The Age of Lincoln

Orville Vernon Burton

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

432 Pages


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Winner of the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize for Non-FictionA Chicago Tribune Favorite Book of the YearA Choice Outstanding Academic Title

The Age of Lincoln is a broad and conclusive history of the five decades that pivoted around Abraham Lincoln's presidency.  Abolishing slavery, though it may have been the most extraordinary accomplisment of the age, was not its most profound.  The enduring legacy of Lincoln's time in office was the inscription of personal liberty into the nation's millennial aspirations.

America has always perceived providence in its progress, but in the 1840s and 1850s pessimism accompanied a marked extremism. With all sides claiming God’s blessing, irreconcilable freedoms collided; despite historic political compromises the middle ground collapsed. In this reappraisal of Lincoln, historian Orville Vernon Burton shows how the president’s Southernness empowered him to conduct a civil war that redefined freedom as a personal right protected by the rule of law. In the violent decades that followed, the extent of that freedom would be contested by racism and unregulated capitalism, but it would remain a steadfast and central piece of what defined the country.


Praise for The Age of Lincoln

"Burton, a professor of history and sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, wants us to grasp the major developments of this tumultuous era—from the Missouri Compromise to the Dred Scott decision, from the 13th Amendment to the suppression of Ku Klux Klan violence. He makes a virtue of jargon-free, accessible prose. But his language also allows readers to soak up the texture and complexity of developments with his sprawling, interlacing stories—stories with which all scholars may not always agree, but compelling tales that shed new light on America's complex heritage. He presents us with nuance as well as nuts-and-bolts history . . . Burton also illuminates the complicated aspects of Southern contributions to the American character. The Age of Lincoln suggests there was a significant generation of political giants who rivaled the Founding Fathers, including Henry Clay, the Great Compromiser who was Lincoln's hero and the first American to lie in state at the U.S. Capitol (Lincoln was the second). Burton sketches an America fighting to repress sectional divides, battling to preserve a shared national kinship . . . Burton tackles the faith question for Lincoln as well, reminding us that while 80 percent of early 19th Century Americans regularly worshiped, less than half were formal members of churches or synagogues. Burton deftly adds that Lincoln stood with the sinners rather than 'the smugly saved.' The Age of Lincoln has a smooth flow, nimbly weaving overarching themes into compact sketches . . . Lincoln emerges within a new and original context, as one chapter title reminds, he was 'Southern by Birth.' From Lincoln's informal Southern greeting of 'Howdy' to his desire for communal approval (a key feature of Southern honor), Lincoln was a self-identified Southerner, even during the war years. Burton also invests well-known characters with vivid details . . . The Age of Lincoln reminds us that ideas are everything, and a book bursting with so many of them will provide robust reading for years to come."—Catherine Clinton, Chicago Tribune (cover review)

"Age of Lincoln takes up roughly were Arthur Schlesinger's magisterial history of antebellum America, The Age of Jackson, leaves off . . . Provides remarkably fresh insights into this perpetually crucial period American history."—Justin Reynolds, The New York Sun

“Burton’s The Age of Lincoln delivers a broad-minded and elegant analysis of one of the most critical periods in our nation’s history. Burton, a professor at the University of Illinois, has plumbed the depths of recent Civil War scholarship to craft a winning narrative that covers the growing antebellum sectional crisis over slavery, the political rise of Abraham Lincoln, the creation of the Confederacy, the war itself in both its military and political aspects, and the many promises and disappointments of Reconstruction. The book shows clearly how cotton powered the early American economy and ‘tied North and South together’ in a commercial alliance that served to bolster slavery . . . With equal focus on the battlefield, home front and political developments on each side, the book’s examination of the Civil War is outstanding . . . Burton offer an excellent explanation of the successes and ultimate failure of Reconstruction. He shows how freed ‘African Americans strode toward a providential liberty defined by property ownership and legal rights [as] whites contested every step.’ He also convincingly communicates how the ideas and ideological conflicts that fueled the war have never truly disappeared from our national consciousness. As the author puts it, ‘in the American mind, the Civil War itself never truly ended.’”—Chuck Leddy, Civil War Times Magazine

"The Age of Lincoln will be ideal as a foundation text for undergraduate courses and graduate seminars on the nineteenth century; scholars of the period can engage it on a different level, which is a measure of the book’s sophistication. These qualities and the range of the book’s audience reflect Burton’s own career, too, as both a nationally recognized scholar and teacher. The book’s accompanying Web site ( offers a wealth of resources in the extensive notes and bibliographical essays. The notes include links to specific documents and Web sites rich in primary sources; the Resources section contains an extensive bibliography as well as scanned primary documents—both in original form and transcribed—that will be valuable in the classroom when used in conjunction with the book. Overall, the book and Web site together are a model of how a scholarly synthesis/monograph can be adapted to reach a wider audience and have a greater impact both in and out of the classroom."—Christopher Olsen, H-Law

