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The Age of Lincoln


Stunning in its breadth and conclusions, The Age of Lincoln is a fiercely original history of the five decades that pivoted around the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Abolishing slavery, the age?s most extraordinary accomplishment, was not its most profound. The enduring legacy of the age was inscribing personal liberty into the nation?s millennial aspirations.

America has always perceived providence in its progress, but in the 1840s and 1850s a pessimism accompanied a marked ...

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The Age of Lincoln

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Stunning in its breadth and conclusions, The Age of Lincoln is a fiercely original history of the five decades that pivoted around the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Abolishing slavery, the age’s most extraordinary accomplishment, was not its most profound. The enduring legacy of the age was inscribing personal liberty into the nation’s millennial aspirations.

America has always perceived providence in its progress, but in the 1840s and 1850s a pessimism accompanied a marked extremism. With all sides claiming God’s blessing, irreconcilable freedoms collided; despite historic political compromises the middle ground collapsed. In a remarkable reappraisal of Lincoln, the distinguished historian Orville Vernon Burton shows how the president’s Southernness empowered him to conduct a civil war that redefined freedom as a personal right protected by the rule of law. In the violent decades that followed, the extent of that freedom would be contested by racism and unregulated capitalism, but not its central place in what defined the country.

Presenting a fresh conceptualization of the opening decades of modern America, The Age of Lincoln is narrative history of the highest order.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Dr. Orville Vernon Burton, the author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist In My Father's House Are Many Mansions, has composed a large-scale history that starkly reassesses the five decades pivoted around the Civil War. The Age of Lincoln presents the period from the 1840s through Reconstruction and the Robber Baron Era as a single unfolding epoch that redefined our nation, placing a central emphasis on personal liberty. A fresh conceptualization of a new America being born.
Library Journal
Lincoln's real legacy? The idea that personal liberty really matters-and should be protected by law. From history professor and Pulitzer Prize nominee Burton. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Freeing the slaves was not the Great Emancipator's greatest legacy, argues Burton (History/Univ. of Illinois). Instead, this densely reasoned reappraisal contends, it was the vast expansion of federal power-pragmatically necessary to win the Civil War, but justified in ideological terms as the best means to protect personal freedom, something to which the government had hitherto paid little attention. Focusing on the half-century from the 1840s to the 1890s, Burton examines a fascinating reversal in the underlying premises maintained by abolitionists and proponents of slavery. As the nation surged across the continent, it seemed clear the United States enjoyed God's favor. The Constitution, enshrined in most Americans' view as the ordainer of principles almost supernatural in their wisdom, legitimated racial inequality, though it avoided the word slavery; slave owners believed they had the law of the land on their side. The early abolitionists, by contrast, appealed to a "higher law": the word of God. Confident of their political clout, slave owners rolled their eyes and ignored this lunatic fringe. By the 1850s, however, abolitionists realized they might achieve their goals through secular legislation, so divine justification became less essential. Simultaneously, southerners became convinced that the Bible sanctioned slavery and abolitionism was the Devil's work. They were now the ones pointing to a higher law, and unlike 1820s abolitionists they were in a position to cause major trouble. Burton emphasizes that Lincoln hijacked the South's appeal to religious principle without diminishing his reverence for the secular Constitution, a potent combination that gave his visionary fusion offederal power and individual rights the staying power to outlast its betrayal during and after Reconstruction. A history of ideas that adds little to our understanding of Civil War events but offers provocative thoughts about how Americans did or (mostly) did not live up to Lincoln's ideals.
From the Publisher
Winner of the 2007 Heartland Prize

The Age of Lincoln is a dazzling performance.” —Justin Reynolds, The New York Sun

“Learned, lively and enriching… Burton’s book is an eclectic, engaging romp across familiar but forgotten terrain… The Age of Lincoln reminds us that ideas are everything, and a book bursting with so many of them will provide robust reading for years to come.” —Catherine Clinton, Chicago Tribune

