David Herbert Donald, 1920-2009
What They're Famous For
Herbert Donald is the Charles Warren Professor of American History
and of American Civilization Emeritus at Harvard University. A student of the famed
Lincoln and Civil War scholar James Garfield Randall, Donald has trained many of
today's leading historians, and ranks as one of America's leading authorities on
the Civil War era. He is the author of Lincoln (1995), which won the prestigious
Lincoln Prize and was on the New York Times bestseller list for fourteen
weeks. Lincoln is considered the definitive one volume biography for our time.
He has won the Pulitzer Prize twice, for Charles Sumner and the Coming of the
Civil War (1960), and for Look Homeward:
A Life of Thomas Wolfe (1987). Donald has been invited to the White House by
almost every president from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush, giving lectures or
Professor Donald is considered the leading authority on Abraham Lincoln and has advised on numerous projects relating to the 16th President. He was the principal historical adviser and commentator for the 1992 documentary series"Lincoln" and for the 2000 television series"A House Divided: Abraham and Mary Lincoln." Additionally he served as a historical consultant for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum. Donald has moved on from studying Lincoln, and is embarking on writing a biography of John Quincy Adams. As he recently stated in an interview for the Boston Globe:"I've said farewell to Lincoln so many times, but this time I think it will really happen. I'll miss writing about Lincoln, but on the other hand, I've sort of been there, done that. Perhaps I was getting repetitious anyway."
In 1947 I received my first teaching appointment. It was at Columbia University in the
School of General Studies, where most of the students were veterans whose education
had been interrupted by World War II. Many were much older than I, and all knew much
more of the world than I, who grew up on a farm in Mississippi. I felt lucky if I
could keep one day ahead of my students, and I lived in constant fear that I would be
exposed as an ignoramus. I tried to compensate by working very hard on my lectures,
ransacking the Columbia libraries and staying up night after night till long past
Toward the end of the first semester our syllabus called for a lecture on the celebrated Scopes trial (1925), where Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan fiercely argued opposing sides in their debate over evolution. I had read biographies of both men, as well as several accounts of the trial itself, and I tried to present, as fairly as I could, their arguments as well as the rulings of the judge. I thought I was doing a pretty good job when a middle-aged man in the back row raised his hand and said in a gruff voice,"Well, Dr. Donald, that's all well and good, but it isn't really the way things happened." His name was McEvoy, and he had been a reporter for one of the New York papers at the trial. Speaking without interruption for about ten minutes, he proceeded to give us a first-hand account of what went on in that court room.
Initially taken aback, I looked around the classroom and saw that the other students were following Mr. McEvoy avidly, and when he had finished his account, they began peppering him with questions about the trial. Presently they turned to me to learn what I thought its significance was. The discussion continued long after the class bell rang, as the students and I walked across the campus, arguing about the meaning of Darwinism. For the first time I began to realize that this was what education is supposed to be--a reciprocal process in which one both teaches and learns.
That is a lesson I have kept with me ever since. On whatever level I have taught, whether a freshman seminar or a graduate course, I have found that I can best teach students if I also am willing to learn from them. Whether my courses were offered at Columbia, Princeton, Smith, Johns Hopkins, Oxford, or Harvard, my students and I have worked together in this joint enterprise of learning. That is why I loved teaching. And that is why, I think, so many of my former students have gone on to achieve great distinction in their chosen fields.
By David Herbert Donald
Sitting up with his sick children night after night, Lincoln was unable to transact business, and he seemed to stumble through his duties. There were fluctuations in Willie's illness, but during the two weeks after the grand party he grew weaker and weaker, and Lincoln began to despair of his recovery. On February 20 the end came. Stepping into his office, Lincoln said in a voice chocked with emotion:"Well, Nicolay, my boy is gone-he is actually gone!" Then he burst into tears and left to give what comfort he could to Tad.
Both parents were devastated by grief. When Lincoln looked on the face of his dead son, he could only say brokenly,"He was too good for this earth...but then we loved him so." It seemed appropriate that Willie's funeral, which was held in the White House, was accompanied by one of the heaviest wind and rain storms ever to visit Washington. Long after the burial the President repeatedly shut himself in a room so that he could weep alone. At nights he had happy dreams of being with Willie, only to wake to the sad recognition of death. On a trip to Fort Monroe, long after Willie was buried, Lincoln read passages from Macbeth and King Lear to an aide, and then from King John he recited Constances lament for her son:
And, father cardinal, I have heard you say
That we shall see and know our friends in heaven:
If that be true, I shall see my boy again.
His voice trembled, and he wept. -- David Herbert Donald in"Lincoln"
In telling the story from Lincoln's perspective, I became increasingly impressed by Lincoln's fatalism. Lincoln believed, along with Shakespeare, that"there's a divinity that shapes our ends,/Rough-hew them as we will." Again and again, he felt that his major decisions were forced upon him. Late in the Civil War, he explained to a Kentucky friend:"I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me." This does not mean, of course, that Abraham Lincoln was inactive or inert, nor does it imply that he was incapable of taking decisive action. But this view -- which is something that began to emerge from his own words, and not a thesis that I originally started out with -- emphasizes the importance of Lincoln's deeply held religious beliefs and his reliance on a Higher Power. -- David Herbert Donald reflecting on"Lincoln" (Simon & Schuster, Author essay)
Asked the older carpenter in a worried tone:"Do you think he's all right?"
