LINCOLN by David Herbert Donald, Cape pounds 30
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ABRAHAM LINCOLN has not had a very good time of it in America these last 30 years. His profile still decorates the penny, but the country no longer honours his birth with a national holiday. That February celebration

of Honest Abe's legacy has been replaced with the ambiguous "President's Day", a mid-winter Monday recognising all those who have held the office, even those who brought dishonour upon it. Quickly fading is the memory of Father Abraham, the generous and gentle statesman who preserved the Union and lanced the boil of slavery.

Just in time then comes David Herbert Donald's Lincoln, to remind us of the character who served as the pivotal figure in the history of the United States. Donald's biography examines America's 16th President from the subject's point of view. He has relied "largely on Lincoln's own words", what Lincoln wrote or said to contemporaries, and on the ideas readily available to Lincoln from the few books and newspapers that found their way to him in his early life. Thus, this is a biography of one man's language, not of the man and his times.

Nor does it offer new information. The author has discovered no cache of lost letters, no early drafts of important speeches, no new forensic evidence on Lincoln's assassination. Donald, one of America's most gifted and celebrated biographers, instead provides an intimate and revealing portrait through his selection of Lincoln's comments on the mundane, on himself, on God and Country. In doing so, he offers fresh insight into the man who, more than any other American, embodied the ideals and the character of his country.

This ground has been crossed many times before, not only in the dozens of biographies of Lincoln but also in the voluminous literature on the American Civil War. Gary Wills's Lincoln at Gettysburg considered only the 271 words of a single speech - albeit the most important address ever delivered by an American President. Everyone will recognise Donald's images of Abe the child in a log cabin reading by firelight, of Honest Abe the Railsplitter, of the gaunt President brooding over his country's fratricidal struggle.

Donald's contribution comes not from challenging these images but from picking and choosing among them to reveal how and when Lincoln came to commit himself to the principle enunciated not in the American Constitution but in the more radical and spiritual Declaration of Independence: that God endows every man with certain rights, among them "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness". Lincoln believed that the fragile governmental experiment known as the United States represented mankind's best hope of achieving a civilisation based on these ideas. As abhorrent as slavery was, he was unwilling to abolish it by executive order until he was convinced that doing so would help to preserve the Union by ending the war. "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it," he confessed in a letter to the editor of the New York Tribune in 1862, "and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it..." In the end, slavery disappeared in pieces - in the nation's capital at one time, in occupied territory at another, across much of the rest of Dixie later through the Emancipation Proclamation.

A professor emeritus of American history at Harvard University, Donald brings a lifetime of academic analysis to his subject. He sets the stage beautifully for Lincoln's moments of eloquence, and gives the same attention to Mary Todd Lincoln's profligate spending on decorating herself and the White House. Through an examination of the mundane and the familiar, Donald reveals Lincoln's character in the everyday details of his life.

At times, such as in his treatment of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates during the Senatorial campaign of 1858, Donald's style lapses into that of a dreary classroom lecturer. We feel obliged to absorb each of the seven debates by mid-term or risk falling hopelessly behind. At the same time, we miss the drama that the grand sweep of Southern strategy and politics during the Civil War has provided to so many writers and filmmakers. Accepting Donald's declaration that he will offer nothing in the way of social or military history that Lincoln did not witness firsthand, he often ignores the chance to fill in the portrait even when Lincoln did experience the scene.

Thankfully, he does not engage in anachronistic psychological analysis. Yes, as a young man Lincoln did share a bed for several years with his best friend, but that was frontier necessity, Donald shows, not indications of homosexuality. True, he fell into deep despondency over two failed courtships, but that was no manifestation of manic depression.

Rather, this is Lincoln as he knew himself. Take for example an image Lincoln's opponents proffered of him - as a somewhat thick-headed manager who often stored loose papers in his too-tall hat. At least he knew where those papers were, Donald writes. His two-man law firm of the 1840s "had no filing cabinets and no files. In one corner of the office was a bundle of papers with a note in Lincoln's handwriting: 'When you can't find it anywhere else, look in this' ".

The research into Lincoln's language reveals more significant nuggets when it focuses on such recurring themes as "a house divided against itself cannot stand". Lincoln used this Biblical warning in his acceptance of the Republican nomination to stand for the Senate from Illinois in 1858. Southerners remembered it well two years later as a warning to prepare for war after he was elected President, though Lincoln declared repeatedly that he had no intention of initiating such a conflict. But Lincoln had experimented with the "house divided" phrase for 15 years, first in arguing for party solidarity in local politics. Many anti-slavery advocates adopted it for their speeches years before Lincoln even joined the cause. Like Lincoln himself, "a house divided..." took on significance when the issues of the day rose to match the language and style he had evolved.

Helpful as this might be to students of 19th-century America, the broader contribution of Donald's work comes from the reminder to the current generation of his countrymen that Abe Lincoln cared passionately about public service and about his obligations to the weakest. "How hard, oh how hard it is to die and leave one's Country no better than if one had never lived for it," he said to his law partner after an early (and temporary) loss of political office. After all, Lincoln is far more than just an historical figure. His war against disunion and in favour of liberty went on for many generations after his death. Not until 1965, exactly 100 years after his assassination, did Congress pass the Voting Rights Act, the law intended to end generations of local and state manipulation that had neutralised the ballot power American black people had won at the end of slavery. Even that statute was assumed to be only a milestone on the road to a civilisation where race and religion and national origin would no longer matter in affairs of government.

Instead, that year marked the beginning of a wholesale retreat from Lincoln's victory. Within months of the adoption of the Voting Rights law, Richard M Nixon laid out his Southern Strategy to reach the White House by capturing the white vote. His "strategy" was little more than a race-based populism borrowed from the demagogy of Alabama's Governor George Wallace. A series of Republican victories followed, right up to 1994.

The cries of today's young Republican Congressmen for a dismantling of centralised authority would have brought Lincoln to the edge of despair, just as similar arguments did 150 years ago. He recognised such sophistry as little more than a defence of the locally powerful against the permanently deprived. Today, reactionary forces in Congress are assaulting the social security system, the income tax and federal support of education, the arts, scientific research, transport and weather forecasting. The ambition is to roll back the clock, not to the issues seemingly resolved in the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, not to those argued and settled in the reforms of the Great Depression, not even to the battle over the income tax that confronted the nation after the turn of the century. Instead, the goal identified by today's Republican leaders in the national legislature involves the critical issue debated by Lincoln and Douglas in l858, "States' rights" and racial mixing.

Lincoln's ideas have fallen into such obscurity that few Americans paid much notice last autumn when General Colin Powell, on announcing that he would not become a Presidential candidate, pledged instead to work to restore balance to the Republican Party, "the party of Lincoln," he said. Powell will have to start from scratch. The Republicans traded Lincoln to the Democrats three decades ago and have tried to appropriate the pragmatism of Harry Truman in return ever since. Lincoln may at least help to return the debate to a higher plane.

Albert Scardino won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing on the Georgia Gazette, 1984; in 1990-91 he was Press Secretary to New York Mayor David Dinkins.