The Age of Lincoln
July 14, 2007
O. Vernon Burton, Professor of History and Sociology, University of Illinois, and former Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center, author; commentator James McPherson, George Henry Davis Professor Emeritus of United States History, Princeton University. Moderator George Liston Seay. Co-sponsored by dialogue Radio and Television
Contrary to what many believe, the greatest legacy of President Abraham Lincoln's administration was not the 1865 Emancipation Proclamation. O. Vernon Burton argued, in the Division of U.S. Studies' program on his Age of Lincoln, that rather it was the incorporation of individual rights into the Constitution. Thus, Lincoln's legacy is his attack on unfettered capitalism than on the ending of slavery in the southern United States.
To fully understand the influence of the Civil War era on the country's identity, the years before, during and after the Civil War must be considered, Burton asserted. The Civil War was not clearly divided between the northern and southern United States. Many white southerners, such as General John C. Frémont, fought for the Union, while many white Northerners supported racism, as did people in Lincoln's home town of Springfield, Illinois. Moreover, a war as devastating as the U.S. Civil War, in which whole southern communities fought and died together, cannot be neatly confined to the official four-year span of 1861-1865. People who were too young to have fought in the Civil War, Burton noted, took part later in paramilitary activities, terrorizing ex-slaves in the South.
Unlike other biographers of Lincoln, Burton chose not to separate Lincoln's southern origins from his beliefs. Lincoln had a strong sense of honor, a trait he derived from his southern upbringing. He believed the preservation of the Union was a matter of honor. Where Lincoln differed, however, was in the meaning of liberty. Lincoln said during the during the 1864 Great Maryland Fair in Baltimore that "the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men's labor." For Lincoln, personal freedom, grounded in the rule of law, was a right of all. Lincoln asserted this belief during a time when the nation was struggling with its identity as a new republic.
Near the end of the 19th century, religion played a significant role, Burton argued, in shaping the ideals of United States citizens. Those, whom Burton termed as radicals, believed they could expedite God's return through social movements such as temperance and abolition. Slavery, this group of Americans believed, was "the evil that prevented America's rapture." Supporters of southern slavery, on the other hand, believed that slavery of Africans was God's will and, thereby, utopia on earth had been achieved. Lincoln, however, believed that God's will was not for people to understand with all certainty, so people could only rely on the rule of law to protect the rights of individuals.
In describing the competing interpretations of liberty prevalent during the era of the Civil War, Lincoln said also during the 1864 Great Maryland Fair, "The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep's throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as his liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty." James McPherson explained that this statement describes two different understandings of the meaning of liberty, which he called positive and negative. Negative liberty, McPherson defined, as promoted by slavery supporters, meant "the absence of restraint." And positive liberty, the kind that Lincoln supported, was about enabling individuals to reach their full capacity. The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, for example, extended equal protections of the law to all persons. By the 1870s, with the rise of the Gilded Age, the federal government retreated from the idea of positive liberty, with the withdrawal of support of many of the Reconstruction programs for former slaves. While this transition of democracy from moorings in evangelicalism to materialism betrayed the Lincolnian idea of freedom, the age of Lincoln instituted Constitutional protections empowering the government to check capitalism against the fundamental rights of all persons.