THIS is a masterwork. It stands alone among 135 years of Lincoln biographies. Its author, David Herbert Donald, has spent much of a lifetime studying and teaching the Civil War era and its central figure. Along the way, among other honors, he won two Pulitzer Prizes for biography. Now he has created his masterpiece.
The popular magazine ''Civil War Times'' has devoted its December issue to the war president. It indulged in a difficult game by asking its own contributors to select and rank the 10 best books among the 7,000 or so written. Donald's biography came in second - after Lincoln's own writings.
There has been no major biography quite like this: It is chiefly written from Lincoln's perspective. Information and ideas available to him, rather than to later historians, form its principal source - together with Lincoln's own words, and those of his contemporaries. For example, Lincoln may have devoted great energies to what modern historians see as the transformation of the United States into a developing, market-oriented society. But Donald largely provides a picture of a politician making deals about banks or railroads.
Similarly, the Battle of Gettysburg may have been a turning point of the war, but ''Lincoln'' devotes only two pages to it, mostly to the commander-in-chief's emotional reactions. After all, he did not witness the battle.
Donald is quite aware of the portrait he has drawn. ''It is perhaps a bit more grainy than most, with more attention to his [Lincoln's] unquenchable ambition, to his brain-numbing labor in his law practice, to his tempestuous married life, and to his repeated defeats. It suggests how often chance, or accident played a determining role in shaping his life,'' he says in the book. In short, among recent bestsellers, Donald's work is a counterpoint to Garry Wills's ''Lincoln at Gettysburg,'' which presented a man who transformed America with a brief speech.
Donald's ''Lincoln'' is fully believable. Is it also right? That will be debated for many years to come. As with so much that towers and shines in life, strengths can also be weaknesses. By focusing so fully on Lincoln, what he knew and when, the larger historical context at times disappears into obscurity. By highlighting the pragmatic politician Donald makes Lincoln appear more parochial than he was, and the 16th president's ideas and strong moral convictions fade. This becomes specially questionable when the book considers slavery and race. I have just completed work on the ''Columbia Dictionary of Lincoln Quotations'' and am struck that some of the best of Lincoln's words found no place in a 600-page book. Some of the glory that was and remains Lincoln is missing.
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. 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.