presidential scholar, historian, and the author of the 2005 book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, for their scholarship in preserving the legacy of President Abraham Lincoln’s life, during a dinner honoring the Ford’s Theatre Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Celebration held in the East Room of the White House.

Apart from writing or editing more than 30 books on American history, Professor Donald regarded the training of young historians as his life’s work. His former students include many of the finest teachers and writers of American history working in the field today. These accomplishments aside, David Herbert Donald’s greatest gift to the world was bringing to life for a new generation the man historians consider America’s greatest president and one of the most remarkable leaders who ever lived. For 37 years, Donald and his wife lived on Lincoln Road in Lincoln, Massachusetts, and they eventually bought a family plot in Lincoln Cemetery. He wryly told reporters he picked the location for its excellent school system and proximity to Boston, not its name.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 1997

When he left his hometown of Goodman, Mississippi, David Herbert Donald had little idea that he would become a professor at his country’s greatest universities. But at the University of Illinois, he fell under the influence of the leading authority on President Abraham Lincoln and was soon assisting him in researching a biography of the 16th president.

In time, David Herbert Donald would become a great historian himself, a professor at Columbia, Princeton, and Harvard. He would train a generation of historians and win two Pulitzer Prizes for his biographies of the abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner and the Southern novelist Thomas Wolfe.

In the 1990s, Professor Donald published his crowning accomplishment, Lincoln, an acclaimed biography of the president who saved the Union. In Donald’s gripping, novelistic account, Lincoln emerges from the mists of legend as a living, breathing human being — complex, subtle, and burning with ambition. The Lincoln revealed in Donald’s pages is a far more human but no less admirable figure than readers had met before. It was David Herbert Donald’s great achievement to bring Abraham Lincoln to life for a new generation and for all time.

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Professor Donald, you’ve spent much of your career studying and writing about Abraham Lincoln. Among other things, you’ve characterized him as a consummate politician. What made this so?

David Herbert Donald: Well, his whole life in politics, that was the one thing that really absorbed him outside the profession of law. He was very good at it, though. He enjoyed politics. He enjoyed meeting people, shaking hands, introducing himself. He enjoyed traveling around Illinois for so long, getting large groups of people to talk to, and he knew everybody by name. He liked people. He liked to work with people. He liked to help people, and those I think are attributes of a good politician.

A portrait of President Abraham Lincoln, circa 1863. Abraham Lincoln became the United States’s 16th president in 1861. As president, Lincoln built the Republican Party into a strong national organization. Further, he rallied most of the northern Democrats to the Union cause. On January 1, 1863, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation that declared “forever free” the slaves within the Confederacy. (Photo Credit: U.S. National Archives and Getty Images)

His penchant for storytelling played such a role in Lincoln’s public and private persona. How, in particular, did this serve him in the White House?

David Herbert Donald: Lincoln loved to tell stories. He would tell stories at the drop of a hat at all occasions. So it was not something that he did just for show, but he just did it naturally. He was a good storyteller, and he enjoyed his own stories. So that, when somebody came to see him, he was often reminded — “That reminds me of a little story.” And he would start talking, and then, as he went along, his face would light up. He usually had a rather somber face. His face would light up, and he showed that remarkable set of white teeth and a huge smile and told the story. And when he got to the punch line, he would often slap his thigh like that, and that’s the way it ended.

Dr. David Herbert Donald, Charles Warren Professor of American History and Professor of American Civilization Emeritus, in the library of his home in Lincoln, Massachusetts. The home of Donald and wife, Aida, the former editor-in-chief of Harvard University Press, was crowded with books and manuscripts and became a gathering place for those passing through Cambridge. He left on deposit at the Harvard University Library 55 cubic feet of papers meticulously preserved — his notes, correspondence, and lectures covering the period from 1948 to 1999.

Did he sometimes use these stories for political purposes?

David Herbert Donald: He told stories; often it involved political reasons, as in the White House, for instance. He insisted on keeping open doors. So anybody who wanted to could come to the White House, and they did, and they came in wanting one thing after another. People would come in with some great scheme they wanted. They wanted to interest him to do so and so, and he would say, “You know, that reminds me of a story I heard out in Indiana when I was growing up.” And he would start telling it and would go into great detail about who it was that was telling it, and where it was, and how long it went on and so on. And at the end of it, his face would break into that marvelous smile, and he’d slap his thigh like that and get up and say, “Oh, Mr. So-and-So, it’s so nice of you to come see me,” pushing them gradually out the door, and his visitors often had no idea. “What happened to me? I was making an appeal for something, and I’m shown out of the room in the most genuinely gentlemanly way that you could think of.” It was useful for him. Telling stories also was a useful way of avoiding quick answers, easy answers, and finally, telling stories on himself was one of his favorite devices to put himself down. This is a good thing for politicians to do, to minimize the ego. For instance, one of his favorite stories — one of my favorite stories, too, has to do — he’d tell it: “When I was a boy growing up in Indiana, and I was chopping wood out in the woods by myself, a woman came by on horseback, and she stopped, and she looked at me and said, ‘My lands, you are the ugliest creature I have ever seen.’” And taken aback, Lincoln said, “Well, ma’am, there isn’t a lot I can do about it.” She said, “Well, you could have stayed at home.” And I have often thought that’s a wonderful retort for a politician or a public figure: “You could have stayed home!”