“Burton, a professor at the University of Illinois, has plumbed the depths of recent Civil War scholarship to craft a winning narrative… He also convincingly communicates how the ideas and ideological conflicts that fueled the war have never truly disappeared from our national consciousness.”—Chuck Leddy, Civil War Times magazine

“Burton hopes the book, which has been called ‘intriguing’ and ‘dazzling’ by critics, will provide a new perspective on a much-studied man.” —Jessica Reaves, The Chicago Tribune Magazine

“A beautifully narrated treatment of the mid-to-late 19th-century years.”—The Weekly Standard

The Age of Lincoln offers a major reinterpretation of nineteenth-century American history from the age of Jackson to the Progressive era… Filled with fresh insights, The Age of Lincoln should open a new era in Civil War-Reconstruction scholarship. —David Herbert Donald, two-time Pulitzer-Prize winner and author of Lincoln

“Vernon Burton offers a bold new synthesis of the Civil War era in The Age of Lincoln. He shows how the ferment of religious reform merged with the dynamism of free-labor capitalism to forge a Northern political culture that triumphed over the South and slavery.” —Jim McPherson, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Battle Cry of Freedom

“Based on a remarkable familiarity with the voluminous literature on the Civil War era as well as his own career of scholarly research, Vernon Burton offers a striking interpretation of the period, replete with new insights about the transformations—political, social, religious, and economic—that American society experienced during those tumultuous years.” —Eric Foner

“A remarkable reconsideration of nineteenth century America, The Age of Lincoln seamlessly recounts secession, Civil War, and Reconstruction and renders them newly relevant to the twenty-first century.” —John Hope Franklin

“Burton (Illinois) has written an elegant, sweeping synthesis of 19th-century US history that is learned, accessible, and often passionate. . . . It is beautifully written, and the treatments of race and class, the Old South, and Lincoln are superb and rich with insight. This is grand narrative in the best sense. This is grand narrative in the best sense. *Summing Up:* Highly recommended.” —CHOICE

“Burton’s book is a worthy heir to Schlesinger’s [The Age of Jackson].” —Publishers Weekly

“Beautifully written, brilliantly reasoned volume.” —Library Journal, starred review

“A skilled artisan, he weaves together elements of religious, cultural, western, Native American, and political history. This is the most complete and concise history of the Civil War era that has ever been written.” —The Journal of American History

“In magisterial fashion Vernon Burton’s The Age of Lincoln covers the broad panorama of the American nation’s most perilous years. Burton faultlessly traverses the social, economic, military, and political landscape of the era, carrying the story into the tumult of the 1890s. Especially striking is his treatment of the Reconstruction South when the victor’s bi-racial, ‘national building’ experiment failed, a situation analogous to the current sectarian strife in Iraq. The Age of Lincoln is bound to become a classic in the field.” —Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Richard J. Milbauer Emeritus Professor of History, University of Florida, and Visiting Scholar, Johns Hopkins University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780809023851
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 7/8/2008
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 432
  • Sales rank: 1,381,253
  • Product dimensions: 5.48 (w) x 10.90 (h) x 1.13 (d)

Meet the Author

Orville Vernon Burton, University Distinguished Teacher/Scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is the author or editor of ten books and the Director of the Illinois Center for Computing in Humanities, Arts, and Social Science. He has been recognized and awarded for scholarship and teaching; his credentials include: U.S. Professor of the Year, Outstanding Research and Doctoral Universities Professor (Council for Advancement and Support of Education and Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching), 1999; The Pew National Fellowship Program for Carnegie Scholars, 2000-2001 (Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning); Certificate of Excellence from the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning for Work that Advances the Practice and Profession of Teaching In Support of Significant Student Learning, 2001.

