History Doyens: David Herbert Donald


Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman

David Herbert Donald, 1920-2009, 2-20-06

On Sunday, May 17, 2009 renowned Lincoln historian David Herbert Donald died at 88.

What They’re Famous For

David Herbert Donald is the Charles Warren Professor of American History and of American Civilization Emeritus at Harvard University. A student of the famed Lincoln and Civil War scholar James Garfield Randall, Donald has trained many of today’s leading historians, and ranks as one of America’s leading authorities on the Civil War era. He is the author of David Herbert  Donald JPGLincoln (1995), which won the prestigious Lincoln Prize and was on the New York Times bestseller list for fourteen weeks. Lincoln is considered the definitive one volume biography for our time. He has won the Pulitzer Prize twice, for Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War (1960), and for Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe (1987). Donald has been invited to the White House by almost every president from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush, giving lectures or attending receptions.

Professor Donald is considered the leading authority on Abraham Lincoln and has advised on numerous projects relating to the 16th President. He was the principal historical adviser and commentator for the 1992 documentary series “Lincoln” and for the 2000 television series “A House Divided: Abraham and Mary Lincoln.” Additionally he served as a historical consultant for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum. Donald has moved on from studying Lincoln, and is embarking on writing a biography of John Quincy Adams. As he recently stated in an interview for the Boston Globe: “I’ve said farewell to Lincoln so many times, but this time I think it will really happen. I’ll miss writing about Lincoln, but on the other hand, I’ve sort of been there, done that. Perhaps I was getting repetitious anyway.”

Personal Anecdote

In 1947 I received my first teaching appointment. It was at Columbia University in the School of General Studies, where most of the students were veterans whose education had been interrupted by World War II. Many were much older than I, and all knew much more of the world than I, who grew up on a farm in Mississippi. I felt lucky if I could keep one day ahead of my students, and I lived in constant fear that I would be exposed as an ignoramus. I tried to compensate by working very hard on my lectures, ransacking the Columbia libraries and staying up night after night till long past midnight.

Toward the end of the first semester our syllabus called for a lecture on the celebrated Scopes trial (1925), where Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan fiercely argued opposing sides in their debate over evolution. I had read biographies of both men, as well as several accounts of the trial itself, and I tried to present, as fairly as I could, their arguments as well as the rulings of the judge. I thought I was doing a pretty good job when a middle-aged man in the back row raised his hand and said in a gruff voice, “Well, Dr. Donald, that’s all well and good, but it isn’t really the way things happened.” David Herbert Donald  JPGHis name was McEvoy, and he had been a reporter for one of the New York papers at the trial. Speaking without interruption for about ten minutes, he proceeded to give us a first-hand account of what went on in that court room.

Initially taken aback, I looked around the classroom and saw that the other students were following Mr. McEvoy avidly, and when he had finished his account, they began peppering him with questions about the trial. Presently they turned to me to learn what I thought its significance was. The discussion continued long after the class bell rang, as the students and I walked across the campus, arguing about the meaning of Darwinism. For the first time I began to realize that this was what education is supposed to be–a reciprocal process in which one both teaches and learns.

That is a lesson I have kept with me ever since. On whatever level I have taught, whether a freshman seminar or a graduate course, I have found that I can best teach students if I also am willing to learn from them. Whether my courses were offered at Columbia, Princeton, Smith, Johns Hopkins, Oxford, or Harvard, my students and I have worked together in this joint enterprise of learning. That is why I loved teaching. And that is why, I think, so many of my former students have gone on to achieve great distinction in their chosen fields.


By David Herbert Donald

  • The Lincolns’ celebration were short-lived. Shortly before the party their son Willie had fallen ill with “bilious fever” – probably typhoid fever, caused by pollution in the White House water system. Deeply anxious, his parents considered canceling the grand reception, but the family doctor assured them that the boy was in no immediate danger. Even so, both the President and his wife quietly slipped upstairs during the party to be at their son’s bedside. During the next two weeks Tad came down with the same illness while Willie grew worse and worse.Sitting up with his sick children night after night, Lincoln was unable to transact business, and he seemed to stumble through his duties. There were fluctuations in Willie’s illness, but during the two weeks after the grand party he grew weaker and weaker, and Lincoln began to despair of his recovery. On February 20 the end came. Stepping into his office, Lincoln said in a voice chocked with emotion: “Well, Nicolay, my boy is gone-he is actually gone!” Then he burst into tears and left to give what comfort he could to Tad.Lincoln JPGBoth parents were devastated by grief. When Lincoln looked on the face of his dead son, he could only say brokenly, “He was too good for this earth…but then we loved him so.” It seemed appropriate that Willie’s funeral, which was held in the White House, was accompanied by one of the heaviest wind and rain storms ever to visit Washington. Long after the burial the President repeatedly shut himself in a room so that he could weep alone. At nights he had happy dreams of being with Willie, only to wake to the sad recognition of death. On a trip to Fort Monroe, long after Willie was buried, Lincoln read passages from Macbeth and King Lear to an aide, and then from King John he recited Constances lament for her son:

    And, father cardinal, I have heard you say
    That we shall see and know our friends in heaven:
    If that be true, I shall see my boy again.

