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David Herbert Donald

David Herbert Donald

Historian of the American Civil War
The basics
Quick Facts
Intro Historian of the American Civil War
Countries United States of America
Occupations Historian Historian Biographer Historian
Gender male
Birth 1 October 1920 (Goodman)
Death 17 May 2009 (Boston)
Education University of Illinois system, University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign
The details

David Herbert Donald (October 1, 1920 – May 17, 2009) was an American historian, best known for his acclaimed 1995 biography of Abraham Lincoln. He twice won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography for earlier works; he published more than 30 books on United States political and literary figures and the history of the American South.

Early life and education

David Herbert Donald was born in Goodman, Mississippi, a town in the center of Holmes County. The county's western border is formed by the Yazoo River and it is part of the Mississippi-Yazoo Delta.


Majoring in history and sociology, Donald earned his bachelor's degree from Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi. He earned his PhD in 1946 under the eminent, leading Lincoln scholar, James G. Randall at the University of Illinois. Randall as a mentor influenced Donald's life and career. He encouraged his protégé to write his dissertation on Abraham Lincoln's law partner, William Herndon. Donald adapted and published the dissertation as his first book, Lincoln's Herndon (1948).

After completing his doctorate, Donald taught at Columbia University, Johns Hopkins and, from 1973, Harvard University. He also taught at Smith College, the University of North Wales, Princeton University, University College London and served as Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford University. At Johns Hopkins, Columbia, and Harvard he trained dozens of graduate students, including Jean H. Baker, William J. Cooper, Jr., Michael Holt, Irwin Unger, and Ari Hoogenboom.

Donald served as president of the Southern Historical Association. Donald also served on the editorial board for the Papers of Abraham Lincoln.

Donald was the Charles Warren Professor of American History (emeritus from 1991) at Harvard University. He wrote more than thirty books, including well-received biographies of Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Wolfe and Charles Sumner. He specialized in the American Civil War and Reconstruction periods, and in the history of the American South.

Legacy and honors

Donald received the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography twice, in 1961 for Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War and in 1988 for Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe. He also received several honorary degrees.

David Herbert Donald was inducted as a Laureate of The Lincoln Academy of Illinois and awarded the Order of Lincoln (the State’s highest honor) by the Governor of Illinois in 2008 in the area of Communications and Education.


In his introduction, Carl Sandburg, the poet and Lincoln biographer, hailed Donald's first book as the answer to scholars' prayers: "When is someone going to do the life of Bill Herndon. Isn't it about time? Now the question is out."

David M. Potter, known as a Lincoln scholar, said Donald's biography of Charles Sumner portrayed, "Sumner as a man with acute psychological inadequacies" and exposed Sumner's "facade of pompous rectitude." Donald's evenhanded approach to Sumner, Potter concluded, was a model for biographers working with a difficult subject. "If it does not make Sumner attractive [the book] certainly makes him understandable."

Donald argues that the American Civil War was a needless war caused or hastened by the fanaticism of people like Charles Sumner; he admires Abraham Lincoln.


Donald lived in Lincoln, Massachusetts, with his wife Aida DiPace Donald, who is also a historian and author. He died of heart failure in Boston on May 17, 2009. Donald is survived by his wife, his son Bruce Donald and two daughters.


  • Lincoln's Herndon (1948)
  • Divided We Fought: A Pictorial History of the War, 1861—1865 (1952)
  • Editor, Inside Lincoln's Cabinet: The Civil War Diaries of Salmon P. Chase. (1954)
  • Lincoln Reconsidered: Essays on the Civil War Era (1956, 2nd edition 1961, 3rd edition 2001) (ISBN 0-679-72310-2).
  • Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War (1960). Pulitzer Prize-winning scholarly biography to 1860.
  • The Civil War and Reconstruction (1961; 2001) (ISBN 0-393-97427-8), 2001 edition with Jean H. Baker & Michael F. Holt; 1961 edition with James G. Randall.
  • Editor, Why the North Won the Civil War (1962) (ISBN 0-02-031660-7) (revised ed. 1996).
  • Editor with Aida DiPace Donald, Diary of Charles Francis Adams, Volumes 1 and 2, January 1820 - September 1829 (1964), Harvard University Press.
  • The Politics of Reconstruction, 1863-1867 (1965)
  • Charles Sumner and the Rights of Man (1970). Biography after 1860.
  • Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe (1987), Harvard University Press (2003) (ISBN 0-674-00869-3).
  • Lincoln (1995) ISBN 0-684-80846-3
  • Lincoln at Home: Two Glimpses of Abraham Lincoln's Domestic Life (1999) ISBN 978-0-912308-77-7.
  • We Are Lincoln Men: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends (2003) (ISBN 0-7432-5468-6).

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