"A remarkable reconsideration of nineteenth century America, The Age of Lincoln seamlessly recounts secession, Civil War, and Reconstruction and renders them newly relevant to the twenty-first century."—John Hope Franklin

"In his 'Bibliographical Essay,' University Distinguished Teacher/Scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign, Orville Vernon Burton confesses that ‘The Age of Lincoln is the culmination of a scholarly lifetime of research and teaching' (p. 371). His long hours spent in the vineyards of the archives, challenging undergraduates in class, and training graduate students in seminars has resulted in a distinguished career for Burton, but also a first-rank historical work of synthesis and narration. This work presents a fresh and persuasive interpretation of Abraham Lincoln, which Burton understands to run from the 1840s through the 1890s. Lincoln and Lincoln's values loom over that era, and Burton deftly walks the reader through his interpretation. he demonstrates how Lincoln's vision of what the country could be in terms of liberty and freedom, and infused with previous revolutionary ideals, became by 1900 something new, different, unexpected, and more than a bit foreign. Burton's purpose is to provide an overarching, big picture, synthesis of the nineteenth century, and he succeeded. The Age of Lincoln is a major achievement on its own, and a fitting achievement of one of the United States' most important historians."—Thomas C. Mackey, University of Louisville, Society of Civil War Historians

"Burton has written an elegant, sweeping synthesis of 19th-century U.S. history that is learned, accessible, and often passionate. He dubs the period between the 1830s and 1900 as the 'Age of Lincoln,' where a Protestant, millennialism-inspired redefinition of freedom ensured that 'freedom' was reshaped and expanded. The reform impulses of the antebellum period gave rise to perfectionist passions that simultaneously brought civil war and unleashed the resulting redefinition of freedom. By century's end, that promise had been submerged underneath the institutionalized consumerism and racism that defined the Gilded Age U.S. Ironically, these elements originated in Lincoln's own vision of freedom of opportunity. This thematic approach is intriguing, allowing for the 19th century to be seen holistically, rather than in two parts sundered by the Civil War . . . It is beautifully written, and the treatments of race and class, the Old South, and Lincoln are superb and rich with insight. This is grand narrative in the best sense."—K. M. Gannon, Grand View College, Choice

"I used The Age of Lincoln as the text for my freshman Civil War class in Spring 2008.  The students responded to it very well, preferring it over more traditional text options.  According to students, 'The Age of Lincoln was a perfect way to describe the history of the Civil War in a nutshell' and 'I loved The Age of Lincoln textbook—best historical text for class I've read.'  Another student said he was giving the book to his father to read and a fourth said that she had already loaned the book to her high school junior sister.  Every student polled said that the book conveyed the necessary information in an intelligible form, three-fourths of them said it held their attention throughout the semester, and every single one said they would recommend the book to a friend who was interested in the Civil War.  The Age of Lincoln is a successful classroom text and I will be using it again."—Ian Binnington, Allegheny College

"The Age of Lincoln offers a major reinterpretation of nineteenth-century American history from the age of Jackson to the Progressive era. Professor Burton portrays Lincoln as a product of his time and the Southern yeoman culture in which he grew up; and in turn he shows how Lincoln’s ideas, so essential for Northern victory in the war, affected the way Americans defined themselves in the postwar generation. Filled with fresh insights, The Age of Lincoln should open a new era in Civil War-Reconstruction scholarship."—David Herbert Donald, two-time Pulitzer-Prize winner and author of Lincoln

"In magisterial fashion Vernon Burton's The Age of Lincoln covers the broad panorama of the American nation’s most perilous years. Burton faultlessly traverses the social, economic, military, and political landscape of the era, carrying the story into the tumult of the 1890s. Especially striking is his treatment of the Reconstruction South when the victor's bi-racial, 'national building' experiment failed, a situation analogous to the current sectarian strife in Iraq. The Age of Lincoln is bound to become a classic in the field."—Bertram Wyatt Brown, Richard J. Milbauer Emeritus Professor of History, University of Florida, and Visiting Scholar, Johns Hopkins University

"Based on a remarkable familiarity with the voluminous literature on the Civil War era as well as his own career of scholarly research, Vernon Burton offers a striking interpretation of the period, replete with new insights about the transformations—political, social, religious, and economic—that American society experienced during those tumultuous years."—Eric Foner

"Vernon Burton offers a bold new synthesis of the Civil War era in The Age of Lincoln.  He shows how the ferment of religious reform merged with the dynamism of free-labor capitalism to forge a Northern political culture that triumphed over the South and slavery."—James M. McPherson, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Battle Cry of Freedom

