The Age of Lincoln

The Age of Lincoln

by Orville Vernon Burton

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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 of Lincoln was inscribing personal liberty into the nation's millennial


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 of Lincoln was inscribing personal liberty into the nation's millennial aspirations.

America has always perceived providence in its progress, but in the 1840s and 1850s pessimism accompanied marked extremism, as Millerites predicted the Second Coming, utopianists planned perfection, Southerners made slavery an inviolable honor, and Northerners conflated Manifest Destiny with free-market opportunity. Even amid historic political compromises the middle ground collapsed. In a remarkable reappraisal of Lincoln, the distinguished historian Orville Vernon Burton shows how the president's authentic Southernness empowered him to conduct a civil war that redefined freedom as a personal right to be expanded to all Americans. In the violent decades to follow, the extent of that freedom would be contested but not its central place in what defined the country.

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

Editorial Reviews

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.

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The Age of Lincoln

By Orville Vernon Burton

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2007 Orville Vernon Burton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-3955-3


Kindred Spirits and Double-Minded Men

From the Rocky Shores of Maine to the Ohio Valley and beyond, men and women by the thousands rose up early on the morning of October 22, 1844. Quickly and carefully they bathed, put on spotless new clothes, and expectantly went outside. They looked up toward heaven. Before the day was through the skies were to open, the angels of the Lord were to descend, and the world they knew was to come to an end. Today was the day appointed for Christ's return to judge mankind and establish God's rule on earth.

It was not to be. Although their leader, a Baptist minister named William Miller, had promised through thirteen years of vibrant preaching that the advent of the millennium had been calculated down to that very day, their faith was disappointed. Many had abandoned farms and workshops; others had given away worldly possessions in expectation of the Second Coming. They knelt on rooftops, bowed their heads in prayer, and waited, shivering in an early winter's wind and rain, for the Savior's return. Finally they stood up in confusion, went home, and continued on with their lives. That was an act of faith of a rather different sort.

In the 1800s many Americans came to embrace a new and radical idea, that they could advance the millennium by right living. Faithfully, eagerly, defiantly, they took up cudgels against the evils they saw around and within them. They did not simply wait for the government of God. They believed they could bring on the glad day of jubilee by piety and the labors of their own hands, and they strove to make that vision real. "There is more day to dawn," Henry David Thoreau assured them even as he eschewed the growing materialism, and the best was yet to come: "The sun is but a morning star." His was an ascetic version of a faith in boundless uplift and spiritual perfection that motivated the age in countless ways. "Make sure you are right," that rough-hewn, larger-than-life folk hero Davy Crockett told his countrymen, "then go ahead." Whether progress meant — as it did in Crockett's case — dispossessing and killing Native Americans, spreading slavery, and stealing foreign lands at gun-point was of no consequence. For the vast majority of Americans such considerations little impinged on establishing whether they, or America, were right.

Faith helped to balance the warring dualities that abounded throughout antebellum culture: East and West, wilderness and civilization, country and city, rudeness and refinement, home and market. Older patriots worried that the poles of each opposition might tear asunder the American experiment in liberty. While some worried that the moral and political contradiction of slavery would trip up progress, other men and women located the difficulty in neglect of God, corruption of community, and the pursuit of mammon. Most were convinced that the American experiment was intimately interwoven with the concerns uppermost in their minds.

Across the antebellum era northern and southern American attitudes toward commerce betrayed deep ambivalence. Many enjoyed a growing prosperity and availability of goods. At the same time many considered the market a place of trickery and danger. The real riches seemed to accrue to men of commerce, like the wealthy John Jacob Astor, or to conniving "Sam Slicks" who bought cheap and sold dear, fleecing a portion of others' well-earned income for their own narrow benefit. The common farmer and his family, who might know nothing more of reading than Holy Scripture and Pilgrim's Progress, understood enough to give Vanity Fair a wide berth. Could the market possibly serve the new nation as the engine of freedom without engendering inequality and abundant sin?

Ambiguity and contradiction grew as the nation expanded in territory. On April 30, 1803, American and French negotiators signed the deal for Louisiana — not the ownership of but the right to settle the vast territory marked on maps simply as "Indian Territory." For this Louisiana Purchase, which President Thomas Jefferson called an "Empire for Liberty," the United States government paid Napoleon $11.25 million, and they paid American merchants in the Northeast another $3.75 million to cover outstanding claims against the French. Two months after the purchase, when Jefferson commissioned an expedition to explore the territory, he told Meriwether Lewis that the object of the journey was "for the purpose of commerce." The purchase added over 800,000 square miles, territory that would become thirteen states. A disaster for Native Americans, it made American citizens of French and Spanish settlers, whether Catholic or Protestant, rich or poor, familiar or unfamiliar with U.S. history and traditions. The population of New Orleans included an influx of free black refugees from Haiti, the second independent nation in the western hemisphere and the first black-led nation. Many of these new U.S. citizens of color held slaves and worked hard to perpetuate slavery. Yet, they joined other free people of color who advocated the blessings of liberty for an educated elite such as themselves.