    His voice trembled, and he wept. — David Herbert Donald in “Lincoln”

  • I hesitated for a long time before deciding to write a biography of Abraham Lincoln. There were already thousands of books on the subject, and many of them were excellent… I wanted to write a narrative account of Lincoln’s life, one almost novelistic in form, though every statement would be buttressed by fact. My intention was to tell the story of Lincoln’s life as he saw it, making use only of the information and ideas that were available to him at the time. My purpose was to explain rather than to judge.In telling the story from Lincoln’s perspective, I became increasingly impressed by Lincoln’s fatalism. Lincoln believed, along with Shakespeare, that “there’s a divinity that shapes our ends,/Rough-hew them as we will.” Again and again, he felt that his major decisions were forced upon him. Late in the Civil War, he explained to a Kentucky friend: “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.” This does not mean, of course, that Abraham Lincoln was inactive or inert, nor does it imply that he was incapable of taking decisive action. But this view — which is something that began to emerge from his own words, and not a thesis that I originally started out with — emphasizes the importance of Lincoln’s deeply held religious beliefs and his reliance on a Higher Power. — David Herbert Donald reflecting on “Lincoln” (Simon & Schuster, Author essay)
  • Even in the mechanics of writing I find myself influenced by this distinctively American — perhaps Southern American — way of telling a story. I compose at the keyboard of my computer, pausing as I complete each sentence to read it aloud, making sure that both the sound and the sense convey the meaning that I want. If I have failed, I delete the offending sentence and start again. Sometimes I may sound out a dozen versions of a phrase or sentence before I get it just right. Occasionally this practice has led to amusing results. Once, when I was in my study writing my biography of Thomas Wolfe, two friendly carpenters were making repairs in an adjacent room. Presently they took a coffee-break in the back yard, just out of my sight but not quite out of my hearing.
    Asked the older carpenter in a worried tone: “Do you think he’s all right?”
    “I guess so,” replied the younger, “but he does sit at that machine for hours and hours talking to himself.”
    I may not be “all right” — but I like to think that my story-telling carries on a great tradition. And it is a distinctively American tradition. — David Herbert Donald “On Being an American Historian”