"If the Civil War era was America's Iliad, then historian Orville Vernon Burton is our latest Homer . . . [Burton has] 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."—John David Smith, Charles H. Stone Distinguished Professor of American History at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, in BookPage

"Burton focuses on the five decades related to the presidency of Lincoln, beginning with the 1840s, chronicling in compelling detail the process of session, the conduct of events in the course of the Civil War itself, and acts of reconstruction. The author examines all topics relevant to political, social, and economic life during that time, including slavery, racism, religion, the rapid growth of cities, and the expansion of secular cultures and the railroad. Adding another element to his thorough picture of the times, Burton profiles several leading figures, including Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry David Throeau, John Brown, John C. Calhoun, Frederick Douglass, General Winfield Scott, Booker T. Washington, and Matthew Brady. Augmented by eight pages of black-and-white illustrations, the book captures in excellent prose the early decades of modern American history."—George Cohen, Booklist

"As the Civil War raged and brought into question the fate of the nation, Abraham Lincoln called for a new birth of freedom. Where did his vision come from, and was it realized in the decades following the war? In this beautifully written, brilliantly reasoned volume, Burton takes the reader from the Second Great Awakening and the reform it spawned, through the tumultuous Civil War years, to the triumph of capital and racism in the Gilded Age in a brisk and engaging overview of most of the 19th century. Burton includes specific voices of the poor, women, war resisters, immigrants, and minorities, a feature that makes his history distinct and intriguing."—Theresa McDevitt, Stapleton Library, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Library Journal

"Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s The Age of Jackson appeared in 1945 and has been an enduringly popular work with general readers. Burton, an associate professor of history and sociology, has written an ambitious sequel, or perhaps homage, on the age of Lincoln. Burton’s intriguing thesis is that Lincoln's most profound achievement was not the abolition of slavery but the enshrinement of the principle of personal liberty protected by a body of law. Thus he elevated the founding fathers' (and Jackson's) more restricted vision to a universal one. The outbreak and course of the Civil War should be seen in the light of competing notions of what 'freedom' meant, rather than (as has usually been the case) as a bloody conflict over black emancipation or states' rights. Lincoln, as Burton convincingly argues, both created his age and was a product of it: he matured in an America struggling with a rising free market and millennial impulses that sought Christian perfection. The ultimate result was the triumph of democratic capitalism. For readers seeking to comprehend the sweeping social, religious and cultural backdrop to the Civil War, Burton's book is a worthy heir to Schlesinger's."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Freeing the slaves was not the Great Emancipator's greatest legacy, argues Burton. Instead, this densely reasoned reappraisal contends, it was the vast expansion of federal power—pragmatically necessary to win the Civil War, but justified in ideological terms as the best means to protect personal freedom, something to which the government had hitherto paid little attention. Focusing on the half-century from the 1840s to the 1890s, Burton examines a fascinating reversal in the underlying premises maintained by abolitionists and proponents of slavery. As the nation surged across the continent, it seemed clear the United States enjoyed God's favor. The Constitution, enshrined in most Americans' view as the ordainer of principles almost supernatural in their wisdom, legitimated racial inequality, though it avoided the word slavery; slave owners believed they had the law of the land on their side. The early abolitionists, by contrast, appealed to a ‘higher law’: the word of God. Confident of their political clout, slave owners rolled their eyes and ignored this lunatic fringe. By the 1850s, however, abolitionists realized they might achieve their goals through secular legislation, so divine justification became less essential. Simultaneously, southerners became convinced that the Bible sanctioned slavery and abolitionism was the Devil's work. They were now the ones pointing to a higher law, and unlike 1820s abolitionists, they were in a position to cause major trouble. Burton emphasizes that Lincoln hijacked the South's appeal to religious principle without diminishing his reverence for the secular Constitution, a potent combination that gave his visionary fusion of federal power and individual rights the staying power to outlast its betrayal during and after Reconstruction. A history of ideas that . . . offers provocative thoughts about how Americans did or (mostly) did not live up to Lincoln's ideals.”—Kirkus Reviews

Reviews from Goodreads



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Orville Vernon Burton, University Distinguished Teacher/Scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is the author or editor of ten books and the director of the Illinois Center for Computing in Humanities, Arts, and Social Science.
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  • Orville Vernon Burton

  • Orville Vernon Burton, University Distinguished Teacher/Scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is the author or editor of ten books and the Director of the Center for Computing in Humanities, Arts, and Social Science. He has been recognized and awarded for scholarship and teaching; his credentials include: U.S. Professor of the Year, Outstanding Research and Doctoral Universities Professor (Council for Advancement and Support of Education and Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching), 1999; The Pew National Fellowship Program for Carnegie Scholars, 2000-2001 (Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning); Certificate of Excellence from the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning for Work that Advances the Practice and Profession of Teaching In Support of Significant Student Learning, 2001.
  • Orville Vernon Burton Thomas McClellan