Rivers of blood flowed as Americans turned against each other in battle. The land was torn asunder. Four and a half months after the Battle of Gettysburg, standing in the November chill of a military cemetery still hardly half-finished, President Abraham Lincoln articulated the meaning of the battle, of the war, of the American dream. He called for a “new birth of freedom.”
In Mathew Brady’s famous photograph of that day, Abraham Lincoln looks ordinary, indistinct, trivial. The crowd of twenty thousand had come to hear another man, silver-tongued Edward Everett, onetime president of Harvard and former senator from Massachusetts, speak of valor and values and victory, the stuff of melodrama that the age so loved. None could have anticipated the president’s confession, the benediction, and the challenge he set forth in the sweep of a few sentences. With the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln proclaimed the hopeful determination of the human spirit. That determination is, ultimately, the theme of this book, which traces the forces and events that led Lincoln to speak of liberty in a Pennsylvania graveyard in 1863, and considers the path Americans would take across the next three decades. This determination for freedom and the numerous contests it would inspire would become the legacy of the Age of Lincoln.
Lincoln began his brief remarks at Gettysburg with a grand, overreaching claim, declaring that eighty-seven years earlier “our fathers” had brought forth “a new nation.” The population of the country eighty-seven years earlier was about 2.5 million men and women; the population in 1863 was about 32 million and rising. Lincoln’s claim discounted the impact of these newcomers. These men and women from England, Ireland, Germany, China, and elsewhere had played no part in shaping the country’s fortunes initially but were now making their presence felt on the battlefield, on the homefront, and in the broader culture.
The new nation’s very name—the United States—gave lie to single-mindedness. From the start, that had been more than half the problem. Thirteen separate political entities with divergent cultural traditions and economic interests had been lashed together by the rebellious acts of a strident minority in the mid-1770s and, once the British had been expelled, assembled into a loose confederation. Even after the federal Constitution supplanted the Articles of Confederation in 1789, state power and regional differences remained strong. Most citizens considered themselves New Englanders or Virginians or derived their identities from smaller localities still. Others used occupation, religion, or ethnicity to explain who they were. Yet Lincoln in 1863 was seeking prior ratification for the revolutionary changes he was so hard at work in promoting. For America, since Fort Sumter’s fall, was rapidly and irreversibly becoming “a new nation.”
At this moment of apocalypse the nation into which Lincoln had been born had changed dramatically and was now at a crossroads. The Age of Jackson had seen the extraordinary opening of democracy and the suffrage to white men, even propertyless white men. The Age of Lincoln would see democracy fused with a millennial impulse, leading many to believe in the near attainment of Christian perfection and a patriotic certainty that America was meant to witness it. While disagreeing, often dramatically, as to particulars, a majority of Americans felt they knew how to perfect this white man’s democracy and felt compelled to convince one another, even as they spread this wonderful experiment through Manifest Destiny. For reformers who knew God’s will, there could be no compromises on the path to true Christian righteousness. In the North, all the reform issues of the day, from temperance to women’s rights, ultimately fetched up on the shoals of the one uncompromisable issue, slavery. For abolitionist millennialists, there could be no heaven on earth with the evil of slavery embedded in the very fabric of the nation. For southern white proslavery advocates, their orderly plantation society reflected the will of God, and they worked to bring that millenarian community to the nation.
Lincoln’s faith, however, precluded understanding the mind of God. Although certain that God was using him to His end in working out history, Lincoln found it presumptuous to dictate what God’s intent might be. Thus, in order to ensure that democracy could work, that the republic could survive, citizens had to rely on law. And amid the horrors of a nation embroiled in civil war, Lincoln developed his own view very different from the majority’s: freedom means equal rights protected by the rule of law. Only the rule of law could check the fundamentalist and fanatical impulses that stemmed from this millennial age. Born of his very southern yeoman sense of honor, Lincoln’s ideas of equality of opportunity protected by the law became incorporated into the document he revered, the Constitution. Ironically, African Americans went from being the immovable obstacle to millennial attainments to being the clearest benefactors of the new nation the president proclaimed. Moreover, former slaves would become Lincoln’s true heirs and the greatest champions of the republican values that Lincoln identified as crucial to the survival of the nation. And, in a further irony, in fighting the war that enabled this remarkable achievement, Lincoln inadvertently unleashed the worst as well as the best angels of democratic capitalism.
A great lie encompassed all generalizations about American freedom. The new nation, Lincoln pronounced, had been “conceived in liberty” and “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Here again lay trouble. Revolutionary America had been born of commerce, expropriation, war, and slavery. Its premises were grounded in ruthless ideas of inequality of race, class, and gender. The Founding Fathers had been men of high principle and breathtaking vision—Lincoln’s words here, after all, merely quoted and qualified what Thomas Jefferson had written in the Declaration of Independence. Yet Patrick Henry’s prerevolutionary cry for liberty or death had been the shout of a self-interested slaveholder as well as a selfless patriot. The right of property, like the wealth of thousands of other patriots from northern as well as southern colonies, had been rooted directly and indirectly in slavery.
At Gettysburg the president passed over in silence how freedom’s meanings had been debated across three generations and more. That conflict had been rehearsed endlessly in newspapers, pamphlets, and speeches—and in violent acts of rebellion and repression, vigilantism and terror. Lincoln’s own evolving views had been clearly set forth in debate against the Democrat Stephen Douglas for an Illinois senatorial seat, in the pleas and warnings of his inaugural address, and finally in the Emancipation Proclamation that he had delivered the previous January. Lincoln often spoke about the differences between two 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 used the word liberty meaning “for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor.”
