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 segregation these and other forces confounded the millennium for 19th-century Americans, black and white, North and South.
Burton credits one man Abraham Lincoln with 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 rebellion not to emancipate the South's slaves by 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 Lincoln and indirectly all Americans since to 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 goals fighting a war for democratic liberty but not against slavery. Though the interests of capitalists ultimately supplanted those of the freedpeople, Lincoln's ideas and his civil religion still 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.