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Read an Excerpt

The Age of Lincoln

By Burton, Orville Vernon

Hill and Wang

Copyright © 2007 Burton, Orville Vernon
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780809095131

Rivers of blood flowed as Americans turned against each other in battle. The land was torn asunder. Four and a half months after the Battle of Gettysburg, standing in the November chill of a military cemetery still hardly half-finished, President Abraham Lincoln articulated the meaning of the battle, of the war, of the American dream. He called for a “new birth of freedom.”
In Mathew Brady’s famous photograph of that day, Abraham Lincoln looks ordinary, indistinct, trivial. The crowd of twenty thousand had come to hear another man, silver-tongued Edward Everett, onetime president of Harvard and former senator from Massachusetts, speak of valor and values and victory, the stuff of melodrama that the age so loved. None could have anticipated the president’s confession, the benediction, and the challenge he set forth in the sweep of a few sentences. With the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln proclaimed the hopeful determination of the human spirit. That determination is, ultimately, the theme of this book, which traces the forces and events that led Lincoln to speak of liberty in a Pennsylvania graveyard in 1863, and considers the path Americans would take across the next three decades. This determination for freedom andthe numerous contests it would inspire would become the legacy of the Age of Lincoln.
Lincoln began his brief remarks at Gettysburg with a grand, overreaching claim, declaring that eighty-seven years earlier “our fathers” had brought forth “a new nation.” The population of the country eighty-seven years earlier was about 2.5 million men and women; the population in 1863 was about 32 million and rising. Lincoln’s claim discounted the impact of these newcomers. These men and women from England, Ireland, Germany, China, and elsewhere had played no part in shaping the country’s fortunes initially but were now making their presence felt on the battlefield, on the homefront, and in the broader culture.
The new nation’s very name—the United States—gave lie to single-mindedness. From the start, that had been more than half the problem. Thirteen separate political entities with divergent cultural traditions and economic interests had been lashed together by the rebellious acts of a strident minority in the mid-1770s and, once the British had been expelled, assembled into a loose confederation. Even after the federal Constitution supplanted the Articles of Confederation in 1789, state power and regional differences remained strong. Most citizens considered themselves New Englanders or Virginians or derived their identities from smaller localities still. Others used occupation, religion, or ethnicity to explain who they were. Yet Lincoln in 1863 was seeking prior ratification for the revolutionary changes he was so hard at work in promoting. For America, since Fort Sumter’s fall, was rapidly and irreversibly becoming “a new nation.”
At this moment of apocalypse the nation into which Lincoln had been born had changed dramatically and was now at a crossroads. The Age of Jackson had seen the extraordinary opening of democracy and the suffrage to white men, even propertyless white men. The Age of Lincoln would see democracy fused with a millennial impulse, leading many to believe in the near attainment of Christian perfection and a patriotic certainty that America was meant to witness it. While disagreeing, often dramatically, as to particulars, a majority of Americans felt they knew how to perfect this white man’s democracy and felt compelled to convince one another, even as they spread this wonderful experiment through Manifest Destiny. For reformers who knew God’s will, there could be no compromises on the path to true Christian righteousness. In the North, all the reform issues of the day, from temperance to women’s rights, ultimately fetched up on the shoals of the one uncompromisable issue, slavery. For abolitionist millennialists, there could be no heaven on earth with the evil of slavery embedded in the very fabric of the nation. For southern white proslavery advocates, their orderly plantation society reflected the will of God, and they worked to bring that millenarian community to the nation.
