May 20, 2009
By David Darlington
David Herbert Donald passed away Sunday, May 17, 2009, at the age of 88. Donald was a life member of the AHA, having joined the organization in 1946. The Mississippi native was a well-regarded scholar of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War era, and the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes for biographies of abolitionist Charles Sumner (1961) and writer Thomas Wolfe (1988).
Donald received his undergraduate degree from Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi (1941), and then received his MA (1942) and PhD (1946) in history from the University of Illinois, where his advisor was James G. Randall. He taught at Columbia University, Smith College, Columbia again (awarded full professor in 1957), Princeton, and Johns Hopkins before joining the faculty of Harvard as Charles Warren Professor of American History in 1973. He served as chair of the graduate program 1979–85 and retired in 1991.
Donald’s first book was Lincoln’s Herndon (1948), a biography of Abraham Lincoln’s junior law partner and close aid, William Henry Herndon, who had published an early biography of the president in 1889. Donald edited several works on Civil War history, including a revised edition of Randall’s Civil War and Reconstruction (1961). He received the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 for the first volume of his biography of Charles Sumner, Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War (1960). Donald received praise for making the cantankerous and moralistic Massachusetts senator understandable. The second volume, Charles Sumner and the Rights of Man, which followed Sumner’s life after 1861, arrived in 1970.
Donald is popularly known for Lincoln (1995), widely considered one of the best of the large genre of Lincoln biographies. The book won the 1996 Lincoln Prize for best non-fiction book on the Civil War, and spent 14 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. In a note to readers, Donald wrote, “I hesitated for a long time before deciding to write a biography of Abraham Lincoln. There were already thousands of books on the subject, and many of them were excellent. But most of these books were written before the publication of The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy P. Basler (9 vols.; 1953–55), which provided the first authentic texts of all of Lincoln’s voluminous personal papers, long sealed in the vaults of the Library of Congress. These manuscripts included thousands of letters that came across the desk of the Civil War president, from other members of the government, from soldiers in the armies, and from private citizens…. Finding the new sources so plentiful,… I wanted to write a narrative account of Lincoln’s life, one almost novelistic in form, though every statement would be buttressed by fact. My intention was to tell the story of Lincoln’s life as he saw it, making use only of the information and ideas that were available to him at the time. My purpose was to explain rather than to judge.”
David Herbert Donald served the AHA as a member of the board of editors of The American Historical Review, and in other capacities. He was president of the Southern Historical Association in 1970. He is survived by his wife Aida D. Donald, also a historian, and one son. See this HNN web page for more on David Herbert Donald.