Abraham Lincoln proclaimed early in 1865 that the Emancipation Proclamation was “the central act of my administration and the great event of the nineteenth century.” But Lincoln historian Orville Vernon Burton disagrees
“Instead it was Lincoln’s understanding of liberty that became the greatest legacy of the age,” Burton said at Samford University Oct. 22. “He revolutionized personal freedom in the U.S. He assured that the principle of personal liberty was protected by law, even incorporated into the Constitution.
“Thus Lincoln elevated the founding fathers’ (and Andrew Jackson’s) more restricted vision to a universal one. Basically Lincoln inserted the mission statement, or Declaration of Independence, into the Constitution, or rule book, of the United States.”
Burton is author of the award-winning book, The Age of Lincoln. He delivered Samford’s annual J. Roderick Davis Lecture to an audience about 1,000 students and others in Wright Center Concert Hall. The lecture honors the retired dean of Samford’s Howard College of Arts and Sciences, who was in attendance. This year’s program also was a salute to the Bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth in 1809.
Burton’s assertion that Lincoln’s understanding of liberty was his greatest legacy was one of four areas touched on in which the historian either differs with other historians or provides a new argument. The other three areas were the influence of religion, seeing the 16th president as a Southerner and history’s conventional treatment of the Civil War and Reconstruction as separate periods.
“History is an interpretation,” he reminded his audience.
Burton stressed the importance of religion as a factor in the coming of the Civil War. Even though religious reformers in the mid-19th century attacked various evils, eventually most reform efforts in the North lined up to declare slavery as the greatest evil in the country, while slave owners in the South were just as certain that their society was ordained by God.
Lincoln was born in Kentucky, a southern state, and even though he eventually settled in Springfield, Illinois, he retained such southern habits as speech, storytelling, literary references and others, said Burton. Another such trait was his sense of honor.
“Lincoln’s very yeoman southernness contributed to his defense of the Union against a cabal of slave holding oligarchs,” said Burton. “For Lincoln it was more than just the preservation of the Union. It was also a matter of honor.”
Burton said he never had accepted the separation of reconstruction from the Civil War, or the traditional dating for the end of Reconstruction as 1877, when the last federal troops were withdrawn from the South.
“We have book-ended American History so that the Civil War closes out one era of our history and Reconstruction begins the next period or second half of American History,” he said. “And yet, Reconstruction is part and parcel of the Civil War.”
Burton contended that rather than ending in 1877, “the gains of freedom during Reconstruction were not legally undone till sanctioned by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 and the former Confederate state constitutions of the 1890s and early 20th century.”
After America’s experience with the Vietnam War, historians now “grant contingency to the Civil War, arguing that there were moments and times that the Confederacy could have won,” said Burton.
The historian believes “as Lincoln believed,” that he would have lost the 1864 election except for Sherman’s taking of Atlanta and subsequent march to the sea, “and we would have a different outcome on slavery and a different America.”
Burton also thinks Lincoln would have survived if he had accepted an invitation to participate in the raising of the American flag over Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C. harbor on April 14, 1865. But he was advised not to go to Charleston because it would be too dangerous. Instead, he went to Ford’s Theater on that date, and was killed by John Wilkes Booth.
Burton is the Burroughs Professor of Southern History and Culture at
Coastal Carolina University. He taught previously at the University of
Illinois, where he was University Distinguished Teacher/Scholar and
director of the Illinois Center for Computing in the Humanities, Arts,
and Social Science. He has written or edited 15 books.
The Age of Lincoln won the Chicago Tribune Heartland Literary Award for Nonfiction and was a Book of the Month Club, History Book Club and Military Book Club selection.