Lincoln’s faith, however, precluded understanding the mind of God. Although certain that God was using him to His end in working out history, Lincoln found it presumptuous to dictate what God’s intent might be. Thus, in order to ensure that democracy could work, that the republic could survive, citizens had to rely on law. And amid the horrors of a nation embroiled in civil war, Lincoln developed his own view very different from the majority’s: freedom means equal rights protected by the rule of law. Only the rule of law could check the fundamentalist and fanatical impulses that stemmed from this millennial age. Born of his very southern yeoman sense of honor, Lincoln’s ideas of equality of opportunity protected by the law became incorporated into the document he revered, the Constitution. Ironically, African Americans went from being the immovable obstacle to millennial attainments to being the clearest benefactors of the new nation the president proclaimed. Moreover, former slaves would become Lincoln’s true heirs and the greatest champions of the republican values that Lincoln identified as crucial to the survival of the nation. And, in a further irony, in fighting the war that enabled this remarkable achievement, Lincoln inadvertently unleashed the worst as well as the best angels of democratic capitalism.
A great lie encompassed all generalizations about American freedom. The new nation, Lincoln pronounced, had been “conceived in liberty” and “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Here again lay trouble. Revolutionary America had been born of commerce, expropriation, war, and slavery. Its premises were grounded in ruthless ideas of inequality of race, class, and gender. The Founding Fathers had been men of high principle and breathtaking vision—Lincoln’s words here, after all, merely quoted and qualified what Thomas Jefferson had written in the Declaration of Independence. Yet Patrick Henry’s prerevolutionary cry for liberty or death had been the shout of a self-interested slaveholder as well as a selfless patriot. The right of property, like the wealth of thousands of other patriots from northern as well as southern colonies, had been rooted directly and indirectly in slavery.
At Gettysburg the president passed over in silence how freedom’s meanings had been debated across three generations and more. That conflict had been rehearsed endlessly in newspapers, pamphlets, and speeches—and in violent acts of rebellion and repression, vigilantism and terror. Lincoln’s own evolving views had been clearly set forth in debate against the Democrat Stephen Douglas for an Illinois senatorial seat, in the pleas and warnings of his inaugural address, and finally in the Emancipation Proclamation that he had delivered the previous January. Lincoln often spoke about the differences between two groups who “declare for liberty.” Some, he said, used the word liberty to mean that each man could “do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor.” Others used the word liberty meaning “for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor.”
The problems of freedom that Lincoln and Americans wrestled with were part of a debate that stretched back centuries and that had expanded to global proportions. Regardless of color, most migrants to the American colonies before 1750 had come in chains, physical or legal. Most blacks arrived bound to labor for the one who enslaved them; they were to be enslaved for their whole lives, as were their children and children’s children after them. They had been reduced to this awful fate, in most cases, by the intersection of European power and the social conditions of African life. Tribal warfare, slave raiding, indebtedness, or the fiat of kin and community meant that Africans worked hand in glove with Europeans to kidnap and enslave Africans.
Prior to 1750 most whites were also driven or drawn into conditions of unfreedom in the New World, entering servitude on a temporary and “voluntary” basis to settle a debt or a criminal conviction. They came because the old order in Britain and across Europe had been on the decline for the preceding century. There for the past one hundred years, men with the means to do it drew new lines on maps, laying individual claim to lands that had previously supported many. They enclosed their estates with walls, fences, and hedges. They deforested the lands, drained marshes and fens, and replaced unprofitable human occupants—tenants and crofters—with moneymaking sheep and cattle. Propertied interests hunted down the working people they had evicted with new statutes making poverty and homelessness a crime, changing hunting and fishing into trespass and theft, and putting forth the gallows, the workhouse, military service, or colonial servitude as the only options for many. Colonial servitude for whites, however, was never as bleak as for enslaved blacks. Whites came toward more freedom rather than less, for themselves and most definitely for their progeny.
