Lincoln's Generation Also Faced Crises Involving Religion and Terrorism

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Mr. Burton is the author of The Age of Lincoln (Hill and Wang, 2007).

The problems of the nineteenth century parallel some of our own. Then, as now, America confronted terrorism and religious fanaticism. Then, as now, America conducted a war and engaged in occupation and nation-building. Religious zeal in the nineteenth century strongly influenced events, a fact that deserves underscoring, particularly when we see how the extremes of religion are currently influencing the world (jihadists flying jets into the World Trade Center) and our own U.S. political policy, both foreign and domestic.

The Age of Lincoln explores the Civil War era in its rich complexity. Historians have benefited over the last forty years from an explosion in quantity, quality, and approaches to history. For all the virtues of these vigorous literatures, however, books tend to address rather narrow time periods or one particular topic. I can see why. In writing a synthesis of the Civil War era, I found it difficult to include in a coherent manner all the multiple issues at play and how important themes shifted over time. History is not all about politics, or all about gender, or all about slavery, or a market revolution, or rampart democracy, though it is about all of these and more. In this regard I have benefited from the wonderful richness of local studies and have tried to mine these and place them with the other literature to combine important and intriguing details with larger themes extant in the age.

I use Abraham Lincoln as a fulcrum around whom ideas swirled and violence erupted. The formation of his ideas before the Civil War, his leadership and the development of his thinking during the Civil War, and how those ideas played out, for good and bad, in the years of Reconstruction into the 20th century and our own modern time. As millennial expectations entwined with competing notions of American perfection, the extension of freedom galvanized the age. The history of the nineteenth century is a story of freedom, including but not limited to emancipation. Economic freedom, for example, was also at issue in the fledgling democracy. As burgeoning capitalism brought wealth for a very few and poverty for many propertyless laborers, anxiety increased that freedom to pursue wealth would come at the expense of a virtuous citizenship. War answered questions of secession and the place of slavery in America, but it did not answer who would, and would not, benefit from freedom's embrace, and America has been living with the consequences ever since.

How differing groups defined liberty within a republican form of government was a debate central to the Age of Lincoln, those with power defining freedom differently than those without power. Both Union and Confederate soldiers understood that the war was about freedom, but they defined the term differently, as did Americans in all walks of life--farmers, factory owners and workers, miners, as well as enslaved and enslaver. Lincoln often spoke about the differences between two antagonistic 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 held the word liberty to mean “for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men's labor.” He proffered a parable to nail the point. “The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep's throat,” he said, “for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as a destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep is a black one.” It was Lincoln’s understanding of liberty that became the greatest legacy of the age. Lincoln incorporated his beloved Declaration of Independence into the Constitution of the United States, enshrining the principle of personal liberty protected by a body of law.

Essential to such definitions was religious faith, a potent motivating factor. The Age of Lincoln opens with the Gettysburg address, Lincoln’s benediction. The first chapter begins with Baptist Minister William Miller, who persuaded his followers to expect the return of Jesus Christ to earth on October 22, 1844. When Jesus did not come, they went back into society, and they and others decided to transform the United States into God’s Kingdom on Earth. Religion and millennial visions undergirded reform efforts both North and South. When northern reform efforts lined up to declare slavery as the single greatest evil in the country, abolitionism, while still a minority position in the North, rose to prominence. If the United States were to be a society ordained by God, to become the utopia that would bring on the millennium, the evil of slavery had to be eradicated. Southern efforts turned toward defending slavery against such assaults. White southerners quit apologizing for slavery and proclaimed it the best society. They argued that a patriarchal, hierarchical slave society was ordained by God and would help bring on the millennium. Both northern and southern religious devotees became unbending as they knew and obeyed God’s will. Passion precluded compromise. Until the election of Abraham Lincoln, statesmen had always compromised, finding a way to work through every crisis of the union. Most leaders, including Lincoln, expected a compromise short of war. Even the Confederate constitution was a document as much to invite an acceptable compromise as to forge a new nation.

Lincoln had a very different understanding of God. Lincoln was not only the greatest president, but the greatest theologian of the 19th century, something historian Mark Noll comes very close to saying in America’s God (2002). While neither northerners nor southerners showed much doubt about interpreting God’s inscrutable thoughts and desires, Lincoln was willing to admit that he simply did not know the mind of Divine Providence. Lincoln read the Bible in the Jewish tradition, understanding God and people in a corporate sense, not the individual salvation of the dominant Protestant evangelicalism that had grown out of the second Great Awakening. Although unorthodox in his religious views, although too humble to claim any foreknowledge of God’s specific intentions, Lincoln saw God’s hand in human events and felt his own destiny was intertwined with God’s larger purpose. Lincoln had a deep sense of sin and its place in the world around him, but he saw himself standing with sinners and not with the smugly saved.

