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Daring to Do Lincoln

At 70, Warren Professor of American History David H. Donald is not retiring to play golf.

By Roger G. Kuo

After half a century of teaching and with two Pulitzer Prizes under his belt, Warren Professor of American History David H. Donald is poised to complete the most challenging project of his career.

Harvard's preeminent scholar of 19th-century American political history will retire this June after an 18-year tenure at the University. And as he ends one part of his scholarly duties, Donald prepares to devote his full attention to an unprecedented analysis of the figure whose life and ideas his previous research had only begun to examine.

"I spent most of my life not doing a life of Abraham Lincoln," Donald says. "Most of my earlier work was around the periphery of Lincoln. It's a very large and complex issue that I was not sure I should tackle."

Yet in 1993, Donald says, he hopes to release a definitive biography of the nation's 16th president published by Simon & Schuster. He has received a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to help fund the needed research along the way.

"I'm not retiring to play golf," says Donald who will turn 71 this October. "I'm retiring to spend my full time on research and writing."

Donald's colleagues at Harvard have praised his latest research efforts for their groundbreaking insight into this era of American history.

"Donald is a demonstrably great biographer," says Winthrop Professor of History Stephen A. Thernstrom, referring to the scholar's two previous biographies which won Pulitzer Prizes in 1961 and 1987.

And Warren Professor of American History Ernest R. May shares Thernstrom's sentiments: "I'm sure it will be extraordinary. Donald is very sensitive to interpretations of periods and people. I expect this to be a remarkable book."

Breaking New Ground

Unlike many of the Lincoln biographies that have come before, Donald's endeavor will use extensive materials from the former president's personal papers that were sealed until 1947.

"Lincoln's personal papers which he received as president were sealed off after his death by his only surviving son, Robert Todd Lincoln," Donald says. "Only two biographies published in 1890 were allowed to look at these papers, and these were biased biographies."

Since 1890, several other scholars have written about Lincoln, notably Carl Sandburg and James G. Randall, in the earlier part of this century. But, Donald says, they did not have access to a number of personal documents.

"There has never been a modern life of Lincoln that had full access to the President's private papers," the Harvard scholar says.

And fellow American historian Thernstrom says Donald has picked an appropriate time to work on the Lincoln project. "It will give us a new vantage point for the 1990s," he says.

"The time is ripe for a full Lincoln biography," says Thernstrom. "Lincoln is a fascinating figure of momentous importance, and there hasn't been a serious biography of him for 30 years."

Indeed, Donald says these papers will offer him a unique perspective on Lincoln's executive decisions. "I think and hope that there will be a different feeling about the President's decisions from sitting at the president's desk and seeing how decisions were made," Donald says.

"This research covers all the excitement and drama you get, an inch by inch view. It's like being George Bush attacking Saddam Hussein and observing him on a minute-by-minute basis," the scholar says.

Donald says this newly-examined documentation does not consist of secret memoranda per se, but rather personal letters and notes that crossed Lincoln's desk during his presidency. These papers are now contained on 97 reels of microfilm that Donald has been reading over the last two and one-half years.

"They will show what he knew about command decisions, about Grant's campaign, about the 1864 Republican nomination," Donald says. "This is the way to find out exactly what he thought."

Another Biography?

Apparently, Donald is not the only scholar in the Harvard History Department interested in Abraham Lincoln. Professor William E. Gienapp is also working on a Lincoln biography, due to be published by McGraw-Hill in 1992.

But unlike Donald, who hopes to write a lengthy text on the prominent president's life and work, Gienapp says he has more limited goals in mind.

"For Donald, his biography is much more major. It is the capstone of his career," Gienapp says. "My work fills the need for an up-to-date biography suitable for college courses, a shorter one that will be more widely used in the classroom."

Donald and Gienapp are Harvard's only 19th century American political historians. And when the older scholar departs, Gienapp will be left the formidable task of carrying on Donald's legacy.