The early republic offered whites an unparalleled freedom to be left alone by powers of church and nation-state. That citizens would not be unrepresented, mistaxed, overlorded, or involuntarily impressed into military service put the country in a New World indeed. Others did not fare as well. Lincoln made no reference to antislavery struggles; nor, in passing from “[f]our score and seven years ago” to “now,” did he recount how the forefathers had mortgaged the bright promise of freedom at America’s birth. The boldest words against slavery had been stricken from the Declaration of Independence as deal-breakers. The Articles of Confederation had turned a blind eye to bondage. The constitutional framers, with no hope of achieving unity to legislate its uprooting, had written racial division (though studiously avoiding the word slavery itself) into the fundamental law of the land. Enslaved blacks, asserted the wisest of white minds, counted as three-fifths human when it came to reckoning taxation and political representation. Statute law and simple racism ranked both free and enslaved African Americans lower still. Freedom-seeking fugitives from slavery were to be captured and reenslaved. In the early republic political unity and freedom of commerce were the more fundamental values. By 1861 Jefferson’s self-evident “truth” about human equality had become to Lincoln’s generation a very debatable “proposition.”
Those who threatened stability with rebellion on behalf of personal rights all discovered that the government’s willingness to maintain order took precedence over personal freedom. Rebellions among the enslaved were put down quickly. When slaves in New York rebelled in 1712 and in South Carolina in 1739, colonialists stiffened their laws, sure that hard punishment would end further resistance. They were wrong. Unruly whites also—the farmers who followed Daniel Shays in Massachusetts in 1786 and 1787 against the government’s unfair taxation and one-sided juries, the Whiskey Rebels of western Pennsylvania in 1794 who demanded government services and protested the whiskey tax, and much later in 1841 the propertyless Rhode Islanders who demanded the right to vote and fought federal troops in the Dorr War—discovered the limits of freedom.
Individuals spoke out in pursuit of freedom for all, but they were simply ignored and marginalized. American slavery grew and thrived in the cotton South as that crop fed an industrial revolution in the North. In both North and South slavery was sanctioned by law. The slave system created a civilization in deadly opposition to—yet wholly enmeshed with—northern capitalism.
Lincoln spoke to a nationwide aspiration among yeomen for equality of opportunity under the law. That aspiration defined for many northerners a view of freedom that prompted their loyalty to the Union. Lincoln’s consistent advocacy of opportunity and free labor, however, held flaws as well as promise, and Lincoln was slow to see how power and greed could subvert those ideals. Lincoln made no mention at Gettysburg of how Yankee dreams could become a nightmare. An ever-quickening market revolution brought prosperity for some, poverty for others, and an overall anxiety about the loss of personal autonomy and freedom. While most working people still labored on farms, workers in growing urban centers discovered industrialization brought them long hours, low pay, frequent layoffs, and the specter of industrial injury, sickness, or death. Meanwhile new arrivals continued to flood into the cities, seeking opportunity and undercutting wages. From the perspective of the old elite, these new people “corrupted” politics and “polluted” culture. While both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line agreed on the founders’ vision of liberty, the consensus on how to maintain that vision was shattered.
That may partly explain why Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg were so focused on the present—and the future. Constructing and consecrating military graveyards was—and is—far from what the revolutionary founders aimed at with their words and deeds. The ceremony, Lincoln implied, was a waste of time and effort if that was all it accomplished. “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here,” he noted, “have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.” But they had left their work “unfinished.” A “great task” lay ahead. The task was not simply restoration or reconstruction; it was a rebirth. Lincoln here spoke a language of love, patriotism, and piety to his listeners: honor, dedication, increased devotion, and strong resolve needed to be brought to the labor. As he stated in his first presidential address, this conflict, this task, was not about North and South, black and white. Human liberty and democracy themselves were at stake. What would victory in this awful war look like? Lincoln’s vision was at once conservative and revolutionary. There would be overflowing cemeteries, vacant chairs at family tables, and men broken bodily and spiritually, but “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” More than simply preserving the liberty of the fathers, Lincoln’s new nation, “under God,” would have “a new birth of freedom.”
Excerpted from The Age of Lincoln by Orville Vernon Burton. Copyright © 2007 by Orville Vernon Burton. Published in June 2007 by Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.


Excerpted from The Age of Lincoln by Burton, Orville Vernon Copyright © 2007 by Burton, Orville Vernon. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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