The Civil War took the moral energy out of white Protestantism. The African American community, however, experienced no “theological crisis.” For them, the Civil War was proof of God’s plan for His children, rather like the parting of the Red Sea. Lincoln’s republicanism was taken up anew by freedpeople at the local level across the South. The Civil War and the early developments of Reconstruction were the fulfillment of God’s plan to free his people from slavery in the United States and to punish the Pharaohs of the South.

Lincoln’s faith, his religious fatalism and sensibility, which was a key reason for his appeal to black and white Americans at that time and for his legacy, owed much to Lincoln’s identity as a southerner. The Age of Lincoln emphasizes the importance of understanding Abraham Lincoln as the southerner he was and how his southernness contributed to his defense of the Union against a cabal of slave holding oligarchs. It was Lincoln’s own authentic southernness that empowered him to expand freedom to all Americans. Moreover, critical to his life’s decisions and to his handling of the crisis was Lincoln’s understanding of and respect for southern honor. For Lincoln it was more than just the preservation of the Union. It was also a matter of honor.

At stake during the Civil War was the existence and character of the United States. But if the identity of America is in the Civil War, the meaning of America and what we have become is found in Reconstruction. The successes of Reconstruction, the establishment of an interracial democracy in the South, the emergence of racial idealism in the North, Reconstruction’s ramifications in the West, and the conflict across America about the meaning of freedom in the development of capitalism are stories scholars know but the general public is not hearing.

It matters profoundly when a period of history is said to begin and end, a professional historian’s truism particularly evident when discussing America’s 19th century, Sectional Conflict, Civil War, and Reconstruction in particular. We have book-ended American history at the Civil War. College teaching usually separates the U.S. History survey (the only history class many students take) into two semesters, and Reconstruction gets short shrift. The first half of the survey often does not include Reconstruction, and the second half often begins with the Gilded Age. And yet, the Civil War cannot be separated from Reconstruction any more than the sectional conflict can be separated from the war.

Reconstruction in many southern locales was a continuation of the war, former Confederates at war with former Union soldiers, mostly African American former slaves but with some white allies. Historical contingency has a place in the study of Reconstruction, just as it does in the study of the war. After decades of historical argument that it was inevitable that the North would win the Civil War, most scholars now allow that there were several turning points where it could have gone either way. I have tried to reframe Reconstruction by highlighting its successes as an interracial democracy on the local level, where new grass-roots alliances flourished. If Reconstruction was such a failure, why did some southern whites have to use terrorism, fraud, and violence to overthrow the legal government? Most whites in the South were not part of these counterrevolutionary terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. A number of former Confederate heroes and prominent white southerners supported black rights and Republicans during Reconstruction. The tragedy of Reconstruction in the South was that most good people just did nothing to stand up for the rule of law. By neglecting Reconstruction in U.S. history survey classes, historians have abdicated the story to such writers as Margaret Mitchell, and instead of history, myths like Gone with the Wind capture the popular imagination.

As millennial dreams unraveled, Lincoln’s crowning achievement remained: inscribing personal liberty into the nation’s Constitution with the Thirteenth Amendment, and after his death the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. When the Supreme Court stepped in to defend states’ rights, Reconstruction ended--not with the removal of the very few remaining Union troops in the South, but with Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, touting “separate but equal” while severely limiting African-African freedom. The Constitution, however, declared otherwise, and Supreme Court rulings to the contrary did not preclude the central place of freedom in what defined the country. Even as the darkness of Jim Crow began to settle over the land, Lincoln’s people--a handful of believing blacks, and a smaller number still of trusting whites--put their faith in the law and continued to work on redrawing freedom’s boundaries.

NOTE: People interested in the relevancy of the age of Lincoln today are welcome to join the discussion board at the With The Age of Lincoln, I have tried to push the envelope for marrying the book to the Internet. contains extensive footnotes, documentation, historiographical discussions, sources including primary documents, a discussion board, and how to email the author. While I understand that some readers would prefer the footnotes in the book, the considerations of the length of the notes and the costs to the publisher for the notes precluded that decision. I have hopes that the more extensive notes and discussions with Internet links to many of the sources in the notes will be some compensation for the inconvenience of going online. I want the website to be useful to teachers so that they can use it to help students learn historical thinking, particularly how historians frame historical problems, how historians use evidence, and how historians produce a historical narrative. I hope the website helps make this process as transparent as possible. I also have hopes that the website will help me to engage an expanding generation of younger folks at home on the internet. Maybe it will stimulate an interest in learning the joys of reading a book.

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