The Corner

David Herbert Donald, RIP

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.

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.


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