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brian cork remembering David Herbert Donald


NEW YORK (AP) – David Herbert Donald, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of the Civil War and American South whose expertise on Abraham Lincoln brought him a wide general audience and reverence from his peers, has died.

I saw that heading this morning and was immediately struck by mixed feelings of nostalgia and sadness.

I first heard Lincoln historian David Herbert Donald lecture while an undergraduate at Radford University.

A ferocious and passionate writer, Donald passed away at eighty eight. And, he packed a lot into those years. A professor emeritus at Harvard University, Donald won Pulitzers for biographies of abolitionist Charles Sumner and novelist Thomas Wolfe. But his books on Lincoln became his legacy. Presidents from John F. Kennedy to the first George Bush summoned him for lectures and fellow scholars acknowledged his prominence.

An award was even named after him – the David Herbert Donald Prize for “excellence in Lincoln studies.” The first honoree in 2005 was, of course, Donald himself.

My guy has always been Thomas Jefferson. However, Dr. Donald was brilliant at drawing comparisons and contrasts amongst our country’s Presidents (with an obvious emphasis on Abraham Lincoln) that ran parallel to current events. He was apparently working on a character study of John Quincy Adams at his death. As we all know, (that particular) President Adams might be considered one of those ‘other’ or footnote-only caliber White House denizens. Yet Donald would have found a unique and likely thought provoking way to draw a correlation between something President Adams did that was relevant to Lincoln, or something they both had accomplished, or wanted. If you care about that type of nuance or “Jeffersonian” (parallel) thinking, it’s endlessly fascinating.

For more along this line of thinking, please consider my prior post: Barack Obama and the Jeffersonian Model.

Donald published his first Lincoln book in 1948, and kept at it for more than 50 years, going back on repeated vows to move on to another subject. His books included “Lincoln at Home,” a study of his family life, and “We Are Lincoln Men, (a personal favorite of mine) – both worthy essays about Lincoln’s friends and associates.

“Lincoln,” a single-volume biography of the president, came out in 1996 and became so popular that presidential candidates Bill Clinton and Bob Dole both claimed they were reading it (it’s certainly in my own library even I am not as yet a presidential candidate). NOTE: Clinton I can see actually drawing some form of inspiration from it. I am, however, skeptical about that poor little Mr. Dole. In any event, years later, when customers at the Lincoln Memorial bookstore would ask for a good biography, Donald’s book was recommended.

Donald, the grandson of a Union cavalry officer, was not a Lincoln man in his early years. Born into a farming family in Goodman, Mississippi, he fancied himself a musician before some odd twists landed him elsewhere. He majored in history and sociology at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi. After graduation, Donald hitchhiked to Indianola, Mississippi, where he was interviewed for a job as a high school band teacher, a position funded by sales from a Coca-Cola machine.

This is my favorite passage from an interview he tolerated with the Associated Press in 2005:

“The man who interviewed me told me I could have the job and I went to gather whatever I had and started to follow him out of his office,” Donald recalled. “He said, ‘You forget your hat.’ And I said ‘I don’t wear a hat.’ And he said, ‘You teach in my school, you’ll wear a hat.’ So I didn’t take the job.”

So… Donald looked instead at graduate schools. His academic adviser at Millsaps was too busy to help, so Donald wrote his own recommendations and was accepted into the University of Illinois. Years later, he visited the school and had a chance to see his records.

“I looked into my admissions file and it said, ‘Admit this man. He has excellent letters of recommendation.”

If you know me, you understand why I am drawn to professional people that see the world in their own terms. The latter quote always made me think of Captain James T. Kirk and his Kobayashi Maru.

Just roll with me on that.

I will leave the best insights into Donald’s brilliant work to other historians and writers of greater merit than my own. However, he had a great impact on me and my views in terms of how two people can look at the same subject and yet understand it in completely separate ways, while drawing strong direction from the exercise. That is both Jeffersonian (my view), and important in critical decision-making.

For example:

Some reviewers faulted Donald for insisting on “the essential passivity” of Lincoln, while an interpretation that The Washington Post’s Jonathan Yardley found contradiction positing the president’s “determination and vigor” in carrying out his decisions.

For decades after Lincoln’s death, writing on the president was dominated by nonhistorians, such as poet Carl Sandburg, who wrote a best-selling, lyrical and famously unreliable biography. Donald helped literally transform Lincoln studies into a professional discipline.

A mentor of Donald’s encouraged him to write about Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon. “Lincoln’s Herndon” began as a dissertation and became Donald’s first book, published in 1948, with an introduction, ironically, from Sandburg.

During his aforementioned AP interview, Donald outright dismissed recent theories that Lincoln was gay or chronically depressed. Donald also acknowledged that he, too, had, over time, changed his feelings about Lincoln.

“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.”


Donald’s reputation grew throughout the next few decades as he carefully picked apart the Lincoln myths dear to poets, dreamers and politicians. In such classic essays as “Getting Right With Lincoln’‘ and “The Folklore Lincoln,” he noted Lincoln’s transformation from laughing stock to saint upon his assassination – and, the efforts of both Democrats and Republicans to claim him for their parties.

Thank you for helping us all to think, argue and change our minds Professor Donald.

Peace be to my Brothers and Sisters.

Brian Patrick Cork


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