Professor KC Johnson
March 9, 2004
STUDY QUESTIONS FOR LINCOLN, BY DAVID HERBERT DONALD
Donald’s Biographic Style
1. According to Vincent De Santis, Donald’s objective is to portray Lincoln from Lincoln’s point of view. This method seemingly attempts to narrate Lincoln’s life through modest psychoanalysis and through a record of manifest gestures and speech. What strengths and weaknesses do you find with the approach? What advantages do you find in Donald’s heavy analysis of legal documents?
2. To what extent does this book do justice to all the versions of Lincoln (“savior”, “emancipator”, “man of the people”, “First American” and “self-made man”) to which David Blight refers?
3. Blight makes little mention of another version of Lincoln, that of the “melancholic fatalist.” How does Donald’s treatment of Lincoln’s emotions add to our understanding of his character, and more importantly, his political and historic contexts?
4. How does Lincoln hold up to other modern presidents who claim “self-made” and “man of the people” status?
5. Evaluate Lincoln’s self-professed “policy of no policy”: Is this a pragmatic achievement or unprincipled politics?
6. Lincoln’s relationship with Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase gives great insight into his management of hostile forces. What can we learn from Lincoln’s leadership style for these altercations, and how does it enrich/detract from our understanding of Lincoln’s political philosophy?
7. Along the same lines, is Lincoln’s course in dealing with rival factions an act of political balancing or is it reflective of a truly independent thought?
8. When discussing the reconstructive presidency of Lincoln, Skowronek describes a president on the defensive from a strong party opposition and a more difficult congress. Does Donald’s interpretation of Lincoln agree with this depiction, or does Lincoln emerge a stronger or weaker president?
9. How does Lincoln fair on the slavery question: is Donald’s interpretation romantic (Lincoln always had the intention to emancipate the slaves) or is he more pragmatic on the issue?
10. Lincoln always prided himself as a staunch defender of the Constitution and practitioner of the law, despising irrational passions. Is Lincoln’s litigiousness consistent with the moral assaults he launches on Douglass in their debates?
Lincoln’s Place in History
11. Besides fighting the war, delivering the Gettysburg Address, emancipating the slaves, and passing a few
internal improvement measures, did Lincoln do much in his presidency? Skowroneck echoes this thought, explaining that Lincoln’s presidency was more reactive. Do you agree? Was his project for preserving the Union enough to earn him the most revered spot amongst presidents?
12. Once Lincoln is re-elected, he is on a surer footing, dealing with Congress with a more forceful hand. How does this course of events hold up to Skowronek’s view of a president on the defensive?
13. “With charity for all and malice towards none”: What role does this impartial and impersonal speech serve in defining Lincoln’s presidency? How can you make a case for this as the defining speech of his presidency?
14. In the chapter “There are no Whigs,” Donald follows the dissolution of the Whig party. Is this reading amplified by your previous reading of Skowroneck, and his analysis of moments of political disjunction? Using Skowroneck’s method, and reminded that Lincoln continued to identify with Whig philosophy, to what extent is the Republican party a revitalization of the Whigs?
15. If Lincoln’s concept of cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason was in part a reaction to the hurly-burly democracy of the Jacksonians, to what extent does this philosophy fit into Lincoln’s legacy in the creation of the Republican party? Does this come to characterize later presidencies? Does it fashion a new politics in America?