About David Herbert Donald

  • “Lincoln immediately takes its place among the best of the genre, and it is unlikely that it will be surpassed in elegance, incisiveness and originality in this century. . . . A book of investigative tenacity, interpretive boldness and almost acrobatic balance.” — Harold Holzer reviewing “Lincoln”
  • This is a masterwork. It stands alone among 135 years of Lincoln biographies… The popular magazine “Civil War Times” has devoted its December issue to the war president. It indulged in a difficult game by asking its own contributors to select and rank the 10 best books among the 7,000 or so written. Donald’s biography came in second – after Lincoln’s own writings. There has been no major biography quite like this: It is chiefly written from Lincoln’s perspective. Information and ideas available to him, rather than to later historians, form its principal source – together with Lincoln’s own words, and those of his contemporaries…Lincoln remains a touchstone for Americans, their best face to the world. What the finest of historians tells us about him influences the country’s future. None should take the responsibility lightly. David Herbert Donald does not. Literate Americans, and people around the world who would understand what Lincoln called this “almost chosen people,” owe it to themselves to read this remarkable, provocative book. Gabor Boritt, Gettysburg College reviewing “Lincoln”
  • Donald has steered clear of legends and delivered a one-volume study of Lincoln’s life that will augment and replace the previous modern standards by Benjamin Thomas (1953) and Stephen Oates (1977). Donald’s biography is foremost the product of painstaking research and a lifetime of reading in the Lincoln archives and literature. It is a definitive version of Lincoln’s personal story. Donald has effectively used Lincoln’s own language–the famous speeches and state papers, public letters and the inexhaustible trove of the President’s own jokes and tales–to develop the story. Donald’s Lincoln is a humanized, demystified figure: cautious, brilliant and lucky, the pilot who kept trying to steer the ship to the middle of the river while imagining the gradual, if inevitable, abolition of slavery.” David W. Blight, Yale University reviewing “Lincoln”
  • “Readers interested in American history know that David Donald’s books and essays are an extraordinary literary achievement. Those of us fortunate enough to have been his students can attest that he was an equally extraordinary teacher. He was a captivating lecturer, a stimulating discussion leader, and a meticulous director of research and writing projects. Most important, he was a generous and sensitive mentor, and his contributions to the personal development of his students have extended far beyond the many scholarly careers he helped to launch.” — Thomas J. Brown, Associate Professor of History, University of South Carolina and former student.
  • From the way that he conducts himself in a classroom to the extraordinary elegance of his own prose or his mode of delivering trenchant criticism, in either his precise handwriting or his distinctive accent, David Donald is a truly exceptional teacher, scholar, and writer. I witnessed him give the most remarkable performance I have ever seen in a classroom, one that elicited spontaneous applause mid-lecture from a rapt audience of jaded undergraduates. Likewise, the concluding pages of his Sumner and Lincoln biographies rank among the most eloquent and poignant historical writing I have ever read. And I expect that to this day his students from his earliest days at Smith and Columbia to his final students at Harvard still emulate Donald in ways that many may not even fully recognize. — Fitzhugh Brundage, Professor of History, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and former student
  • “Professor Donald held lecture halls full of undergraduates spellbound; he writes books that humble other scholars. He tried to pass his skills on to his graduate students, insisting that we learn both to think and to work. He gave us the room to develop our own ideas then demanded meticulous research and careful writing. Overwhelmingly generous and remarkably patient, he read drafts, engaged material, and suggested improvements. And he had only the highest hopes for us. After a student raved about one of his books, he was embarrassed, but polite. ‘Why, thank you,’ he said. ‘Now go out and write a better one.'” — Heather Cox Richardson, Associate Professor of History, University of Massachusetts Amherst and former student
  • “David Donald is simply a virtuoso. He is the ideal scholar-teacher and a walking advertisement for academia’s traditional mentoring system. His rigorous research, insightful analysis, and graceful writing set standards we, his students, could only dream of achieving — but did our best to reach — while his eloquent lectures, stimulating seminars, and thorough line-by-line analyses taught us well — while teaching us how to teach. Professor Donald turned me into a thief. I regularly find myself stealing his lines, echoing his analysis, appearing smart based on his smarts. This is most apparent to me when I hear my students “stealing” from me what I “stole” from him — this echo chamber, with each successive generation adding its own accent or twist, is education at its best.” — Gil Troy, Professor of History, McGill University and former student

Basic Facts

Teaching Positions:

Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, Charles Warren Professor of American History, 1973-91, chair of graduate program in American civilization, 1979-85, professor emeritus, 1991–.
Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, professor of history, 1962-73, Harry C. Black Professor of American History, 1963-73, director of the Institute of Southern History, 1966-72.
Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, professor of history, 1959-62.
Smith College, Northampton, MA, associate professor of history, 1949-51.
Columbia University, New York, NY, instructor, 1947-49, assistant professor, 1951-52, associate professor, 1952-57, professor of history, 1957-59.
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, IL, research assistant, 1943-46; research associate, 1946-47.
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC, teaching fellow, 1942. David  Herbert Donald JPG

Visiting associate professor of history, Amherst College, 1950; Fulbright lecturer in American history, University College of North Wales, 1953-54; member, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ, 1957-58; Harmsworth Professor of American History, Oxford University, 1959-60; John P. Young lecturer, Memphis State University, 1963; Walter Lynwood Fleming lecturer, Louisiana State University, 1965; visiting professor, Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, 1969-70; Benjamin Rush Lecturer, American Psychiatric Association, 1972; Commonwealth Lecturer, University College, University of London, 1975; Samuel Paley lecturer, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Israel, 1991.

Area of Research: 19th Century US History, Civil War Era, Abraham Lincoln.

Education: Holmes Junior College, Millsaps College, 1941; M.A., Ph.D., University of Illinois, 1942, 1946.

Major Publications:

  • Lincoln’s Herndon, introduction by Carl Sandburg, (Knopf, 1948), reprinted with a new introduction by Donald, (Da Capo Press, 1988).
  • (Author of text) Divided We Fought: A Pictorial History of the War, 1861-1865, (Macmillan, 1952).
  • Lincoln Reconsidered: Essays on the Civil War, (Knopf, 1956), (2nd enlarged edition, Random House, 1961), (reprinted, Vintage Books, 1989).
  • An Excess of Democracy: The American Civil War and the Social Process, (Clarendon Press, 1960).
  • Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War, (Knopf, 1960), (collector’s edition, Easton Press, 1987).
  • (With James G. Randall) The Divided Union, (Little, Brown, 1961).
  • (With James G. Randall) The Civil War and Reconstruction, (2nd edition, Heath, 1961), (revised and enlarged edition, 1969), (revised edition with Jean H. Baker and Michael F. Holt, Norton, 2001).
  • The Politics of Reconstruction, 1863-1867, (Louisiana State University Press, 1965), (reprinted, Harvard University Press, 1984).
  • The Nation in Crisis, 1861-1877, (Appleton, 1969).
  • Charles Sumner and the Rights of Man, (Knopf, 1970), (unabridged edition, published with Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War, published as Charles Sumner, with new introduction by Donald, (Da Capo Press, 1996).
  • Gone for a Soldier, (Little, Brown, 1975).
  • Liberty and Union, (Little, Brown, 1978).
  • Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe, (Little, Brown, 1987).
  • Lincoln, (Simon & Schuster, 1995).
  • Lincoln at Home: Two Glimpses of Abraham Lincoln’s Domestic Life, (White House Historical Association, 1999).
  • “We Are Lincoln Men”: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends, (Simon & Schuster, 2004).
  • Contributor to historical journals. General editor, “The Making of America” series and “Documentary History of American Life” series.

