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Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 148.
- Review Date: 2007-04-30
- Reviewer: Staff
Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s The Age of Jackson appeared in 1945 and has been an enduringly popular work with general readers. Burton, an associate professor of history and sociology (In My Father's House Are Many Mansions), has written an ambitious sequel, or perhaps homage, on the age of Lincoln. Burton's intriguing thesis is that Lincoln's most profound achievement was not the abolition of slavery but the enshrinement of the principle of personal liberty protected by a body of law. Thus he elevated the founding fathers' (and Jackson's) more restricted vision to a universal one. The outbreak and course of the Civil War should be seen in the light of competing notions of what “freedom” meant, rather than (as has usually been the case) as a bloody conflict over black emancipation or states' rights. Lincoln, as Burton convincingly argues, both created his age and was a product of it: he matured in an America struggling with a rising free market and millennial impulses that sought Christian perfection. The ultimate result was the triumph of democratic capitalism. For readers seeking to comprehend the sweeping social, religious and cultural backdrop to the Civil War, Burton's book is a worthy heir to Schlesinger's. 8 pages of b&w illus. (July)
Redefining America in the years following the Civil War
If the Civil War era was America's Iliad, then historian Orville Vernon Burton is our latest Homer. Burton, a distinguished scholar at the University of Illinois, is best known for his widely acclaimed In My Father's House Are Many Mansions (1985), a brilliantly nuanced social history of Edgefield County, South Carolina. With The Age of Lincoln, Burton has significantly widened his lens, ratcheted up his analysis and produced a magisterial narrative history of American social and intellectual life from the age of slavery up to the era of Jim Crow. New details, fresh insights and sparkling interpretations punctuate nearly every page of Burton's fast-paced and elegantly written new book. In the best tradition of grand narrative history, Burton presents an overarching thesis and judiciously selects poignant episodes and pithy anecdotes to tell his epic story.
Americans before the Civil War, Burton explains, had a millennial vision and sought to fashion a perfect, godly society. "Millennialism permeated antebellum political debate, undergirded the presumption of Manifest Destiny, and buttressed the understanding of honor." Though righteous men may have believed that they knew God's plan, they disagreed in interpreting it. "Extremes eroded any middle ground," Burton maintains, "as powerful constituencies rallied to intransigent positions." Slavery, freedom, territorial expansion, partisan sectional conflict, the Civil War, emancipation, Reconstruction, Ku Klux Klan violence, labor unrest, immigration, agrarian revolt, lynchings and legalized segregationthese and other forces confounded the millennium for 19th-century Americans, black and white, North and South.
Burton credits one manAbraham Lincolnwith understanding and then reconciling America's contradictions and extremes. Lincoln's pragmatic theology, his "reasoned tolerance," according to Burton, penetrated more than the Rail-splitter's speeches and stories; it shaped his democratic creed. Through the stormy secession crisis and the darkest days of the Civil War, Lincoln stood "with the hopeless sinners, not the smugly saved." His "religious fatalism transmuted into a clear belief that God was working out a plan for human history, and that he himself was an instrument in that plan."
Burton identifies the Thirteenth Amendment as the president's most enduring achievement. Though in 1861 Lincoln had called up 75,000 military volunteers to suppress the Southern rebellionnot to emancipate the South's slavesby late 1862 he had concluded that squashing the rebellion necessitated freeing the Confederacy's bondmen and women. "However moral, complex, and far-reaching this decision," Burton notes, "Lincoln understood very well that the Emancipation Proclamation was a weapon of war. He also understood that emancipation dovetailed with a larger, millennial understanding of what was at stake in the war."
The internecine struggle forced Lincolnand indirectly all Americans sinceto confront basic inequities in the moral foundations of American democracy. "He slowly came to appreciate that if his grasp of America's millennial hope and dreams was sincere, honor required him to extend freedom to African Americans. Moreover," Burton continues, "emancipation freed Lincoln from the confines of contradictory war goalsfighting a war for democratic liberty but not against slavery."
Though the interests of capitalists ultimately supplanted those of the freedpeople, Lincoln's ideasand his civil religionstill define American democracy. The United States, as he explained at Gettysburg, remains a "nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."
John David Smith is the Charles H. Stone Distinguished Professor of American History at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.