The problems of freedom that Lincoln and Americans wrestled with were part of a debate that stretched back centuries and that had expanded to global proportions. Regardless of color, most migrants to the American colonies before 1750 had come in chains, physical or legal. Most blacks arrived bound to labor for the one who enslaved them; they were to be enslaved for their whole lives, as were their children and children’s children after them. They had been reduced to this awful fate, in most cases, by the intersection of European power and the social conditions of African life. Tribal warfare, slave raiding, indebtedness, or the fiat of kin and community meant that Africans worked hand in glove with Europeans to kidnap and enslave Africans.
Prior to 1750 most whites were also driven or drawn into conditions of unfreedom in the New World, entering servitude on a temporary and “voluntary” basis to settle a debt or a criminal conviction. They came because the old order in Britain and across Europe had been on the decline for the preceding century. There for the past one hundred years, men with the means to do it drew new lines on maps, laying individual claim to lands that had previously supported many. They enclosed their estates with walls, fences, and hedges. They deforested the lands, drained marshes and fens, and replaced unprofitable human occupants—tenants and crofters—with moneymaking sheep and cattle. Propertied interests hunted down the working people they had evicted with new statutes making poverty and homelessness a crime, changing hunting and fishing into trespass and theft, and putting forth the gallows, the workhouse, military service, or colonial servitude as the only options for many. Colonial servitude for whites, however, was never as bleak as for enslaved blacks. Whites came toward more freedom rather than less, for themselves and most definitely for their progeny.
The early republic offered whites an unparalleled freedom to be left alone by powers of church and nation-state. That citizens would not be unrepresented, mistaxed, overlorded, or involuntarily impressed into military service put the country in a New World indeed. Others did not fare as well. Lincoln made no reference to antislavery struggles; nor, in passing from “[f]our score and seven years ago” to “now,” did he recount how the forefathers had mortgaged the bright promise of freedom at America’s birth. The boldest words against slavery had been stricken from the Declaration of Independence as deal-breakers. The Articles of Confederation had turned a blind eye to bondage. The constitutional framers, with no hope of achieving unity to legislate its uprooting, had written racial division (though studiously avoiding the word slavery itself) into the fundamental law of the land. Enslaved blacks, asserted the wisest of white minds, counted as three-fifths human when it came to reckoning taxation and political representation. Statute law and simple racism ranked both free and enslaved African Americans lower still. Freedom-seeking fugitives from slavery were to be captured and reenslaved. In the early republic political unity and freedom of commerce were the more fundamental values. By 1861 Jefferson’s self-evident “truth” about human equality had become to Lincoln’s generation a very debatable “proposition.”
Those who threatened stability with rebellion on behalf of personal rights all discovered that the government’s willingness to maintain order took precedence over personal freedom. Rebellions among the enslaved were put down quickly. When slaves in New York rebelled in 1712 and in South Carolina in 1739, colonialists stiffened their laws, sure that hard punishment would end further resistance. They were wrong. Unruly whites also—the farmers who followed Daniel Shays in Massachusetts in 1786 and 1787 against the government’s unfair taxation and one-sided juries, the Whiskey Rebels of western Pennsylvania in 1794 who demanded government services and protested the whiskey tax, and much later in 1841 the propertyless Rhode Islanders who demanded the right to vote and fought federal troops in the Dorr War—discovered the limits of freedom.
Individuals spoke out in pursuit of freedom for all, but they were simply ignored and marginalized. American slavery grew and thrived in the cotton South as that crop fed an industrial revolution in the North. In both North and South slavery was sanctioned by law. The slave system created a civilization in deadly opposition to—yet wholly enmeshed with—northern capitalism.
Lincoln spoke to a nationwide aspiration among yeomen for equality of opportunity under the law. That aspiration defined for many northerners a view of freedom that prompted their loyalty to the Union. Lincoln’s consistent advocacy of opportunity and free labor, however, held flaws as well as promise, and Lincoln was slow to see how power and greed could subvert those ideals. Lincoln made no mention at Gettysburg of how Yankee dreams could become a nightmare. An ever-quickening market revolution brought prosperity for some, poverty for others, and an overall anxiety about the loss of personal autonomy and freedom. While most working people still labored on farms, workers in growing urban centers discovered industrialization brought them long hours, low pay, frequent layoffs, and the specter of industrial injury, sickness, or death. Meanwhile new arrivals continued to flood into the cities, seeking opportunity and undercutting wages. From the perspective of the old elite, these new people “corrupted” politics and “polluted” culture. While both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line agreed on the founders’ vision of liberty, the consensus on how to maintain that vision was shattered.
That may partly explain why Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg were so focused on the present—and the future. Constructing and consecrating military graveyards was—and is—far from what the revolutionary founders aimed at with their words and deeds. The ceremony, Lincoln implied, was a waste of time and effort if that was all it accomplished. “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here,” he noted, “have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.” But they had left their work “unfinished.” A “great task” lay ahead. The task was not simply restoration or reconstruction; it was a rebirth. Lincoln here spoke a language of love, patriotism, and piety to his listeners: honor, dedication, increased devotion, and strong resolve needed to be brought to the labor. As he stated in his first presidential address, this conflict, this task, was not about North and South, black and white. Human liberty and democracy themselves were at stake. What would victory in this awful war look like? Lincoln’s vision was at once conservative and revolutionary. There would be overflowing cemeteries, vacant chairs at family tables, and men broken bodily and spiritually, but “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” More than simply preserving the liberty of the fathers, Lincoln’s new nation, “under God,” would have “a new birth of freedom.”
Excerpted from The Age of Lincoln by Orville Vernon Burton. Copyright © 2007 by Orville Vernon Burton. Published in June 2007 by Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.