By Gil Troy, HNN, 5-18-09
Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents. His other books include: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN. His website is giltroy.com.
HNN Doyen: David Herbert Donald
One of the first real history books I ever bought was Why the North Won the Civil War, edited by David Donald. I was nine and, did not open the book for years. Still, Professor Donald was probably the first historian I ever heard of, so studying with him in graduate school was like learning hitting from another boyhood hero, Mickey Mantle. Those of us lucky to have learned from him knew we were blessed. For many of us, he remained a powerful presence in our lives, decades after he finished supervising us. Moreover, despite having been born in1920, he was still publishing, and there seemed to be many more books in him, germinating in his still sharp mind. All of this explains why it was a shock to hear that Donald died suddenly this past Sunday.
David Herbert Donald faced a formidable obstacle as a dissertation adviser. We his students knew we could never equal him. He was so dedicated, intelligent, and accomplished in his lecturing and his writing. To watch David Donald as he conjured up the Jacksonian era, what he called “the Age of Ambiguity,” to hear him map out the road to disunion, to see him in action dominating the lecture hall or the seminar room, was intellectually inspirational – yet professionally intimidating.
To his credit, Professor Donald used his high standards to empower us as future historians rather than demoralize us as potential failures who better seek different lines of work. Donald stretched us, widening our horizons so the seemingly unattainable became possible. He never talked about our dissertations, but about our “books.” Appalled by academic prose, he urged us to write for intelligent people not three colleagues in elite universities. When we, his graduate students, threw a lunch celebrating his second Pulitzer Prize, he deflected our praise with a toast – and elegant challenge – that he looked forward to hosting a lunch in the future when one of us won such a prize. Hearing these words from this gentleman fiercely committed to excellence, this pipedream somehow seemed reachable, despite our healthy awareness of our inadequacies.
Professor Donald was a model academic, using his scholarship to teach us how to be better historians. One day, Professor Donald recalled how when writing his Sumner biography he wondered what made a radical radical during Reconstruction. Were radicals younger, wealthier, nobler, or crankier than their moderate peers? To show us how he answered the question years before personal computers were invented, Professor Donald whipped out a knitting needle, a hole puncher, and the note cards he made for each congressional Republican, recording particular characteristics or actions in different areas of the card. He then punched holes in one particular spot, say, for Midwesterners, another for Northerners. Using his knitting needle, he poked through his stack, seeing which group of congressmen emerged depending on which hole he poked. His conclusion that congressional moderation emerged from electoral vulnerability resulted in his influential book, The Politics of Reconstruction. In this scholarly and educational tour de force, Professor Donald showed us how to think through a problem, improvise around the methodological thicket, inject the excitement of scholarly discovery into the classroom, and turn the problem-solving he was doing in writing one book into a second book.
What made Donald legendary was his tremendous ability as a master storyteller. His description of how the Southern Congressman Preston Brooks caned Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the United States Senate still gives me chills when I read it — or feebly try to recreate it in my own lectures. Nevertheless, Professor Donald taught that truth comes before showmanship. Without theorizing or bloviating, and simply by example, he taught that a meticulous commitment to accuracy is the historian’s primary obligation. Without it, there is no history. When I was writing my thesis, Donald once chided me for a footnote that inaccurately referred to two consecutive pages, when, because I had edited down the text before submitting it to him, the actual quotation I used came from only the first page. Moreover, as an adviser, the time and skill he invested in going over our drafts was breathtaking. In addition to checking our footnotes, he caught our errors, corrected our style, improved our structure, sharpened our arguments.
David Donald was popularly known as a “Lincoln scholar” and he will probably be most remembered for his majestic 1995 best-seller Lincoln. When I studied with him in the 1980s, his reputation rested on his vivid Pulitzer-Prize-winning two-volume biography of the Northern abolitionist and radical Senator Charles Sumner, as well as the 1969 revision of the classic 1937 textbook he inherited from his mentor James G. Randall, The Civil War and Reconstruction. Perhaps the most personal of his books, was Look Homeward: a Life of Thomas Wolfe, published in 1987, for which he won his second Pulitzer in 1988. Wolfe’s story of a Southern boy achieving tremendous success among the Northern elite, paralleled Donald’s equally unlikely climb from being born in Goodman, Mississippi, graduating from Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, and spending his career at Columbia, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, and Harvard universities.
Nevertheless, I think my favorite of Donald’s thirty or so books is the second edition of Lincoln Reconsidered: Essays on the Civil War Era, published in 1961. Each essay is a gem, beautifully structured, elegantly argued, resonant and convincing. “A. Lincoln, Politician,” anticipates the Lincoln book he wrote three decades later, seeing Lincoln as a working politician not a martyr or a saint. “An Excess of Democracy: The American Civil War and the Social Process,” gives his interpretation of the causes of the Civil War – and some of the inherent weaknesses in freewheeling, democratic America. A few years ago, trying to show a prominent journalist how historians work, I gave her Lincoln Reconsidered, saying the essays reflected historical storytelling at its best, while also offering brilliant, stimulating analyses.
A few years ago, honoring Donald as one of HNN’s first “Doyens,” I wrote that while teaching, researching and writing, I often recall what I learned from Professor Donald, or wonder how he would have approached particular questions. David Herbert Donald turned me into a thief. I regularly find myself stealing his lines, echoing his analysis, appearing smart based on his smarts. This is most apparent to me when I hear my students “stealing” from me what I “stole” from him. This echo chamber, with each successive generation adding its own accent or twist, is education at its best.
It is hard to believe that David Donald is gone. But he will live on in his lively works of history – and in the seeds he planted within me and so many others of his grateful students over generations.