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Portrait Of Abe

David Herbert Donald's new Lincoln biography stops short of revelation

By J. Douglas Allen Taylor

Despite the slightly plaintive assertions by Billy Clinton and Bobby Dole, et al., that America's best days are yet to come, one cannot help but think that this country fired its best shot with the generation that fought the Civil War.

True, the mid-19th century gave us slavemasters at the height of their powers, and northern speculators who made millions by selling rotted meat and busted weapons to the Union Army, and European settlers who pushed Native Americans off of their ancestral lands, and small-minded people of all races, and enough rogues and thieves to fill up all the territories.

But the era of the Civil War also gave us the 54th Massachusetts, which stormed the battlements at Battery Wagner and gave lie to the claim that African American soldiers would not fight for their own freedom. It gave us Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and thousands of white Union soldiers like him, who left the colleges and farms and factories of Maine and Pennsylvania and Illinois and risked and gave their lives not for any hope or chance of personal gain but only for the purpose of ending the institution of slavery. The likes of such men will, perhaps, never be seen again in this country.

And, too, the era of the Civil War gave us the Rebel soldiers, most of whom held no people in bondage and did not fight to keep the institution of slavery but rather starved and shivered and raised holy hell in the field, all for the privilege of driving from their land those whom they deemed the "Damn Yankee Invaders." And the era of the Civil War gave us a generation of American women who had no vote and no official voice in the conflict, but whose supper-table counsel bucked up their men and helped shape their views, and who dressed the wounds and buried the dead and plowed the fields and kept the fabric of the nation intact while the countryside went up in blasted flame.

And the era of the Civil War gave us Abraham Lincoln, the best of our presidents.

No other president comes close. Looking at the forces driving the country apart at the middle of the 19th century, it is difficult to imagine any other individual of that era--or, indeed, any of our other presidents--pulling off the triple feats of keeping the United States intact, ending the institution of slavery, and granting citizenship to black people. That he did the latter two acts with considerably less enthusiasm than the first is an important point in our assessment of the man. But then, given the wrenching political realities of Lincoln's day, who else could have done it at all?

I suppose that there have been as many books written about Lincoln as any other American figure. Probably the worst you can say about David Herbert Donald's new biography, Lincoln, is that this one can hold its own with the rest as a good, fluid, entertaining read.

At its best, Donald's Lincoln leaves you with the impression that maybe, at long last, you have begun to understand our most enigmatic national leader. It's not as insightful as Gore Vidal's Lincoln, of course, but, then, Vidal had the luxury of writing historical fiction, guessing at private thoughts. Donald had only the written record to work with.

Donald's depiction of Lincoln's early life is about as good as it gets, a portrait of a young man so complex it is difficult to sum him up in a single sentence: thoughtful; methodically intelligent; sometimes brooding; driven with ambition; so peculiarly built and ugly that he was the butt of countless jokes; a lively talespinner and jokester himself, with a roaring, knee-slapping laugh often described but never observed in the somber photographs that have been passed down; trigger-tempered and so immensely strong that he was more often than not the winner of local wrestling matches; haunted by the spirit-dreams common to most country folk; kind, generous, loyal and, of course, honest.

Donald salts this early narrative with Lincoln's own observations, or the reminiscences of those who knew him, such as Leonard Swett, a lawyer who traveled with Lincoln on the southern Illinois legal circuit:

    In court, he rarely raised objections when opposing counsel introduced evidence. "[H]e would say he 'reckoned' it would be fair to let this in, or that; and sometimes, when his adversary could not quite prove what Lincoln knew to be the truth, he 'reckoned' it would be fair to admit the truth to be so-and-so." ... Many a rival lawyer was lulled into complacency as Lincoln conceded, say, six out of seven points in an argument, only to discover that the whole case turned on the seventh point. "Any man who took Lincoln for a simple-minded man," Swett concluded, "would very soon wake up with his back in a ditch."

That quality seems to be the key to much of Lincoln's political success. He was often considered ill-mannered and oafish by his contemporaries, and here and there, Donald passes on the imperial view of subordinates and rivals who regularly referred to him as a "grinning monkey," "the Gorilla" or, most often, simply a man out of his league. Donald's narrative of Lincoln's White House years is of a man who played his cards close to the vest, and counterstroked masterfully.

And that is, probably, the fatal flaw of all Lincoln biographies. As they move into the times of most interest to contemporary readers--the events leading up to and including the Civil War--they also enter a period during which Lincoln, by necessity and personal preference, kept the nation in the dark as to the full extent of his intentions.

Donald details well the stormy political sea Lincoln sailed in, and gives us Lincoln's reasons why, for example, he abandoned his idea of moving African Americans to Liberia and finally became one of the lead proponents of granting the freedmen the vote--but still, we are left, as always, with the nagging thought that Lincoln is even yet hiding his true thoughts from history, and that we will never know what he felt in his heart.

Pity. In the period of the end of the 20th century, when the nation seems bent on some form of cataclysmic collision, we could use the advice of a thoughtful, caring man.

Lincoln, by David Herbert Donald; Simon & Schuster; 599 pages; $35 cloth.

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From the Dec. 21-27, 1995 issue of Metro

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