Lincoln’s ability to communicate his opinions and ideas so eloquently is crucial to the way we remember him today. What made his speeches and his letters so impressive and memorable?

Keys to success — Preparation

David Herbert Donald: It’s hard to explain how any great writer comes to have the gift that he does, and we’ll explain, say, Shakespeare or Racine, by saying he did this, that, or the other. So you can’t pinpoint Lincoln as “This was influential,” but there were things that were influential. First of all, as a boy, he had very few books, and they were, as it turned out, the great books. He had the Bible; he had Pilgrim’s Progress; he may have had Robinson Crusoe. Just a few books like that he memorized by heart because he had no others. He loved to read. So that the patterns that he learned growing up were those of simplicity and directness, as well as eloquence, but there were other forces, too. When he became a lawyer, his first law partner didn’t teach him much, but his second one was Stephen Trigg Logan. Logan, a little wizened, dried-up man who had a hot temper, was nevertheless a master lawyer, and he would go over briefs that he and his partners drew up. And he would cross out page after page of nonsense, of legal formalities, and so on, to say, “This is what we want to say, just these 12 lines, not these 14 pages,” and Lincoln watched, and he learned. There’s a great difference between the briefs Lincoln drew up before he met Logan and the ones after he practiced with Logan. He gained in succinctness, in clarity, in avoidance of technicalities, so that many of his briefs are really, literally, short essays, works of art.

May 10, 2005: Historian David Herbert Donald, who has written and edited over 30 books on President Lincoln, poses in his office at his Lincoln, Massachusetts home. Donald has won Pulitzers for biographies of abolitionist Charles Sumner and novelist Thomas Wolfe, but his books on Abraham Lincoln are his true legacy. Presidents, from Kennedy to Bush, have summoned him for White House lectures and receptions. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Did this influence his later career?

Keys to success — Preparation

Lincoln carried over the skills that he learned from Stephen Logan into his public life as well. His early speeches were often, like most early 19th-century speeches, full of flowery images and big words and long wind-up. He learned from Logan: “Forget all of that; get directly to the point and people will listen to you.” So he did, and he became a master of direct approach to his audience. They thought, “He’s talking to me personally, not some abstract body out there.” Now, this carried over particularly as he became a public figure and as he became president. No other president has equaled Lincoln as a master craftsman. When you look over his drafts, you realize how carefully he revised, how thoroughly he looked at words, how he decided on this word versus that one as being the appropriate word, not necessarily any old word. So he was a craftsman and worked at it. He knew that his success depended on his skill with language. This is the more important because, in those days, of course, there was no radio. There was no television. How do you reach people? You reach people primarily through some public speaking but mostly through public documents, which are printed in the newspapers. People read a lot of newspapers in those days. In order to read a story in the newspaper, it’s got to be short. It’s got to have a structure. It’s got to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and it’s got to be logical. One thing has to follow after another. He learned this lesson very early. By the time he became president, his presidential messages are models of what a president ought to be saying.

How did riding the circuit as an attorney in Illinois — knowing people’s first names, shaking a lot of hands, spending a lot of one-on-one, face-to-face time — how did that shape Lincoln’s identity as a lawyer and as a politician?

Keys to success — Perseverance

David Herbert Donald: Lincoln loved to ride the circuit over many counties, all over central Illinois. He turned up at circuit after circuit. This was not altogether enjoyment. This is the way he made his living, and often he was away from his wife and his family for weeks at a time. And poor Mary suffered as a result, but this is the way he made his living. It was very important for him to be able to go into a county that he didn’t live in, quickly identify himself, and have young attorneys come up to him and say, “I have this kind of case, and I am not sure about my brief. Would you be co-defendant with me?” And he would pick it up, and within a day, he would have a marvelous way of putting the issues so the judge would be able to follow. Now, this gave him, first of all, a very wide constituency. In central Illinois, there was hardly a person who did not know Abraham Lincoln, at least by sight, and in turn, Lincoln had a very wide following of people that he knew. He had a tenacious memory so that he would encounter somebody in the streets of Springfield and say, “Oh, I remember, we were in Logan County together, weren’t we?” And the fellow would say, so proud, “Mr. Lincoln remembers me.” All of this built up a constituency for him. He understood very well that a public man has to have that kind of following. And he had it as a lawyer; he had it as a state representative; he had it as he ran for the Senate; and especially, after he became president.

February 11, 2007: David Herbert Donald gives remarks before receiving the Lincoln Medal for preserving the legacy of President Abraham Lincoln’s life, at a dinner honoring the Ford’s Theatre Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Celebration held in the East Room of the White House. During an interview with AP, Donald said, “When I started out, I wasn’t interested in Lincoln and frankly found him a tiresome old fellow who was rather long-winded, told too many stories, was kind of a rough, frontier sort. As I grew older, I realized the jokes and stories he told were really very funny, and they always had a point to them. And I watched the way he worked with people and what an extraordinarily adept politician he was. He was much more sensitive and human than I had thought before.”

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 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 used 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.

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 showed 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?

Keys to success — Perseverance

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’d 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 well 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 as near a person as 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.

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?

2000: David Herbert Donald addresses Academy delegates and members at the Achievement Summit in London.

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. Then comes 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.

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?

Keys to success — Perseverance

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.