David Herbert Donald

David Herbert Donald
Born October 1, 1920
Goodman, Mississippi
Died May 17, 2009
Boston, Massachusetts

David Herbert Donald (October 1, 1920 – May 17, 2009) was an American historian.



Majoring in history and sociology, Donald earned his bachelor degree from Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi.[1] He earned his PhD in 1946[1] under the eminent, leading Lincoln scholar, James G. Randall at the University of Illinois. Randall as a mentor had a big influence on Donald's life and career, and encouraged his protege to write his dissertation on Lincoln's law partner, William Herndon. The dissertation eventually became his first book, Lincoln's Herndon, published in 1948.[1][2] The effect Randall had on Donald was later illustrated by the fact that he gave his only son the middle name Randall in honor of his former mentor.[2] After graduating, he 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.

He received the Pulitzer Prize twice (1961 and 1988), several honorary degrees, and served as president of the Southern Historical Association. Donald also served on the editorial board for the Papers of Abraham Lincoln.[3]

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


Donald is best known for his biography of Abraham Lincoln, which has been praised by the historian Eric Foner as the best biography of Lincoln.[4] It was praised by President Bill Clinton who called it "one of the best biographies on any person in politics." In addition, he wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies of politician Charles Sumner and writer Thomas Wolfe. Weaving in a wealth of new historical material, he also revised his former mentor's classic textbook, Civil War and Reconstruction (1961, 2001).[2]

Donald's first book Lincoln's Herndon (1948) was a biography of William Herndon, the junior partner in Abraham Lincoln's law firm in Springfield, Illinois. Herndon was Lincoln's trusted aide until Lincoln became president and, in 1889 published a highly controversial biography of Lincoln based on numerous interviews. Donald concluded that Herndon, "stands, in the backward glance of history, as myth-maker and truth-teller." In his introduction, Carl Sandburg, the poet and Lincoln biographer, hailed Donald's 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, whose own credentials as a Lincoln scholar gave his words authority, 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."[5]

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.[6]


Donald lived in Lincoln, Massachusetts, with his wife Aida DiPace Donald, who is also a historian.[2] He died of heart failure in Boston on May 17, 2009.[1] Donald is survived by his son, Bruce Randall Donald, and his wife.[2]



  • Barnes & Noble
  • Paul Goodman, "David Donald's Charles Sumner Reconsidered" in The New England Quarterly, Vol. 37, No. 3. (Sep., 1964), pp. 373–387.online at JSTOR
  • Ari Hoogenboom, “David Herbert Donald: A Celebration, ” in A Master's Due: Essays in Honor of David Herbert Donald, ed. William J. Cooper, Jr., et al.(Louisiana State University Press, 1985), 1—15.


  1. ^ a b c d Famed Lincoln Scholar David Herbert Donald Dies National Public Radio
  2. ^ a b c d e Grimes, William. "David Herbert Donald, Writer on Lincoln, Dies at 88", The New York Times, May 19, 2009. Accessed 19 May 2009.
  3. ^ "Meet Our Editorial Board". Lincoln Editor: Quarterly Newsletter of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln, July-September 2001, p. 3. http://www.papersofabrahamlincoln.org/NewsletterPDFs/EDITOR01.PDF. 
  4. ^ Eric Foner, NPR, "All Things Considered: Three Books", February 10, 2009
  5. ^ Robert Allen Rutland, "David Herbert Donald," in Robert Allen Rutland, ed. Clio's Favorites: Leading Historians of the United States, 1945-2000, U of Missouri Press. (2000) pg 41
  6. ^ Robert Allen Rutland, "David Herbert Donald," in Clio's Favorites, pp 35–48

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