"Donald has left behind a strong program in teaching and research on both the undergraduate and graduate level," says Gienapp, who came to Harvard from the University of Wyoming in 1989. "He has had a strong following in teaching that I hope to continue."

Donald came to Harvard in 1973 from Johns Hopkins University, where he was a professor and director of the Institute of Southern History. Before Hopkins, Donald held positions at Columbia University, Smith College and Princeton University.

The Civil War scholar recalls his first day of class here, where he encountered a crowd of 200 in a room made for 60.

It was impossible to deliver his first lecture in such an overcrowded hall, Donald recalls, so he gave a few words of introduction, distributed the syllabuses, and ended class. As students began inching their way out of the classroom, one approached Donald, touched his arm, and exclaimed, "It's so good to hear someone talking Southern at Harvard!"

That scene hasn't changed much in 18 years. This spring more than 300 students packed a small Emerson lecture hall to take Donald's class. His course, History 1653: "Civil War and Reconstruction," was only one of three non-Core listings that made this year's top 10 enrollment ranks.

"David is a great teacher and scholar," says Thernstrom, who also arrived at Harvard in 1973. The two have served on numerous committees together. "This is a tremendous loss beyond question," Thernstrom says of Donald's upcoming retirement.


Donald's stay at Harvard has not been without its frustrations, however, and he says he does not agree with his department's tenure policy.

"My largest regret at Harvard is that we did not treat younger people in the History Department as well as they ought to have been treated," Donald says. "A number should have been promoted, which would have added great strength and luster to the department."

Donald says the loss of several former junior scholars, including Alan Brinkley, Drew R. McCoy and Catherine Clinton can be attributed to an "absence of firm leadership on the part of the administration that allowed the History Department to make very serious mistakes."

But Donald sees the appointment of Gienapp last year as a significant break with History's poor record of appointments.

"One good thing has been the appointment of Gienapp. He is a first-rate young political historian who has already done important work on the origins of the Republican Party. He is shaping the way we deal with political history."

Passing the Torch

Donald sees Gienapp as a worthy successor who will continue to teach the Civil War in the History Department. Gienapp was trained by Yale's Michael Holt, one of Donald's former students.

"Gienapp is sort of a grandchild of mine," Donald says. "Both of us are willing to experiment with new methods and to try new approaches to research."

In Donald's view, Gienapp's research method is similar in many ways to his own, yet has certain distinguishing characteristics.

"There are two ways of doing political history," Donald explained. "First, there is the method of focusing on men or ideas, and what they said or did. Second, there is the method of quantified history, which involves closely analyzing voting returns and examining issues received by the electorate. Gienapp bridges these two in a synthesis that is the shape of a new political history. It is very promising."

In his work on the origins of the Republican Party, Gienapp says, he incorporated these two methodssthods. "I moved back and forth from analyzing both the people and the leaders, and argued that both were essential to an understanding of the Republican Party."


Looking back on his tenure at Harvard. Donald reports that some of his most positive experiences have been related to the students he has taught.

"In my 18 years at Harvard, I have had some of the best graduate students in the country, who are now leading people in their fields all over the United States," Donald says. "There is hardly a major history department in the country where one of my former students is not the professor of 19th-century American history."

Indeed, Donald says his impact on American history far transcends the confines of Harvard's History Department. "I had wonderful students who were extraordinarily stimulating," Donald says. "They are helping to shape the whole field of 19th century American history."

May agrees that Donald's students over the last half-century can be found throughout the nation's history departments. "For both undergraduates and graduates, Donald is surely one of the most outstanding teachers, not just in the department, but for the University as a whole," May says.

And Donald says teaching undergraduates has offered him new perspectives on his scholarly work. "Undergraduate teaching has helped my research and writing," Donald says. "It's like writing a book, but giving 300 people the chance to offer criticism and suggestions."

And now that his teaching career is ending, Donald will return to full-time writing, taking with him the "criticisms and suggestions" of two generations of students.

I spent most of my life not doing a life of Abraham Lincoln. Most earlier work was around the periphery of Lincoln. It's a very large and complex issue that I was not sure I should tackle.

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