Editor, Contributor, Joint Author:

  • (Editor, with wife, Aida Donald) Diary of Charles Francis Adams, two volumes, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1964.
  • (With others) Grant, Lee, Lincoln, and the Radicals, Northwestern University Press (Evanston, IL), 1964.
  • (Editor) Inside Lincoln’s Cabinet: The Civil War Diaries of Salmon P. Chase, Longmans, Green (New York, NY), 1954.
  • (Author of introduction) George Cary Eggleston, A Rebel’s Recollections, Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IN), 1959.
  • (Editor) Why the North Won the Civil War, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1960, revised and expanded edition, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1996.
  • (With others) The Great Republic: A History of the American People, Heath (Boston, MA), 1977, 4th edition, 1992.
  • (With others) With My Face to the Enemy: Perspectives on the Civil War, edited by Robert Cowley, Putnam (New York, NY), 2001.
  • (With Harold Holzer) Lincoln in the Times : The Life of Abraham Lincoln, as Originally Reported in The New York Times, (St. Martin’s Press, 2005)


David Herbert Donald Prize for “Excellence in Lincoln Studies,” Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, 2005.
Pulitzer Prize in biography, 1961, for Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War, and 1988, for Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe; Guggenheim fellowship, 1964-65, and 1985-86.
Lincoln was winner of the 1996 Lincoln Prize, the Lincoln/Barondess Award from the Civil War Round Table of New York, the Christopher Award, a Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters award for nonfiction, the American Library Association for distinguished nonfiction, the New England Booksellers award for the best nonfiction book of the year, and the Jefferson Davis Award of the Museum of the Confederacy. (all in 1996)
Honorary M.A. degrees from Oxford University and Harvard University, a L.H.D. degree from Millsaps College (1976), the degree of Litt.D. from the College of Charleston, South Carolina (1985), the Doctor of History degree from Lincoln University, L.H.D. degree from the University of Calgary (2001), and the L.H.D. degree from Illinois College (2002) . In 1989 he was the recipient of the University of Illinois Distinguished Alumni Award, and in 1992 he received the L.H.D. degree from that university. In May 2003 received the L.H.D. degree from Middlebury College.
Mr. Donald has held two fellowships from the John Si Nevins/Freeman Award, Chicago Civil War Roundtable, 1999.
Benjamin L. C. Wailes Award, Mississippi Historical Society, 1994.
C. Hugh Holman Prize, Modern Language Association, 1988.
National Endowment for the Humanities senior fellow, 1971-72.
American Council of Learned Societies fellowship, 1969-70.
George A. and Eliza G. Howard Fellowship, 1957-58.
Social Science Research Council fellowship, 1945-46.

Additional Info:

Donald served the American Historical Association on the Committee on the Harmsworth Professorship, the Committee on Research Needs of the Profession, the Nominating Committee, the Committee on the Albert J. Beveridge and Dunning Prizes, and the Board of Editors of The American Historical Review. He was in 1962-1964 an elected member of the Executive Committee of the Organization of American Historians, and in 1964 served on the Committee on the Future of the Association.
In the Southern Historical Association he has served on the Committee on Membership, the Committee on the Program, the Committee on Nominations, the Committee on the Ramsdell Award, and the Executive Council. In 1969 he was elected Vice President of the Southern Historical Association, and in 1970 he became the President of that group.
In 2001-2002 he was a member of the Smithsonian Institution’s Blue Ribbon Commission on the Future of the National Museum of American History.
In January 1990 President George Bush invited him to deliver the first lecture, on Abraham Lincoln, in the “Presidential Lectures on the Presidency” at the White House.
Donald was the principal historical adviser and commentator for the 1992 documentary series “Lincoln” and for the 2000 television series “A House Divided: Abraham and Mary Lincoln.” He has made numerous television appearances, including; PBS’ “Newshour with Jim Lehrer” and C-Span’s “Booknotes,” and has written articles for the popular media including the New York Times and Washington Post. Donald also served as a historical consultant for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum.

Posted on Sunday, February 19, 2006

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