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Classic review: Lincoln

A biography as tall as Lincoln himself.

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Others might say that some of that best was political posturing, and we have a new hero here based on what strives to be a truly realistic picture. The scholarship is certainly first-rate.

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The writing is felicitous, a pleasure to read. I have spent three decades studying this subject, yet the fresh insights can startle me.

Donald is fully familiar with the works of other historians, but he is good at trimming their special pleadings, and their works rarely find their way into the endnotes that are crowded with original sources.

If his Lincoln is not the champion of market capitalism because that modern concept did not exist in his mind, he is a man of destiny, because he was that in his own eyes. '

'There's a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough hew them how we will,'' Lincoln fondly quoted from Shakespeare's ''Hamlet.'' As with others of Calvinist descent, fatalism did not stop his ambition. But it allowed him to accept defeat with grace, and it spawned ''some of his most loveable traits: his compassion, his tolerance, his willingness to overlook mistakes.''

At the book's heart Donald postulates ''the essential passivity'' of Lincoln's nature. ''I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me,'' Lincoln wrote in 1864, recognizing that even the strongest had to accept their share of the outrages of fate, even the most talented

Donald tells us that as a young man Lincoln already carried ''the self-confidence of a man who has never met his intellectual equal'' - even such had to bow down before destiny. Lincoln knew that the ''will of God prevails.'' Yet did he not also know that truly passive men rarely rise in life or go to the White House - much less grow into the greatest of Americans?

In recent weeks as the Pope came to visit the US, he lovingly appealed to Lincoln's memory. Minister Louis Farrakhan cited him as well, in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial - but out of historical context. And General Colin Powell held up but one name - Lincoln's - in announcing his decision about the 1996 presidential race.

Lincoln remains a touchstone for Americans, their best face to the world. What the finest of historians tells us about him influences the country's future. None should take the responsibility lightly.

David Herbert Donald does not. Literate Americans, and people around the world who would understand what Lincoln called this ''almost chosen people,'' owe it to themselves to read this remarkable, provocative book.

Gabor Boritt teaches at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. His latest books are ''War Comes Again: Comparative Vistas on the Civil War and World War II'' and ''Why the Civil War Came,'' both from Oxford University Press.

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