“Before He Became a Saint,” a review of David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln

Ward, Geoffrey C.

New York Times Book Review, October 22, 1995

October, 1995: there are 7,000 books about Lincoln. The authors of most of them “began by assuming that he was a Great Man, then dutifully worked their way back through his life in search of clues as to how he got that way.” Lincoln’s real life was a sequence of twists and turns that could have landed him quite somewhere else. Lincoln was “a man of sorrows and [also] a lifelong champion of what he called ‘cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason.’” Donald’s conviction: Lincoln was a master politician. He knew better than anybody–and better than he let anybody know–how to work the machinery. Lincoln had his principles. Oh, yes. But he was also “wily and elusive in his pursuit of them.” From age 23 he was “the little engine that knew no rest,” an ambitious man. He engaged in “fierce and sometimes squalid,” political infighting for three decades before his presidency. He believed in Providence. He believed in hard work too. Members of his own cabinet thought him a “countrified embarrassment,” which was OK with him. Actually, “it was lessons learned in country courtrooms and the grimy corridors of the Illinois Statehouse the finally made the difference: hard lessons about the value of keeping one’s own counsel, the pace at which public opinion could safely be shaped, and the uses of delay [NB: Of delay!] and flattery and the miraculous power of patronage to change men’s minds.” “This Lincoln is quite capable, when necessary, of acting with the kind of guile and sinuousness more often ascribed to, say, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. When Congressional investigators seemed on the trail of damning evidence against his first Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, for instance, Lincoln cheerfully whisked him off to Russia as his Minister to the Czar. And when he decided that the forthright anti-slavery opinion of his first Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, might harm him among moderate voters in 1864, he managed to drop him from the ticket so soundlessly that Hamlin himself was never sure what happened.”