Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.


A passion for the Union

A new biography of Abraham Lincoln suggests that the American Civil War need not have happened. Frank McLynn begs to differ; Lincoln by David Herbert Donald Cape, pounds 30
What, yet another Lincoln book to add to the 6,000 or so extant? In one sense it turns there is nothing to fear, as the newcomber is distinctive and original. But it is so in all the wrong ways. The book has no subtitle, but an apt one would be Anglo-Saxon empiricism and its limitations. In other words, Professor Donald's book has all the virtues of professional historical scholarship - meticulous and exhaustive research, a deep knowledge of the subject, and a fervent commitment to the historiographical debates about the Civil War period. What it lacks is a broader context, a sense of mythology and the irrational and, most importantly, psychological insight.

A good way to see Donald's book in perspective is to contrast the "old'' and "new'' views of Lincoln. The old view - with whom we associate very much in the multi-volume biography by the poet Carl Sandburg and the movies of John Ford and others - goes like this. "Old Abe'' went from log cabin to White House; he was a cracker-barrel philosopher and a backwoods lawyer who came out of the wilderness to defeat Senator Douglas in a memorable series of debates in 1858 ("a house divided against itself will fall"); he fought the Civil War to liberate the slaves and was thus acclaimed as a demigod by the blacks; he made the greatest speech of all time with the Gettysburg Address; finally he was murdered by the lone assassin John Wilkes Booth.

The new or revisionist view stresses that Lincoln was a compromise candidate for the presidency in 1860; his performance in the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858 was not all that impressive; he was a natural autocrat who relished wartime as it gave him the opportunity to suspend habeas corpus and other civil rights at will; far from being a champion of the blacks, he wanted to ship them all back to Africa; and he was assassinated as the result of a conspiracy by the radical Republicans, probably masterminded by the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Oh, and by the way, the Civil War was not fought on the issue of slavery at all. It was a socio-economic conflict between a primary-producing, free trading South and an industrial and protectionist North.

How does Donald's book relate to all this? It is a bit like Paddy Ashdown, in that sometimes it leans to one side and sometimes to the other. So, for example, on one hand Donald is a 'lone assassin' man, he has no truck with economic explanations for the Civil War, and he concedes Lincoln his Gettysburg greatness. On the other, he accepts the charge of wartime autocracy and of Lincoln's political incorrectness towards what he anachronistically calls 'African-Americans' (the slaves could only become 'African-Americans' once Lincoln had abandoned his repatriation plans and instead issued the Emancipation Proclamation). On the Lincoln-Douglas debates he is plain confusing, declaring one moment that they changed nothing, the next that they turned Lincoln into a national hero.

Donald's most controversial conclusion is that the Civil War was not inevitable. Both the 'old' and 'new' views concurred in thinking it was, but disagreed about whether the basic cause was slavery or an irreconcilable clash of regional economic interests. Donald appears to think that it was Lincoln's ineptitude in his first month in office that led to the Fort Sumter crisis and that, had events in 1860-61 worked out differently, there might have been no fratricidal blood-letting. This is probably the most difficult counterfactual thesis any historian could set himself to sustain and, perhaps wisely, Donald makes no serious attempt to do so. But this tendency in that direction does alert us to a peculiarity about his portrait of Lincoln. This is not so much a "warts and all'' picture but, with the exception of the odd nod to Gettysburg, it's warts, the whole warts and nothing but the warts.

According to Donald, Lincoln's most salient attribute was his luck. He was chosen as Republican candidate in 1860 because the Convention did not want to opt either for a radical Republican with an uncompromising attitude towards the South or for those candidates who were perceived as being 'soft' on the South. Then in the Presidential contest proper, he was handed the election on a plate because the Democrats split between Douglas and Breckinbridge; Lincoln ended with less than 40 percent of the popular vote but a clear majority in the electoral college.

The Civil War section of the book is a severe disappointment. Donald concentrates on Lincoln's relations with his generals, Cabinet Ministers, the Supreme Court and the media but never conveys any sense of a great nation convulsed by the most traumatic conflict in its history. The effect is rather like reading a biography of Winston Churchill which eschews Alamein, Stalingrad and Overlord in favour of the Beveridge Report and Churchill's wrangles with the Daily Mirror. Because Lincoln as the binder- up of the nation's psychic wounds has a very low profile in Donald's account, the result is to make us wonder how Lincoln ever came to be seen as America's greatest President.

I suspect part of the trouble may be Donald's strait-laced respect for archival research, to the detriment of broader cultural, mythological, semiological or psychological insights. Why, for example, was Lincoln obsessed with the idea of "union''? Why did his determination that the Southern states not be allowed to secede from the Union take on the dimensions of a religious crusade? Why did he famously state that if he could save the Union by freeing all the slaves, he would do that, or if he could save it by freeing none, he would do that, or by freeing some and leaving others as slaves he would do that also? Charles Strozier wrote a brilliant book about this aspect of the Lincoln psyche; Donald does not consider it a question worth addressing.

Professor Donald has written eleven books about Lincoln and the Civil War. It may seem churlish to be so unenthusiastic about this summation of his lifetime's work but this book is a long way from the definitive Abe biography. If Donald's Lincoln were the real Lincoln, we should be justified in asking what all the fuss has been about ever since 1865. This is a work that will appeal to professional scholars only; the general reader is likely to be left disappointed and dispirited.