As the country grew, national bonds between South and North remained strong. The root of commonality was the household itself, at once an economic, familial, and political unit. Leadership over the home was the sign of personal independence, an attainment that white males worked toward across early adulthood as they acquired property, achieved skill at their trade or craft, created a network of relations with other men of property and ambition, and gained the reputation and the wherewithal to wed and begin a family of their own. Soon enough other figures would gather within the household: servants and apprentices, extended kin of all sorts. In North and South both, the market economy nourished the growth of households. Although free labor predominated in one section and slavery in the other, similarities often seemed to outweigh differences. In both the North and the South, men of property understood that their economic success, their social reputations, the legacy of their heirs, and the good of the nation itself depended on their ability to bend will and nurture skill among subordinates. They also believed this to be their right, for some even their God-given responsibility. Close supervision, words of praise and reproof, and material rewards were supplemented by physical violence within each household — as they were in the political affairs of the nation at large. Whether that meant putting the boot to a dozing apprentice, whipping a recalcitrant slave, or laying the stick on a back-talking wife, household heads considered such punishments a just and necessary defense of order and honor, a regrettable part of the educative and judicial function mastery required of them. The fitness of paternal rule seemed evident in the way it reflected God's own guidance of His people. The watchfulness of masters over their own households and their just application of discipline was required in a world without police forces or fire departments, where military force was slight, scattered, and ill coordinated. Social stability itself and the progress of the nation depended on household order.

East, West, North, and South, Americans united in a proud belief in "republicanism," the old theory handed down from Aristotle about how households formed polities. Republican liberty never implied leveling, and most antebellum Americans would have regarded such a doctrine as quite unnatural, just as they accepted the necessity of paternal rule within the household. At that time people plainly saw that the beneficence of the social order rested on hierarchies of gender, race, age, and skill. Power fell inevitably on the side of property. The sovereign people — those accorded the rights of citizenship to select their leaders or to sit in the seat of power itself — were drawn from those who belonged to the social community and cared about the common good and the maintenance of their good name. They were independent — that is, they possessed sufficient material wealth to avoid being manipulated by economic necessity or feelings of inferior status, and they held the firepower to defend their property. Yet essential to republicanism was civic responsibility. Not political "spoilsmen," who identified government with personal gain, and not "capitalists," who pursued private wealth ahead of community welfare, republicans were to be men of enlightened virtue. Armed with the certain knowledge that what they defined as virtuous and enlightened was beyond contestation, northern and southern republicans were to hold the well-being of the whole above their own narrow interests.

South and North alike shared strong nationalistic feelings. The brief, bungled, but ultimately glorious experience of war against England between 1812 and 1815 intensified nationalism. That war settled the questions of whether the United States would ever again invade Canada (no) and whether Native Americans would be able to prevent U.S. expansion to the West (again, no). While New Englanders opposed to that war spoke of states' rights and secession, they joined other Americans in applauding the improbable, one-sided victory of General Andrew Jackson's frontier army at New Orleans (after peace had already been concluded). Americans explained their great victory (or at least their great escape from defeat) as a tribute to the superiority of a free republican government, America's providential standing in a godly world, and evidence of glories to come. After the British bombardment of Fort McHenry near Baltimore, attorney Francis Scott Key wrote a poem that was put to the tune of a popular drinking song. Newspapers from New Hampshire to Georgia printed the words, and although the song did not gain the title of national anthem until 1931, "The Star-Spangled Banner" promoted nationalism both North and South.

The two-party system of Federalists and Republicans had effectively collapsed into a national consensus. Virginian John Marshall had swung the Supreme Court behind the nationalist cause, and Congress, led by John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, Henry Clay of Kentucky, and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, provided legislative support. With such strong feelings of unity throughout the country, most hoped to avoid conflict in 1819, when the territory of Missouri offered its constitution for congressional approval as a state. How confounding then, when New York congressman James Tallmadge offered an amendment to the bill allowing Missouri's admission to the Union. The ardently antislavery Tallmadge demanded that no more slaves be allowed to emigrate to the territory and that all children of slaves residing there be emancipated at age twenty-five. An aged Thomas Jefferson regarded the Yankee's amendment as "a firebell in the night." The economic and social consequences of such meddling looked dangerous indeed. How could men dare move westward with their property — enslaved or otherwise — when the national Congress might at some future date wave a hand and without warning withdraw the right of ownership? Liberty demanded secure property rights. More than that, while western expansion seemed to confirm the rightness of America's destiny, it also uncovered underlying tensions, particularly increasing sectional divisions of legislative power.

