David Herbert Donald has died

Historians in the News

David Donald died on Sunday. On our homepage we have published a tribute by Gil Troy.

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  • NPR

    David Herbert Donald, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of the Civil War and American South whose expertise on Abraham Lincoln brought him a wide general audience and reverence from his peers, has died. He was 88.

    Donald died of heart failure at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston on Sunday while awaiting heart surgery, said his wife, Aida.

    "Of course, I am devastated," said his wife of 54 years."He was a wonderful husband and father and he had a spectacular career as a teacher."

    A professor emeritus at Harvard University, Donald won Pulitzers for biographies of abolitionist Charles Sumner and novelist Thomas Wolfe. But his books on Lincoln became his legacy. Presidents from John F. Kennedy to the first George Bush summoned him for lectures and fellow scholars acknowledged his prominence, especially as Lincoln's bicentennial was celebrated this year.

    "He was not only one of the best historians of our era but he was also one of the classiest and most generous scholars I have ever met," said Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of Team of Rivals, a best-selling Lincoln biography.

    "When I began my work on Lincoln I was as green as any rookie, never having studied the 19th century, much less Lincoln, and yet he took me under his wing, invited me to his house to share the treasures of his incredible Lincoln library, suggested the best books to start with, and encouraged my decision to focus on the cabinet."

  • John J. Miller in National Review
  • The biographer of America's first Republican president is dead. He begins Lincoln, his best-known book, by reporting a quote JFK once made in his presence:"No one has a right to grade a President—not even poor James Buchanan—who has not sat in his chair, examined the mail and information that came across his desk, and learned why he made his decisions." In a democracy, of course, we do it all the time, both in the form of those letter grades that groups of historians like to assign and in the pass-fail mechanism of the ballot box. Donald, a son of the South who spent his professional life in the North, went on to say his goal in writing about Lincoln was"to explain rather than judge." I'm no expert on books about Lincoln, one of the most written-about men in history, but I have read a few and I've always enjoyed Donald's straightforward take. The Donald family has made a habit of studying GOP leaders: Aida Donald, now a widow, has written on Theodore Roosevelt (and participated in a Between the Covers podcast about a year and a half ago). Gone at 88, David Herbert Donald now belongs to the ages.

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