"I guess so," replied the younger,"but he does sit at that machine for hours and hours talking to himself."
I may not be"all right" -- but I like to think that my story-telling carries on a great tradition. And it is a distinctively American tradition. -- David Herbert Donald"On Being an American Historian"
About David Herbert Donald
Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, Charles
Warren Professor of American History, 1973-91, chair of graduate program in American
civilization, 1979-85, professor emeritus, 1991--.
Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, professor of history, 1962-73, Harry C. Black Professor of American History, 1963-73, director of the Institute of Southern History, 1966-72.
Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, professor of history, 1959-62.
Smith College, Northampton, MA, associate professor of history, 1949-51.
Columbia University, New York, NY, instructor, 1947-49, assistant professor, 1951-52, associate professor, 1952-57, professor of history, 1957-59.
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, IL, research assistant, 1943-46; research associate, 1946-47.
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC, teaching fellow, 1942.
Visiting associate professor of history, Amherst College, 1950; Fulbright lecturer in American history, University College of North Wales, 1953-54; member, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ, 1957-58; Harmsworth Professor of American History, Oxford University, 1959-60; John P. Young lecturer, Memphis State University, 1963; Walter Lynwood Fleming lecturer, Louisiana State University, 1965; visiting professor, Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, 1969-70; Benjamin Rush Lecturer, American Psychiatric Association, 1972; Commonwealth Lecturer, University College, University of London, 1975; Samuel Paley lecturer, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Israel, 1991.
Area of Research: 19th Century US History, Civil War Era, Abraham Lincoln.
Education: Holmes Junior College, Millsaps College, 1941; M.A., Ph.D., University of Illinois, 1942, 1946.
Editor, Contributor, Joint Author:
David Herbert Donald Prize for"Excellence in Lincoln Studies," Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, 2005.
Pulitzer Prize in biography, 1961, for Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War, and 1988, for Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe; Guggenheim fellowship, 1964-65, and 1985-86.
Lincoln was winner of the 1996 Lincoln Prize, the Lincoln/Barondess Award from the Civil War Round Table of New York, the Christopher Award, a Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters award for nonfiction, the American Library Association for distinguished nonfiction, the New England Booksellers award for the best nonfiction book of the year, and the Jefferson Davis Award of the Museum of the Confederacy. (all in 1996)
Honorary M.A. degrees from Oxford University and Harvard University, a L.H.D. degree from Millsaps College (1976), the degree of Litt.D. from the College of Charleston, South Carolina (1985), the Doctor of History degree from Lincoln University, L.H.D. degree from the University of Calgary (2001), and the L.H.D. degree from Illinois College (2002) . In 1989 he was the recipient of the University of Illinois Distinguished Alumni Award, and in 1992 he received the L.H.D. degree from that university. In May 2003 received the L.H.D. degree from Middlebury College.
Mr. Donald has held two fellowships from the John Si Nevins/Freeman Award, Chicago Civil War Roundtable, 1999.
Benjamin L. C. Wailes Award, Mississippi Historical Society, 1994.
C. Hugh Holman Prize, Modern Language Association, 1988.
National Endowment for the Humanities senior fellow, 1971-72.
American Council of Learned Societies fellowship, 1969-70.
George A. and Eliza G. Howard Fellowship, 1957-58.
Social Science Research Council fellowship, 1945-46.
Donald served the American Historical Association on the Committee on
the Harmsworth Professorship, the Committee on Research Needs of the
Profession, the Nominating Committee, the Committee on the Albert J.
Beveridge and Dunning Prizes, and the Board of Editors of The
American Historical Review. He was in 1962-1964 an elected member of the
Executive Committee of the Organization of American Historians, and in 1964
served on the Committee on the Future of the Association.
In the Southern Historical Association he has served on the Committee on Membership, the Committee on the Program, the Committee on Nominations, the Committee on the Ramsdell Award, and the Executive Council. In 1969 he was elected Vice President of the Southern Historical Association, and in 1970 he became the President of that group.
In 2001-2002 he was a member of the Smithsonian Institution's Blue Ribbon Commission on the Future of the National Museum of American History.
In January 1990 President George Bush invited him to deliver the first lecture, on Abraham Lincoln, in the"Presidential Lectures on the Presidency" at the White House.
Donald was the principal historical adviser and commentator for the 1992 documentary series"Lincoln" and for the 2000 television series"A House Divided: Abraham and Mary Lincoln." He has made numerous television appearances, including; PBS'"Newshour with Jim Lehrer" and C-Span's"Booknotes," and has written articles for the popular media including the New York Times and Washington Post. Donald also served as a historical consultant for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum.
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Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 2/21/2006
In addition to being very crisp, and just about everything raved about above, he was also very meticulous in the selection of illustratons for his one-volume Lincoln. They were both appropriately important to the narrative and images of very high quality. He did not allow himself to compromise on the quality of any picture just for the sake of throwing it in, as most have had to do when covering Lincoln's lifetime.
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