Ultimately, and appropriately, it was a pair of westerners, Illinois senator Jesse Thomas and Kentuckian Henry Clay, who hammered out the Missouri Compromise: Missouri would be allowed to enter the Union as a slave state, but no other territory north of the line 36° 30' would be permitted to write slavery into its constitution. That concession was simply a nod toward realism: everywhere north of that line, harsh climate or harsher racism had blocked black immigration heretofore. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 outlawed slavery in that section, and there was no reason to believe that slavery might somehow gain a foothold in Colorado or the Dakotas at some distant date. Neither was there much expectation in 1820 that those wild and rugged spaces would soon be clamoring for statehood. In return, northerners affirmed the right of citizens to organize the Arkansas Territory, below the line 36° 30', as one or two slave states. Thomas and Clay offered up statehood for chilly Maine to maintain legislative balance with the fractious slave state of Missouri. In 1821 Congress threw its weight behind Clay, in a rebuke to Tallmadge's sectional "selfishness." The nation gained a firm — if decidedly inegalitarian — basis for westward expansion.

Going west meant leaving safety and security behind, leaving webs of church, kin, and community. Pioneers had to grasp the future with both hands and wring the best meanings out of it by main force. Yeoman settlers into the Old Northwest and the Old Southwest brought with them a republican dream of independent farm ownership for all who would work. True believers thought the West was the best hope for freedom for the average white man, and a demand for squatter sovereignty often held an upper-class animosity as a subtext to equal rights principles. Northwestern settlers initiated a democratic society of citizen participation and created fairly equal land and tax laws, including laws to break up nonresident absentee holders of large tracts of land. No great landholding elite developed. But even in the seeming abundance of land in the west, people still worried that public land was expensive and of poor quality. Early in 1830, Illinois senator Elias Kent Kane spoke about "people and a great many of them without land, who want it on fair terms." Kane noted, "In such states as Illinois and Missouri, then, more than half of the persons entitled to vote are not owners of the soil."

With or without land, people continued moving into the Old Northwest. As rural settlements became towns, problems demanded solutions, and those adept at problem-solving became successful leaders in the community. This democratic texture did not take hold in the Old Southwest, where the economy was not complex enough to require innovative problem-solving. Population was smaller, and towns were fewer — five to six times fewer towns in Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and upper Louisiana — than in the three states of Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana. The state of Mississippi grew from 75,448 (42,176 whites, 32,814 slaves, 458 free blacks) in 1820 to 375,651 (179,074 whites, 195,211 slaves, 1,366 free blacks, 49 others) in 1840. Illinois population in 1820 numbered 55,211 (53,788 whites, 917 slaves, 457 free blacks, 49 others); in 1840, it was 476,183 (472,254 whites, 331 slaves, 3,598 free blacks). In the Southeast, planters owned the best land and controlled many functions of local government. While democratic forms or institutions could be introduced, community leaders would continue to come from slaveholding classes.

Towns in the Northwest also drew a more diverse group of settlers. The future home of Abraham Lincoln was settled by people of the Southeast who named the town Calhoun, after Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. Its incorporation in 1832 gave it the name of Springfield, Illinois. To northern Illinois came settlers from the crowded Northeast and from Europe, including various ethnic and religious groups. Beginning in the late 1830s large numbers of laborers came from Ireland to work on the canals and railroads across the Midwest. In such heterogeneous areas, local government leaders had to get along with a wide assortment of people and activities. By the middle of the nineteenth century the Midwest was a thriving and rapidly expanding region of its own.

Territorial expansion complicated relationships between settled East and frontier West, between orderly states and untidy territories. More and more the world of coastal cities, farms, and plantations came to seem at odds with the social relations of the frontier. America's western edge was younger, wilder, and more dangerous than the East. It lacked the socializing institutions of church and state. In many places the rule of law offered little or no protection to honest and decent citizens. When the children of one yeoman family in South Carolina decided to move west, the heartbroken father wrote that although his five sons needed more space, he and their mother worried that the West was too wild, that people there "were desperate in their dealings between Man and Man." Western boundlessness, summed up in heroes like Andrew Jackson, Davy Crockett, and Sam Houston, became part of an American sense of freedom from restraint tethered to raw articulation of manly virtues of stoic endurance and honor defended by rough justice. Whereas Virginia men of honor might resolve difficulties among themselves by resorting to the highly ritualized code duello, westerners were just as likely to seek revenge by gouging out an enemy's eye or biting off his nose. The razor edge of frontier life remained unblunted.


Excerpted from The Age of Lincoln by Orville Vernon Burton. Copyright © 2007 Orville Vernon Burton. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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.

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.

Orville Vernon Burton, University Distinguished Teacher/Scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is the author or editor of many books including The Age of Lincoln. He is the director of the Illinois Center for Computing in Humanities, Arts, and Social Science.

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