The Magazine

America When Young

The birthing pains of an earlier republic.

Dec 3, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 12 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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The Age of Lincoln

by Orville Vernon Burton

Hill and Wang, 432 pp., $27

Americans who take a serious interest in their history and how it is written will be familiar with a long-running argument among the pros. Is the great theme of our past consensus or conflict, harmony or dissidence? However one answers the question for himself--and most of us would, perhaps, say "much of both"--there is little doubt that Orville Vernon Burton is of the party of conflict and dissidence. Although subdued and modulated by scholarly mastery, the theme of The Age of Lincoln, a beautifully narrated treatment of the mid-to-late 19th-century years, is conflict. And plenty of it.

Burton sets the stage with a brief résumé of the calm before the storm--the millennialist religiosity of the "second great awakening." Its defining scene came on October 22, 1844, when the pious Millerites gathered on their hilltops to witness the end of the world. Theirs, it seems, was a theology as chronologically meticulous as Archbishop Ussher's nice calculation of the Creation (October 4, 4004 B.C., if you didn't know) and featured a keen existential discontent with the here and now. When the End of Days was postponed, a worldly clamor of sectional conflict soon ensued. The issue was articulated by Abraham Lincoln, the emblematic figure of the era, in his House Divided speech: whether this experiment in self-government could endure "half slave and half free."

It was, perhaps, too little noticed, especially by Lincoln's critics, that Lincoln had posed the question but not answered it. Indeed, when as the newly elected president a few years later he became the emergency mediator, and sought compromises that might preserve the Union without war, his agnosticism on the question became quite clear. He would later tell Horace Greeley that if he could preserve the Union by freeing all the slaves, or some of them, or keeping all in bondage, he would do it.

All through the 1850s the argument over slavery, though it featured competing certainties, took the surrogate form of a legal contest: Did slaveholders have a constitutional right to carry their chattel property wherever the flag flew?--an argument drastically sharpened by the Mexican war and its acquisitions.

Then followed Stephen A. Douglas's crafty Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, repealing the Missouri Compromise and opening Kansas to the possibility of slavery. The Dred Scott decision three years later seemed to ratify that repeal. Such measures stoked violent sectional anger. They signaled the abandonment of political wheeling and dealing, with its inevitable half measures, for more absolute claims of a moralistic tenor. Decades earlier, Thomas Jefferson had heard in that argument over Congress's power to ban slavery in the northern Louisiana territories a "firebell in the night." But the Missouri Compromise of 1820, drawing a line at 36'30" north latitude, split the difference and allowed the Senate to maintain a sectional balance, even as the House was steadily becoming more and more antislavery. Compromise was still possible in 1820, in large measure, because the dominant slaveholders of the upper South, like Jefferson himself, viewed slavery as a dying institution and welcomed its demise. By the mid-1850s the mood and the southern economy were very different. The slavery issue had been constitutionalized and legalized.

Then, as Lincoln put it, "the war came." It was a bloody interlude, however romanticized in memory, but the issue of American destiny did seem to be decided at the cost of some 600,000 lives. The appearance, however, was deceptive, the final decision deferred for later resolution.

It is when Burton reaches the crucial post-Civil War years that he hits his stride. It is a story that historians know and have explored extensively. But it is a story muted in the feel-good forms of popular historical understanding, not least the puff-stuff that too often passes for history on television. It is the story of a missed opportunity to consolidate the revolution of political equality (at least for men) implicit in the 14th and 15th Amendments, a failure in which both North and South were complicit. And the Supreme Court bowed to the zeitgeist, as usual, and in the Slaughterhouse and Civil Rights cases gutted the amendments. The only redeeming highlights of that dim judicial era were the passionate dissents of a former slaveholder and Union officer, Justice John Marshall Harlan of Kentucky. (Burton, with his eye for the piquant anomaly, notes that Harlan offered an invidious argument that if the despised Asian immigrants enjoyed equal protection, it was odd that freeborn native blacks did not.)