June 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 4
This re-examination of the Civil War, however, is not entirely a matter of emotional understanding. As David Donald points out, it is also a matter for the mental processes—for “rethinking,” as he expresses it, for taking the enormous mass of data and looking it over carefully, for trying to determine (now that the jury has all of the important facts) just what the verdict ought to be.
Mr. Donald contributes immeasurably to this task in his new book, Lincoln Reconsidered . In this collection of essays he remarks that “the future is not likely to see major discoveries of new facts or fresh sources in the Civil War period”; what it does need is a fresh examination of the basic issues involved, a conscientious attempt to evaluate what is already known in the light of the new perspective which is ours simply because we come on the scene nearly a century after the shooting stopped.
What Mr. Donald is out to do—and very well he does it—is to take a fresh look at the whole Lincoln story in the light of modern scholarship and see what it all amounts to. He examines Lincoln from many angles—as political leader, as a figment of folklore, as military man, as the hero of emancipation—and he has a knack for expressing judgments that sound as fresh as if the whole subject were unexplored territory.
Best of all, he has the insight to realize that hardand-fast judgments are not possible. Lincoln was one of the most complex and mysterious characters that America ever produced. His faults and virtues were strangely mixed, and sometimes what looks like a fault turns out to be a great source of strength. Lincoln was an opportunist, he drifted with the tide, he refused to be bound by doctrine or dogma, he handled each problem as it came to him—and if this sometimes drove his confreres almost to the point of madness, it was one of his chief elements of strength.
The popular picture of Lincoln is somewhat askew. We have been invited to look on him as the man who was hated by the politicians and loved by the people; yet there has not been in American history a cannier politician; the chance that was open to him to pose as the champion of the masses was simply missed, and Mr. Donald finds reason to doubt that in 1864 Lincoln held as tight a grip on the popular imagination as we usually suppose. What could have been done with the Lincoln myth, Mr. Donald suggests, by a modern publicity agent, is something to think about. He had everything—child of poor parents, born in a log cabin, a rail splitter and a painfully honest man, one who came up the hard way with no apparent advantages and everything against him—yet by modern standards almost no use was made of this in his political battles. Dipping his pen in acid, Mr. Donald muses: “The whole campaign, if managed by a Batten, Barton, Durstine and Osborn agent, should have been as appealing, as saccharine, as successful as the famous 1952 television appearance of our current Vice President.”
Lincoln Reconsidered , by David Donald. Alfred A. Knopf. 200 pp. $3.
Lincoln won neither the press, the politicians, nor the people; yet he was one of the most successful politicians in American history, he was the first President since Andrew Jackson to win re-election, and he got there (says Mr. Donald) primarily because he was a phenomenally successful operator of the political machine.
“Such a verdict,” Mr. Donald admits, “at first seems almost preposterous, for one thinks of Lincoln’s humility, so great as to cause his opponents to call him a ‘Uriah Heep’; of his frankness, which brought him the epithet ‘Honest Abe’; of his well-known aversion for what he termed the ‘details of how we get along.’ Lincoln carefully built up this public image of himself as a babe in the Washington Wilderness”; but he knew all the tricks, he played all of them in season and out of season, and in the end he won his chance to be a statesman by being superb practical politician.
It is much the same, Mr. Donald believes, with the popular picture of the radical Republicans. They are usually cast as the villains of the Civil War drama. They obstructed Lincoln at every step, they thirsted for blood and vengeance, their devious schemes masked nothing much loftier than a desire for high tariffs and a clear field for the rising northern industrialists, and altogether they were a bad lot, grasping and sly and conscienceless and, often enough, physically unattractive to boot. To this verdict Mr. Donald returns a simple “Nonsense.” The radicals were very diverse people; they did not agree among themselves; they supported Lincoln more often than they combatted him; and as a general thing Lincoln knew exactly how to get along with them. “The Radical Republicans were only one of the many factions that pulled for control of the Lincoln administrations. Because they were noisy and conspicuous, their historical importance has been overstated. Beyond simple anti-slavery zeal, they held few ideas in common”—and, all in all, this writer suggests that it is time we thought more about them.
Lincoln Reconsidered is one of the most useful books in the Civil War field to appear in many years. It emphasizes a point of importance: that although we do have the facts about this period, we have not yet fully digested them, and we need to do a great deal more meditating before we arrive at final conclusions. Written with insight and a biting wit, this little book is a work of real significance.