The Great Emancipator

Commentary, January 1996.


David Herbert Donald, a distinguished historian of the South and a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for biography, is the Charles Warren Professor Emeritus of American History and American Civilization at Harvard. In recognition of his eminence, he was invited by President George Bush in December 1989 to deliver the first of what was to be a series of White House lectures on American Presidents; quite properly, he lectured on Lincoln, “the greatest of our Presidents.” He has now published what is being hailed as the definitive Lincoln biography.

In some respects, the book deserves the praise. Drawing on Lincoln’s personal papers and on legal documents long sealed to the public, Donald is able to present the most detailed account ever written of Lincoln’s career, from impoverished boy to small-time lawyer and local politician and, finally, to President and commander-in-chief in the most deadly of our wars. Yet something is lacking in this account. Donald announces that his purpose is “to explain rather than to judge.” But it is impossible fully to explain Lincoln without judging him. He was a man of extraordinary ambition, passions, capacities—including an extraordinary intellect—and a man fully aware of his superiority, however much he tried to hide it. In brief, Lincoln cannot be explained without assessing what he did and, equally important, what he said.

Donald begins by telling the story of Lincoln the sometime schoolboy, bargeman, storekeeper, surveyor, state legislator, smalltown lawyer, and autodidact. But he says nothing of a quality that goes far toward “explaining” Lincoln as a young man and that distinguishes him from nearly all our other Presidents: namely, his disinterested passion for learning, or, to employ a phrase from Tocqueville, his “taste for the pleasures of the mind.”