David Herbert Donald, Charles Warren Professor of American History and Professor of American Civilization Emeritus, died Sunday (May 17) of heart failure at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. He was 88. Donald, a leading historian of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, was born in 1920 in Goodman, Miss., then a segregated town, to Ira Unger Donald and Sue Ella Donald, a cotton planter and former schoolteacher, respectively. In his early years, Donald thought of himself as a musician rather than a historian.
He earned a B.Sc. from Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss. After graduating, Donald hitchhiked north to Indianola, Miss., where he interviewed for the job of high school band teacher, a position funded by sales from a Coca-Cola machine.
“The man who interviewed me told me I could have the job and I went to gather whatever I had and started to follow him out of his office,” Donald recalled during a 2005 interview with the Associated Press (AP). “He said, ‘You forgot your hat.’ And I said, ‘I don’t wear a hat.’ And he said, ‘You teach in my school, you’ll wear a hat.’ So I didn’t take the job.”
He briefly studied sociology and history at the University of North Carolina before eventually earning his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Illinois. There, he was research assistant to the great Lincoln scholar J.G. Randall.
During his long career, Donald wrote more than 30 books, two of which garnered Pulitzer Prizes: “Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War” and “Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe.” But he is best known for his work on Lincoln, and his admiration for the former president shone in his biography “Lincoln,” which is widely heralded as the best of all Lincoln biographies.
Donald came to Harvard in 1973.
“We, his students, knew we could never equal him,” recalled historian and writer Troy Gil ’88 in an article for the History News Network. “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.”
Donald’s was so respected by Lincoln experts that an award was created in his name. The David Herbert Donald Prize awards those for excellence in Lincoln studies — in 2005, Donald was the first recipient.
He married Aida DiPace in 1955. The Donalds had one son, Bruce Randall, a professor of computer science and biochemistry at Duke University.
“When I started out, I wasn’t interested in Lincoln, and frankly found him a tiresome old fellow who was rather long-winded, told too many stories, was kind of a rough, frontier sort,” said Donald during his AP interview. “As I grew older, I realized the jokes and stories he told were really very funny and they always had a point to them. And I watched the way he worked with people and what an extraordinarily adept politician he was. … He was much more sensitive and human than I had thought before.”
At the time of his death, Donald was working on a character study of John Quincy Adams.
Donald was buried in Lincoln Cemetery on Wednesday (May 20).